The current San Francisco Opera production of Fidelio is the most vital version of Beethoven's opera that I have ever seen. The 1805 work is a rescue tale set in Spain where a brave young woman disguises herself as as a male guard in a jail where her political prisoner husband is in secret confinement. Director Matthew Ozawa and production designer Alexander V. Nichols have updated the piece to a contemporary U.S. for-profit prison in a warehouse, and the result is energizing for singers and audience alike. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)
The cast was as good overall as any I have heard, starting with Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Marzelline, the jailer's daughter who has fallen for the fake guy and with her father's blessing, is about to be betrothed. She was bouncy, funny, with a gorgeous soprano voice, and brought us into the contemporary jail/office setting with conviction. Her suitor, sung by tenor Christopher Oglesby, was delightful in his thwarted courting.
The opera itself is strange and clumsy, starting off sounding like a Mozart comedy and concluding as a precursor to Wagner, but the music has always been my favorite Beethoven work, partly for that raw awkwardness. The villain, Don Pizarro, is just about impossible to sing, with a series of high, resounding barks for a low bass-baritone. Greer Grimsley did as well as possible, and the fact that he resembled the current governor of Florida just added to the sense of evil. The baritone James Creswell as Rocco the jailer gave the best performance of that usually dull role I have ever experienced, while making the character believable. Creswell also made great impressions in small roles in Manon and The Marriage of Figaro at the SF Opera in the last few years before the pandemic, so my plea to the artistic casting director is to hire him back, often.
Please also bring back soprano Elza van den Heever who was magnificent in the title role. When I saw her last Friday, she was having a wild night, tripping over stairs, knocking props off the set, and almost tackling Rocco in a strong embrace, while singing her heart out. Some of her music is almost as impossible to perform as Pizzaro's, but she negotiated the difficulties well, and her voice was strong and heart-meltingly beautiful throughout.
She also brings complete dedication to her acting which in this production was crucial. Her imprisoned husband, sung by Russell Thomas, was not at quite the same dramatic level but he sang well, and seeing a contemporary staging set an American prison with a black man at its center felt resonant in all kinds of ways.
The expanded chorus was simply awesome in their two big scenes, and once new Music Director Eun Sun Kim had gotten over a weirdly bumpy overture, the music flowed well and the singers worked well with the orchestra and each other. There are two more performances, this Tuesday the 26th and again on Saturday the 30th. I can't recommend it highly enough, and I think there are probably plenty of tickets. Click here to find them.