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OPERA REVIEW | Opera Review

Losing faith in new ‘Fidelio’

Rocky night for Opera Boston

Soprano Meredith Hansen as Marzelline and tenor Jason Ferrante as Jacquino in Opera Boston’s “Fidelio.’’ Soprano Meredith Hansen as Marzelline and tenor Jason Ferrante as Jacquino in Opera Boston’s “Fidelio.’’ (Clive A. Grainger)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / October 25, 2010

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Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio,’’ took quite a toll on its creator. “Of all my children,’’ he famously observed, “this is the one that caused me the most painful birth pangs and the most sorrows.’’ It tells the story of the ever-faithful Leonore, who disguises herself as Fidelio to gain work in a prison where she hopes to rescue her unjustly persecuted husband, Florestan. Even after all of Beethoven’s birth pangs and revisions, “Fidelio’’ remains a dramatically unwieldy and musically taxing work that presents myriad difficulties to singers and directors alike. But when it’s done right, the sublime beauty and humane power of the music can make it devastatingly effective in live performance.

Unfortunately, Friday night was not one of those experiences. With an oddly heavy-handed staging and an atypically shaky musical performance, Opera Boston’s new production of “Fidelio’’ ultimately did more to muffle the work’s potency than project it.

This staging sets the action in the Spanish Inquisition. Overall, director Thaddeus Strassberger, who scored a victory this summer at Bard College with his staging of Franz Schreker’s “Der Ferne Klang,’’ seemed stumped by the challenges of “Fidelio.’’ What was needed was direction that creatively focused this work’s abstract themes and brought the anguished plight of Leonore and Florestan into sharp relief. Instead, Strassberger seemed more interested in darkening the opera’s subtexts and ratcheting up its violence. To that end, he lavished attention on Florestan’s antagonist, Don Pizarro, portraying him as a corrupt sadist and forcing us, for instance, to watch him torture a writhing prisoner with a red-hot poker in Act I.

The opera was sung in German but this production renders the spoken dialogue in English translation, which consistently seemed to break any spell that the music had conjured. At other moments, the staging flouts the libretto in ways that undermined the drama with little or no compensatory gain. One of the opera’s most chilling lines comes at the beginning of Act II when Florestan, who has been wasting away in a dungeon, makes his first entrance with a primal, Jobian cry: “God! What darkness here!’’ On Friday, he did so on a half-lighted stage.

Likewise at the work’s conclusion, the libretto calls for Pizarro to be simply “led away,’’ but Strassberger keeps him on stage, raises him up with his face covered by a hood, and then has him die a slow exhibitionistic death, convulsing on top of a pyre, his gruesome ending overshadowing Beethoven’s glorious finale in which the singers rejoice over the power of a wife’s love. The point is not that we need strict, literalist readings but that a director’s interventions should build out organically from the spirit of the music itself.

Soprano Christine Goerke was a vocally formidable Leonore, pouring out an abundance of well-supported tone, though her portrayal could have used more dramatic focus and development. As Florestan, Michael Hendrick sang ardently but could not hold his own next to Goerke, his voice straining to a near-shout at times, and his German diction a major stumbling block. Andrew Funk was strong as the jailer Rocco and Scott Bearden sang Pizarro with skill and relish. Meredith Hansen displayed a mostly attractive soprano as Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter, and Jason Ferrante was a capable Jacquino, even if this staging overplayed the antics of his romantic quest. At the very end, the grounded elegance and dignity of Robert Honeysucker’s singing as Don Fernando arrived like a balm.

It was a very rocky night for Opera Boston’s orchestra under Gil Rose’s baton, with the group sounding generally distant and unsettled, with intermittent intonation issues, and with what felt too often like dangerously weak links between stage and pit. Disparate tempos chosen by singers and orchestra nearly pulled the music apart at a few points, and I often wondered how well the two groups could hear each other.

There were, despite it all, rewarding moments. The celebrated Act I prisoners’ chorus was handsomely sung, with an even blend and a warmth of tone that reminded you of the core humanity that still glows within this opera, even in productions that don’t do nearly enough to set it free.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

BEETHOVEN’S “FIDELIO’’ Presented by Opera Boston

At: Cutler Majestic Theatre (Friday night, repeats tomorrow)