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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Opera Review: Get Out of Jail Free

Bel Canto at Caramoor mounts Beethoven's Fidelio.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the Orchestra of St. Luke's
in Fidelio at Caramoor with Paul Groves (center) as Florestan and Elsa van den Heever as Leonore.
Photo by Gabe Palacio © 2016 Caramoor Festival of the Arts.

Since its inception, the Bel Canto at Caramoor program has focused on providing opportunities for young singers and reviving rare operas, usually in Italian but occasionally in French. On Sunday afternoon, with Orchestra of St. Luke's music director Pablo Heras-Casado on the podium in the Venetian Theater, the summer festival offered Fidelio, the only completed opera by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The work was originally titled Leonore, after the opera's heroine and the French play on which the story is based. Leonore is the wife of a political prisoner. To save her husband's life, she dresses as a man and takes the identity "Fidelio", working as the warden's assistant in the prison where her husband is chained. This serious story is presented alongside a sort of domestic comedy, where the jailer plans to marry "Fidelio" to his daughter. With multiple revisions and a long gestation period, Fidelio was a tough opera to write, with an uneasy mixture of musical styles.

 Beethoven requires much from his soprano, with extended passages of ornamentation, often written for the single syllable of a word. Elsa van den Heever brought her formidable and agile instrument to the part, leaping through the difficult passages of the "Abscheulicher!" monologue and aria including the torturous fioratura writing above the stave. She became the focal point of the action from the moment she stepped onstage, capturing the character's outer deception and inner distress. In Act II, her confrontation with the evil Don Pizarro brought white-knuckle excitement. 

Leonore's husband Florestan does not enter until the beginning of the second act. But Paul Groves made his presence felt immediately, singing "Gott! Wech dunkel hier!" with hair-raising intensity. This heldentenor outburst led to lighter and more lyrical singing as he progressed into the actual aria, capturing Florestan's plight and utter despair.  His recognition of Ms. van den Heever and the subsequent duet was a genuine thrill, with the couple's love triumphing over the darkness of Pizarro's prison.

Alfred Walker plunged depths of dastardly evil as the murderous Don Pizarro. (His willingness to engage in brutality, torture and other political crimes made one think of a current political candidate.) From his first aria "Ha! Welchen Augenblick!" he provided the plot with its relentless, driving nemesis. The confrontation in the second act had the audience on the edge of their seats, with the tension shattered by the famous off-stage trumpet call, coming not a moment too soon.

Bass Kristinn Sigmundson was a bluff and bourgeois Rocco, his formal concert tuxedo fitting for this money-grubbing character. Georgia Jarman and Andrew Owen are fine artists, stuck here in the ungrateful but important roles of Marzelline and Jaquino, peripheral characters whose main purpose is to drive the lame comedy plot and fill out the Act I quartet. That number, "Mir ist so wunderbar" was the first indication that this Fidelio could be something special.

From the first bars of the overture, Pablo Heras-Casado maintained a taut approach, never letting the action drag. Judicious cuts in the spoken dialogue kept the story moving forward. Ensembles and choruses were a strength throughout, with the Caramoor choristers filling in as the prison population in a slow-rising "O welche lust." Both choral finales were memorable, with Mr. Heras-Casado showing control over the counter-punching choral parts, moments where Beethoven showed the clear influence of both Haydn and Bach.

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