The ASO’s performance last night of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio (composed and revised between 1805–14) was a timely meditation on tyranny, love and freedom. It traces in 18th-century Spain the story of Don Florestan’s imprisonment at the hands of evil governor Don Pizarro, followed by his rescue by his wife Leonore, who is disguised for much of the opera as the young man Fidelio, who gets a job at the jail. Last night’s performance, with headline solos from Christine Goerke, Clay Hilley and others, was received with thunderous standing ovations more suggestive of a festival than a concert. The event, which should not be missed, repeats this Saturday as the finale of the ASO’s 2018–19 regular season.
Despite inspiring scenes such as the “Prisoner’s Chorus,” this opera has struggled to surpass a handful of performances each year in the United States. Some have criticized the light tone of its early arias and ensembles. Another difficulty is its solo parts’ virtuosity and high vocal lines. Most crucially, lengthy stretches of German dialogue and foursquare poetic lines impede the overall flow. Finally, the stage location of much of Act II in a subterranean prison can be claustrophobic.
The ASO’s concert format solved most of these problems with a sensitive pastoral atmosphere at the beginning, virtuosic, well-coordinated solos and ensembles and most of the intervening dialogue deleted in favor of plot summaries projected above the stage. Occasional details were left out: Rocco’s offer of the wine to Florestan, for example, becomes known only after the fact. The concert format allowed the cast to act sparingly onstage and between the music stands, keeping the focus on Beethoven’s score — where it should be. The ASO has thus achieved something new: It has revived Fidelio as a concert work and made it viable for our era. Its relevance is greater than ever since freedom worldwide is under retreat.
All the headline performers collaborated tightly to yield a high level of artistry. This work is a great fit for conductor Robert Spano, as he enjoys advocating for underappreciated works, much as he has for the Atlanta School of Composers. His direction set the right tone from the outset, with a full palette of expressive gestures ranging from pastoral to dramatic.
As for the rest of the evening, the show’s highlights were its all-star cast of soloists. Tenor David Walton and Romanian-American soprano Laura Tatulescu entertained early on as the jailer, Jaquino, and his crush, Marzelline: Walton was appropriately clueless, while Tatulescu was cross and severe. As will be no surprise to opera buffs, Goerke in the role of Leonore (disguised as Fidelio) offered world-class vocal power and richness alongside impressive acting and sensitive, passionate lines. The head jailer, Rocco, was played by bass Arthur Woodley, who suggested through his sonorous, avuncular tone a complicated, sidekick villain.
Act I had many highlights. As heard in Rocco’s early aria, “True happiness . . . is best secured by glorious gold,” he can be bought for money, and it is fascinating to watch Pizarro break down his resistance to killing Florestan. Also interesting is to see Leonore struggle with her anger at her husband’s imprisonment, instead setting it aside in hope and love to save him. Musically, the audience will delight in the asides as each character expounds their internal thoughts.
Sometimes, Beethoven has four characters commenting independently in this split-screen effect — perhaps a film version could take visual advantage of this situation as the TV drama series 24 did in 2001–10? Act I ended with the prisoners headed back to their cells — “Here freedom must not reign” — with sensitively performed and whispered warnings by the ASO Chorus.
Act II was equally stunning. Hilley’s first note showed that he is a Heldentenor poised for international success: It rose from pianissimo to fortissimo and back again with pinpoint control. He projected brilliance and power while taking care of every consonant and vowel. He also engaged the part of Florestan on a psychological level, a startling achievement. Also brilliant was bass Morris Robinson as Don Fernando, who contributed stentorian, powerful pronouncements on justice. The only soloist I found miscast was Nmon Ford as the archvillain Pizarro. Despite an interesting angle as a smooth-talking gangster in an ostentatious suit, the inner murderous tendencies and general scariness of the role did not emerge.
Overall, though, the Atlanta audience will want to hear all of these artists again and soon.