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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, March 21, 2017

Opera Review: March to the Scaffold

The Metropolitan Opera (finally) revives Fidelio.

Oh happy we: Leonore (Adrinane Pieczonka) is reunited with Florestan  (Klaus Florian Vogt) in
Act II of Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard courtesy The Metropolitan Opera.

In the current political climate, Beethoven's Fidelio, with its call for freedom in the face of corruption and the naked abuse of power is more relevant than ever, so it is fitting that this month marks the Metropolitan Opera’s first revival of the show in eleven years. The players have changed radically, but Jürgen Flimm’s grim, unrelenting production has not. It is still set in a bare modern prison, adorned by white industrial lights, inexplicable trash heaps and sadistic  guards toting automatic rifles and nightsticks.

The change in cast started in the pit, with the return of veteran conductor Sebastian Wiegle at the controls. He led a taut account of the overture, but seemed stymied by the uneasy domestic comedy that followed. The dramatic pace accelerated with the entry of Pizarro and sublime, finely textured singing from the Met Chorus, who brought lift to “O welche Lust.” The second act was fast-paced, with appropriate orchestral gloom for Florestan’s aria, sung by Klaus Florian Vogt. (He has also been missing from the Met stage since 2006!)

The scenes between Jaquino (tenor David Portillo) Marzelline (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller Leonore/Fidleio (Adrianne Pieczonka) and Meister Rocco (Falk Struckmann) were absurd domestic comedy. The shenanigans were paused long enough to deliver a lovely “Mir ist so wunderbar.” But why did the director’s decide to accompany the “Gut sonnchen gut” trio with Rocco staging a wedding rehearsal for his daughter and potential son-in-law? Through all this, poor Jaquino teetered on the brink of madness, even drawing his weapon and aiming it at Fidelio from behind.

Things improved radically with the entry of the villainous Don Pizarro, sung with a deceptively noble, dark tone by bass-baritone Greer Grimsley. He made the prison governor a proper bastard, demeaning poor Rocco and showing the absolute corruption at the heart of this dark character. Such villainy made one relish his character’s grim fate in the otherwise cheerful final scene. He is beaten bloody by Jaquino (offstage) and as the curtain falls, hanged atop a horse’s back. Very Blazing Saddles!

Ms. Pieczonka quailed in the face of such fury, and her great “Abscheulicher” outburst and following aria came out under-baked . Maybe she was trying too hard to hide Leonore’s true nature, but this aria is a revealing moment and should be sung with more passion. She has a pleasing soprano with a “white” sound that can cut through a big ensemble, but she needs to wield it with less care and a little more force in the big moments. Here, she sounded like she was cast in the wrong opera. 

Mr. Vogt was a compelling Florestan, who sounded remarkably hale and hearty for a man locked in a dungeon for two years and kept on a strict starvation diet. Indeed, his “Gott Welch dunkel hier!” sounded more pure than anguished, with a sweet tone and a distinct lack of grit. Still, this singer’s long experience of collaboration with Mr. Wiegle in German opera houses served him well a, once the melodrama started and the opera hurtled toward its finish.

The only difficulty in this great scene was the entrance, as the stage directors insisted that all the principals make their entrances via an ungainly metal escape ladder that dominated the set. Sure it’s authentic (and presumably its ricketiness makes it hard for the tenor to escape)  but this set-piece threatened to wobble as the singers clambered up and down its height. It’s harder for Pizarro to pop out and threaten Florestan’s life when everybody sees and hears him coming!

The ladder set, however, does allow for a very fast transition to the operas finale, with no need for the awkward tradition of inserting the “Leonore 2” overture at this point to cover a long scene change. Here, the optimistic finale was dominated by the rising star Gunther Groissböck, the Austrian bass who is fast becoming one if the leading lights in German repertory at the Met this decade. If Fidelio is revived more often (and it should be) perhaps New York will get a chance to hear him sing this role again.

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