Welcome to a curated selection of content about Pacific Opera Victoria’s 2018 production of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. Here are articles from our Keynotes Newsletter, programme notes from the Artistic Director and Stage Director, and selections from media reviews.
Enjoy this recently added video excerpt from our 2018 production of Fidelio. The featured aria is the finale. It’s a grand celebration of Leonore’s bravery and triumph after rescuing her husband from his deadly fate.
The Art of Resistance
One fine morning
I woke up early …
to find the fascists at my door.
These chilling words are from Bella Ciao (Goodbye Beautiful), a century-old Italian folk song that has leapt to new prominence with Tom Waits’ elegiac performance on an album called Songs of Resistance, 1942-2018.
The song originated as a late-19th-century field song protesting working conditions in the rice fields of Northern Italy. It was reborn in WWII as the anthem of the anti-fascist partisans. Since then it has been adopted by activists and causes world wide and is now an international anthem of resistance. Tom Waits’ rendition, with guitarist Marc Ribot, is accompanied with video related to today’s political turmoil.
Like Bella Ciao, Beethoven’s opera Fidelio is instantly recognized as a call for human rights, for resistance to tyranny – both express the human spirit in song, reinvented to reflect new times and traumas.
Bella Ciao is a farewell from the singer to his love as he goes off to join the partigiani, and perhaps die for freedom.
In Fidelio too, the story centres on loved ones who are torn apart, and who must confront the fact that death may be the price of freedom.
When Florestan, a political activist, disappears, his wife Leonore, desperate to find him, disguises herself as a boy, Fidelio, and infiltrates the prison where she believes he is being held.
Florestan’s bitter enemy is Pizarro, the corrupt prison governor, who has arrested Florestan and cast him into a dark, hidden dungeon. When Pizarro learns that he is about to be investigated for his crimes, he resolves to kill Florestan. Fidelio heroically tracks down her husband and confronts Pizarro with a pistol, saving Florestan in the nick of time. General rejoicing ensues as Don Fernando, the government minister, arrests Pizarro and restores justice.
Fidelio was forged in the cauldron of the French Revolution. It is based on a libretto by Jean Nicholas Bouilly – Léonore ou L’amour conjugal (Leonore, or Conjugal Love), which was set to music by Pierre Gaveaux in 1798. Though there is no proof, Bouilly alleged that the story was based on a true incident from the Reign of Terror, and that he had shifted the setting to Spain to protect the lady’s identity.
Heroic rescues and prison scenes were all the rage at the time, and Léonore falls into the tradition of the “rescue opera,” as does Fidelio, which, despite its idealist underpinnings, also works as a thriller.
The story’s tropes are familiar to any modern movie-goer. Our action hero (this time a woman!) is on a desperate mission to find and rescue her husband without blowing her cover. The villain Pizarro, like all perfect mustache-twirling evildoers, gloats over his hapless victim until the final dramatic standoff.
There’s even a romance to lighten the story. Marzelline, daughter of the jailer Rocco, develops a crush on Fidelio and ditches her boyfriend Jaquino. However, Beethoven ignores the love triangle once Leonore and Florestan are reunited, and the libretto never tells us whether Marzelline mends her broken heart and returns to Jaquino. In Pacific Opera’s production, director Wim Trompert deals neatly with this plot hole: Marzelline and Jaquino become resistance workers who help Leonore enter the prison; Marzelline and Fidelio then concoct a love affair so that Rocco will take on Fidelio, his prospective son-in-law, as an apprentice.
But Fidelio transcends romance and derring-do as Leonore’s quest moves from the personal to the universal. Though she never deviates from her mission, her empathy for the other inmates is awakened. She advocates for them to be briefly released from their cells. Later, as she digs a grave for the wretched man whom she hopes and dreads may be her husband, she vows that no matter who this prisoner may be, she will save him.
