Thursday, July 02, 2015

Beethoven's Fidelio at the San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas completed their June Beethoven Festival last weekend with a concert version of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, featuring one of the better casts in the world.

I went to the final Sunday performance on Gay Pride Parade Day, which at first felt a little odd but more apt as the evening went on, with Leonore and Florestan singing about the courage, constancy, and faith involved in marriage, ringing cries by the entire chorus about liberty and human rights, not to mention the main character appearing as a female-to-male impersonator through most of the opera.

Fidelio is one of those problematic operas like Verdi's La Forza del Destino or Mussorgsky's Khovanschina whose charm depends partly on their awkwardness and ungainliness matched to heavenly, genius music. It starts off sounding like a Mozart comedy, segues into very dark territory with bass-baritones scheming to kill a political prisoner, continues as an escape tale with an impossibly stirring love duet, and finishes off with what sounds like a variation on the Ninth Symphony's Ode to Joy. Oh, and there's a lot of dialogue too, because it's a musical except with insanely difficult vocal parts for everyone.

The assembled international cast was superb from top to bottom. Even the First Prisoner (Matthew Newlin, above left) and Second Prisoner (Craig Verm, above right) felt like luxury casting.

So did the cameo appearance by baritone Luca Pisaroni as Don Fernando, the ruler who arrives at the prison in the nick of time, along with bass Alan Held as the nasty Pizarro, Kevin Langan as the sweet, materialistic jailer Rocco, and Nicholas Phan and Joelle Harvey as the young lovers Jaquino and Marzelline.

What took this performance into the stratosphere were the two leads, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Leonore and Montana tenor Brandon Jovanovich. I had read rumors that Stemme's voice had been shredded from too many Isoldes and Brunnhildes since she sang so splendidly in the San Francisco Opera's 2010 Wagner Ring Cycle, but the rumors were untrue. She sounded great, her diction and acting were remarkable, and she sailed over the orchestra with her customary ease. Jovanovich gave one of the most beautifully sung accounts of Florestan's difficult music that I have heard live since Jon Vickers was slaying us in the role at the SF Opera in the 1970s. Jovanovich is also unusually gallant with his soprano counterparts in all the roles I have seen him perform, from Pinkerton with Patricia Racette to Florestan with Stemme's rescuing wife. They actually looked like a loving pair throughout the final act and injected an emotional layer that the opera requires to succeed.

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