The ending scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
On Thursday night, the Met opened its season’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio.
The protagonist, Leonore, is the most positively impactful woman in all of opera. Disguised as a man named Fidelio, she earns the trust of Rocco, the prison warden. He brings her to her husband Florestan, a prisoner locked in a cellar cell. Once there, Leonore defends Florestan from Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison, by threatening him with her gun. Because of her actions, Leonore is hailed as a heroine of “noble courage.” Joy reigns as the couple is safely restored when Don Fernando, the minister, arrives.
Representations of constructively influential women in opera are rare. Most are throwing themselves off of castle parapets (Tosca), displaying a deranged, febrile madness (Lucia di Lammermoor), or even stripping for kings (Salome). The Met picked an important moment to portray an antithetical example. Adrianne Pieczonka, a Canadian soprano playing Leonore, said, “And with what’s going on in the world, I think it’s great to have a strong woman—a brave, courageous woman on a mission.” The only thing missing is a direct reference to Trump.
Given its backdrop, how was this politically charged opera vitalized? Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter—performed by Hanna-Elisabeth Müller in her Met Opera debut—sang wonderfully. Her voice had a sweetness that was maintained throughout her range. Jaquino, Rocco’s helper—played by David Portillo—sang with appropriate anguish over Marzelline’s spurning of his love.
In the subsequent ensemble number, Rocco and Leonore (Fidelio to these folks) joined Marzelline and Jaquino. Rocco—sung by the role-switching Falk Struckmann (formerly Don Pizarro in the Met’s 2000 production)—rang richly in his low register, but thinned out up high. As the night went on, however, his upper tones took on a rounder, fuller shape. Rocco’s employer, Don Pizarro—invigorated by Greer Grimsley—sounded diabolical in his “Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick!” aria. Grimsley’s repeated “Ha’s!” menaced his adversaries (and the audience!).
After Pizarro’s aria, Pieczonka presented her “Abscheulicher!” solo. Here and elsewhere, I observed her physically reaching upward for climatically high pitches. Her action affected her sound quality: her high register was quavering, forced, and over-vibratoed. In contrast, Müller visibly sunk down into her upper range. As a result, her highs maintained depth and quality. A casting switch between these two sopranos would be beneficial—but admittedly impossible—for this production.
Act 2 starts with a jolt: Florestan calls out “Gott!”, a desperate heavenly plea. Florestan—enlivened by Klaus Florian Vogt—has a many-colored voice: his timbre sounds like the mixing palette of a master painter. His unique hues transmitted the hopeful content of his singing.
Some of Sebastian Weigle’s tempo choices detrimentally affected tonight’s performance. In “Gut Söhnchen, gut, hab immer Mut” the tempo was inappropriately slow. I have courage—“Ich habe Mut!”—but apparently not enough to show any vigor. And, in Pieczonka’s “Abscheulicher!” aria, the orchestra sounded safe, even calculated, during accelerandos. The correct energy can be achieved in upcoming performances by a reconsideration of phrasing and articulation.
The horns, however, turned in an excellent performance in the “Abscheulicher!” obbligato. Their tone was pure and their phrasing smooth and effortless.
The singer’s performances were framed by Jürgen Flimm’s production. Flimm’s work, staged for the fourth time at the Met, effectively recontextualizes Fidelio in the mid-20th century. In the first act, the principal themes of hope and freedom are juxtaposed against a starkly bare prison. For the final scene, Robert Israel, the set designer, depicts triumph with a backdrop of wispy clouds strewn across a light blue sky: it is little wonder that the words for heaven and sky are the same in German.
At this euphoric ending, Don Fernando has arrived, ousting Don Pizarro from the stage. The role was performed by Günther Groissböck with an imperial, declarative style, suiting the character well.
After, the chorus, winds, and low strings exclaim joyfully. Freude und Freiheit—Joy and Freedom: Beethoven affirms cherished values with his distinct emotional directness.
During the curtain call, I saw that the bronze heroic figure—which looms in the background of the ultimate scene—was taken off of his horse, placed dejectedly on the ground. To complete the coup, I think, appropriately, Leonore should be put in his former position—a nobly “nasty woman” who deserves her high praise and honors.
Beethoven’s Fidelio runs through April 8, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live April 1, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org