Fidelio’s compassion and sense of justice find expression in music of heart-stopping beauty: the Act 1 Canon Quartet, a radiant, reflective interweaving of fear and longing; the Prisoners’ Chorus, its orchestral opening blessing the inmates like a sunrise as they revel in the simple joy of breathing the open air; Leonore’s aria with its stormy beginning, followed by a sublime prayer for the power of love and hope to dispel her fears; Florestan’s great Act 2 aria, an emotional journey from bleak anguish to reflective calmness, culminating in a delirious vision of Leonore, an oboe counterpoint winding round his words like the very spirit of madness … or hope.
Beethoven’s passionate belief in justice and humanity reflects an idealism that many of us have long discarded. But Beethoven was no wild-eyed socialist. His Pizarro is a malicious bad apple rather than an agent of the state. The opera’s triumphant ending is engineered by the King’s minister, Don Fernando, who represents – and restores – the existing order.
Therefore, even as Fidelio issues its clarion call for human rights, the literal trumpet call at the end of the opera ushers in, not a revolution, but the representative of the state, who puts everything right. As a result, the opera’s message is sometimes appropriated by the very forces it challenges.
Fidelio has been called a chameleon opera for the way it can reflect clashing political colours. As one reviewer noted, What constitutes freedom and justice is sometimes a matter of perspective, and having Beethoven’s music on your side does wonders for your cause.
Fidelio premiered in 1805 in Vienna, a week after Napoleon’s troops occupied the city. It played to an audience of invaders. Not surprisingly, it flopped.
Fast forward to Fidelio’s revival in 1814, again in Vienna. Napoleon was gone for the moment, exiled to Elba; the opera breathed the air of European liberation and shared in the hoopla around the Congress of Vienna as dignitaries gathered to redraw the map of Europe.
Just over a century later, Fidelio played to new conquerors: a 1938 staging at the Vienna Staatsoper celebrated the Anschluss, Nazi Germany’s “liberation” of Austria. Hermann Goering presided as the guest of honour, with the Völkischer Beobachter extolling the event as an uplifting celebration of liberation.
Fidelio continued to serve as a tool of German nationalism during WWII. The Nazis, somehow wilfully blind to its seditious possibilities, did not ban it. The exiled Thomas Mann wrote in 1945, How could Beethoven’s Fidelio…not be forbidden in the Germany of the last twelve years? … what utter stupidity was required to be able to listen to Fidelio in Himmler’s Germany without covering one’s face and rushing out of the hall!
Fidelio was also a symbol of defiance. In December 1944 Toscanini led the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera soloists in a historic live radio broadcast of Fidelio. As Kenneth A. Christensen noted, That Toscanini, who was quite openly opposed to Fascism and Nazism … dared to conduct a German language opera in a New York broadcasting studio, during this darkest period of history, says a great deal about the importance which Maestro attached to … the music and its message of freedom from oppression and tyranny.
That message has been proclaimed repeatedly, in a variety of settings.
In October 1989, the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany was marked by demonstrations in the streets of Dresden and the première of Christine Mielitz’s provocatively contemporary Fidelio which displayed all the apparatus of the Stasi state: walls, watchtowers, wire fencing, grimness, greyness, neon searchlights; the chorus in the final scene wore street clothes, looking no different than the protesters outside. A month later, the Berlin Wall fell.
Other productions have set the opera in concentration camps and a Latin American banana republic (with U.S. soldiers as the liberators). In 2010, Perm Opera staged a site-specific production in the former Perm 36 Gulag. A 2004 South Africa – Norway collaboration staged Fidelio in the former Robben Island Prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. New York’s Heartbeat Opera set the opera in the US prison system, with Florestan as a Black Lives Matter activist and the recorded voices of over 100 incarcerated singers from six prison choirs singing the Prisoners’ Chorus.
More than perhaps any opera, Fidelio reflects its Zeitgeist. It resonates, like a tuning fork, picking up the peculiar disharmonies of its age. Although states and tyrants try to co-opt its message, in the words of William Kinderman, no other opera so powerfully critiques every regime that denies human freedom.
And perhaps no other opera leaves us with such an uneasy sense that the jubilation at the end is transient. Fidelio remains too timely, too relevant. How distant the day when the final triumphant chorus really will be the end of the story!
A Memorable Fidelio
It was directed by Robert Carsen – now a world-famous opera director, then just launching his career (Pacific Opera’s 1986 Il trovatore had been Carsen’s Canadian mainstage opera debut).
That 1988 Fidelio also marked the professional debut of Michael Schade, who played Jaquino and later graduated to the role of Florestan at Theater an der Wien.
Also in the cast were Gaynor Jones as Leonore, Frederick Donaldson as Florestan, Bernard Turgeon as Pizarro, Don Garrard as Rocco, and Susan Sereda as Marzelline.
This Pacific Opera production is fondly remembered as The One with the Horse. In the final heroic scene, Don Fernando (John Dodington) made his grand entrance on a white stallion named Blue. Timothy Vernon recalls, The horse seemed to like the music – he got all prancy on stage.
That 1988 Fidelio was also recorded and televised on PBS as part of a documentary film on Pacific Opera Victoria.
Notes from the Artistic Director
At 28, Beethoven, widely seen first of all as the greatest living pianist, but also as a composer with a future, understood that in fact opera was The Thing. Mozart, whose Zauberflöte Ludwig adored, and who might have helped him, had died years ago, so Beethoven applied to his last formal teacher, Mozart’s notorious rival Salieri. The stilted and rather formulaic exercises in an already antiquated Italian style made Beethoven grit his teeth. Salieri was unrelentingly critical – we know that days after a particularly harsh session, Beethoven ran into Salieri in the street; the older man confessed that he couldn’t get the very tune he’d told Beethoven was rubbish out of his head. Beethoven had the satisfaction of replying, Well, perhaps it isn’t as bad as you thought!
Leonore, his first effort a few years later, was a flop – probably the biggest of his career. A group of friends and supporters (which included two of Mozart’s brothers-in-law), gathered at a patron’s palace to persuade Beethoven to make changes. They sang through every piece, making dozens of suggestions, climaxing with the idea to cut three whole numbers. An enraged Beethoven tried to grab his score and take off, but a pale young Princess clutched the pages and wouldn’t let him. Throwing herself at his feet, she implored him, in God’s name and – more effectively – in his departed mother’s, to re-write. He was overcome, wept, and promised revisions. Apparently, the great doors then opened to reveal a banquet. Beethoven was seen merrily eating and quaffing his fill until two in the morning. But Leonore went into a drawer for a decade.
If you know and love Beethoven’s great instrumental music – sonatas, quartets, symphonies – you know how unerring and virtuosic his manipulation of purely musical material came to be. His mature works present gripping dramas of musical form. But this lover of humanity – he had read Kant with his friends in his native Bonn, that hotbed of Aufklärung – didn’t like, or even effectively observe, individuals. His sense of his fellow man, unlike Mozart’s three-dimensional Shakespearean grasp, remained theoretical – his figures are a bit too clearly embodiments of ideas and ideals. But such great and noble ideals! His characters undergo a mighty musical transformation; in this glorious score we hear of suffering, true, but above all of heroism, of transcendence.
Fidelio, a musical monument
Article 3 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. The reality, however, is that many people live in a place without any respect for freedom, human dignity or self-determination. Beethoven’s opera Fidelio tells us about them and especially about their fight for freedom.
The heroine of the opera is Leonore. Her husband Florestan was arrested two years earlier by the corrupt governor Pizarro, and no one has heard of him since. Leonore decides to act. Taking immense risks, she enters the enemy’s headquarters disguised as a boy, to see if Florestan is kept prisoner there. When she discovers him, only just in time, she throws herself between him and his executioner. Her husband’s life is saved. But the impact of her actions stretches far beyond her private goals, for Pizarro’s misdeeds are now brought out into the open and the power of his corrupt authority is broken. Justice can be restored.
Leonore is an example to us all. There is always hope for a better world as long as people like Leonore are prepared to fight injustice and resist oppressors, willing to pay for freedom, even with their lives. Beethoven holds out a message of hope for every oppressed human being, at the same time providing inspiration for those capable of coming to the rescue. But the opera also shows that the change from misery to joy, from war to freedom, never comes cheap.
We live many wars and revolutions later than Beethoven. Therefore, without eliminating the romantic quality of the story, I feel that some elements need to be adjusted to enable us to identify with the characters. In real life, for instance, heroes like Leonore rarely operate alone. Generally they are part of a network of courageous volunteers. Most of those remain anonymous, but without their help no hero can succeed. By remodelling Marzelline and Jaquino I wish to express my respect for such anonymous volunteers everywhere.
Fidelio starts as a romance, turns into a nightmare, then during Florestan’s rescue changes into a passionate dream of heroism, and finally ends in victory. The last part of the opera is a magnificent musical tour de force – an oratorio almost – about hope and freedom. Taking this into account, Fidelio can be seen as Beethoven’s musical monument for all freedom fighters in the world.
The idea of Fidelio as a musical monument naturally influences the staging and the scenography. Instead of the medieval Spanish prison Beethoven requires, it seems more appropriate to create an environment referring to memorials and monuments from all over the world. This and the use of video images that in a poetic way remind us of similar situations in the past and the present, underlines the universal significance of this opera.
Director Wim Trompert, working with set and costume designer Nancy Bryant, offers a convincing and appropriate modern-dress concept and staging that is thoughtful, but unfussy. Bryant’s striking-looking triangular set … opens up several times to splendid effect – for instance, for the moving chorus of prisoners….
Aviva Fortunata … a real powerhouse … is well matched with tenor Brent Reilly Turner, who renders the imprisoned Florestan’s Act 2 aria (God! What darkness here!) with impressive passion and power … When husband and wife finally reunite … we hear a veritable explosion of ardent lyricism…
The Victoria Symphony, conducted by POV’s artistic director, Timothy Vernon, plays with extraordinary colour and fervour, and underscores the music’s heroism… Vernon injects much energy and momentum into the performance (the Act 2 climaxes are thrilling), but also takes time generously to allow for a wealth of nuance.
Peter McGillivray as Pizarro portrayed his character’s pettiness and cruelty with aplomb … so well that he was met with a rousing chorus of boos at the curtain call – well-deserved and for all the right reasons!
Tenor Brent Reilly Turner was a force of nature as Florestan. Remarkably strong and dynamic in vocal performance, his moment in prison of chasing a single beam of light across his cell was heartbreaking.
The POV Chorus, portraying prisoners let out to their prison yard for a small moment of sunshine, were artfully bleak and unsettling. Recoiling from touch, light, and the slightest threat of punishment, they effectively communicated a profound sense of hopelessness. With acting skills matched by their formidable vocal performance, the Chorus conveyed the pathos of the prisoners’ lot movingly.
Pacific Opera Victoria’s season-opening production of Beethoven’s Fidelio is musically magnificent. From minor roles to major, the voices are superb, and the Pacific Opera Chorus – mostly young, all volunteer – is impressive. The Victoria Symphony, too, played with verve and conviction…
Unleashing a rich and powerful voice, Fortunata dispatched her big Act I aria … enormously demanding in its sustained phrases, with ease and control. And throughout the rest of the difficult opera, her voice retained its beauty and suppleness, soaring to the rafters when required….
Bass Valerian Ruminski provided a calm port in the whirlwind of Beethoven’s music, with his natural and affecting portrayal of prison warden Rocco as an essentially decent man caught between achieving justice for others and his own survival. Soprano Miriam Khalil brought brightness and sparkle to the role of Rocco’s daughter Marzelline.
Pacific Opera Victoria’s season opener Fidelio is worth the ticket price just to be blown away by leading lady (and man) soprano Aviva Fortunata … Fortunata not only has the greatest opera name of all time, she carries a piercing and powerful voice to match…
Soprano Miriam Khalil sings the part of Marzelline beautifully and has a refreshing physical ease on stage. Tenor Brent Reilly Turner was gripping in the emotional role of the prisoner Florestan.