I wake up screaming

“Töt erst sein Weib!” shrieks Anja Kampe as Leonore during the very first moments of Andreas Homoki’s ingenious production of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, at Opernhaus Zürich.

With her husband Florestan inches away from politically-mandated murder, Leonore at last uncovers her manly guise and sets out to save her beloved. A gunshot sounds followed by a trumpet solo announcing the arrival of the Minister of Justice, Don Fernando. We hear the emancipatory undulations of the “Leonore Overture No. 3,} the light of day finally visible.

This unexpected beginning—in lieu of the opera’s own famous overture—sets in motion a suspenseful, mostly satisfying journey (performed without intermission) that tries hard to address the opera’s imperfections while focusing the audience on Beethoven’s unmatched ability to sanctify through music the power of love and freedom. Leonore’s heroism is undeniable, and Homoki allows the opera to unfold with greater clarity and focus than usual. Though by leaving all visual and many plot-related details to the audience’s imagination, this is by no means an effortless night at the opera.

This is Homoki’s second production since taking the top job in Zürich, alongside music director Fabio Luisi (whose other gig as Principal Conductor at the Met may in part explain why there are so many prominent rising American singers making significant role debuts here, such as Brandon Jovanovich (Florestan) and Nadine Sierra (see below for a review of her glimmering debut as Lucia). I suppose this was mildly lighter fare—it is spring, after all—than my last trip to Zürich for Tristan und Isolde and Norma!

In Homoki’s grey shoebox, sets and props are abolished (no banana eating, as in Jürgen Flimm’s memorable Met production starring Karita Mattila—my introduction to this great opera). The spoken recitatives—mundane and difficult to stage—are eliminated entirely, save for a brief montage of pre-recorded voices and a number of stage directions projected onscreen, with male chorus members assembling around the upstage wall as if awaiting news on their fate posted on the prison bulletin board (stage design by Henrik Ahr and smart costumes by Barbara Drosihn). And yes, the closed-in set acts as a voice amplifier, lessening pressure on the singers  to push.

Contrary to the rest of Beethoven’s illustrious output, Fidelio is revered despite its edginess and clunky musical structure, essentially demanding the integration of three musical languages. The first act is light and Mozartian, the second is gripping drama, and the finale is a transcendent oratorio. Here the dramatic and musical elements are compounded as the production is performed without intermission, clocking in—thanks to the axed dialogue—at only two hours in total.

I agree with many other reviewers that the dialogue was hardly a significant loss; the downside is that, contrary to Beethoven’s final version, there are few moments for the audience to breathe as one intense musical moment leads into the next. The spoken scenes, as written, also allow the audience to connect on a more human level with the characters in the opera—their interests and insecurities—rather than merely witnessing their more profound expressive episodes.

Yet this two-hour ride is packed with some serious singing, and despite Beethoven’s lack of familiarity with the contours, strengths, and limitations of the human voice, his score draws upon a vast palette of ideas, from the delicate quartet, “Mir ist so wunderbar,” to the explosive love duet—“O namenlose Freude!”—sung following Florestan’s release and reunion with his remarkably cunning and devoted wife.

Kampe has sung the tiring role of Leonore around the world, including Munich (with Jonas Kaufmann in Calixto Bieito’s intriguing production, Milan, and here in Zürich where she premiered this production in 2013. Kampe sails through the role, demonstrating believability and ease across its extreme range with respect to tone and dynamics. “Abscheulicher” lacked the bite of Mattila and the vocal glamour of Nina Stemme. By contrast, her exclamations during the opera’s finale were superb, with barely a hint of fatigue after having just repeated the climactic scene in Florestan’s cell.

Florestan is a brief role, but as we have seen with Kaufmann, a tenor can convey all of the character’s history of pain, isolation, torture, and hope, simply through the solo scene that begins the second act. Jovanovich—football scholarship kid turned singer and winner of the 2007 Richard Tucker Award—is blessed with a clarion voice but he made rather bland musical choices here. His aria seemed rushed and moved from mezzo-forte to forte without any of the burnished pianissimo that would most effectively convey the state of his abandoned soul. (And Zürich, with its small size, is not an opera house in which one must fear inaudibility).

Christof Fischesser, announced as suffering from allergies, was an amiable Rocco, the prison intendant who has adopted ‘Fidelio’ as an almost son-in-law and trusts ‘him’ enough to bring him down to the cell where Florestan languishes. Fischesser paired with Kampe for some truly beautiful legato singing in the first act.

Martin Gantner’s Pizzaro was rather cartoonish as the state official demanding Florestan’s execution, and he bellowed rather than basked in the ferocity of his aria, “Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!” His portrayal was sufficiently grotesque such that the prisoners’ ethereal chorus—in which they appear blinded by sudden exposure to daylight—is laden with a palpable sense of bewilderment at the extent of mankind’s capacity for evil. Deanna Breiwick’s playful Marzelline was surprisingly unaffected during the finale despite the revelation that “Fidelio” is in fact a devoted wife rather than a bachelor.

With little in the way of visual clues, we rely heavily on the orchestra and chorus to capture the emotional undercurrents of the piece. Markus Poschner led a tight rendition that emphasized Fidelio’s symphonic dimensions. Coordination between soloists, orchestra, and chorus was seamless during the finale and, appropriately, it felt as if the frenzied jubilation would blow the roof off the opera house.

I am happy to report on Nadine Sierra’s smashingly successful role debut as Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, culminating in a dramatic suicidal leap from the top of a leaning glass skyscraper. Sierra at only 27 possesses the sort of coloratura soprano that prompts “sparkling champagne” metaphors, not to mention a delightful stage presence. These qualities make her an ideal fit for Rossini’s cheerier ladies, but her willingness to take on the demented Lucia—replacing rising star Sonya Yoncheva, originally scheduled for this run—deserves our appreciation.

Unlike stage animals such as Natalie Dessay, Sierra—American with Portuguese, Puerto Rican, and Italian ancestry—does not provide, during the earlier scenes, even a hint of the craziness we will encounter with the famous Mad Scene. This Lucia is poised yet playful, blissfully removed from the bitter rivalries between her family and that of lover, Edgardo (Ismael Jordi). My only observation was that Sierra’s every gesture and inflection—both physical and vocal—came across as meticulously planned and measured, and perfectly executed. The tone is lovely, although there is room for improvement in projection, and the high notes are sterling; runs, however, were noticeably effortful (but who am I to be picky?).

I forgot how much I enjoyed Luciaso many great tunes!—and this performance turned out to be a highly memorable event, thanks to the presence in the pit of Maestro Nello (“Papa”) Santi, who at 84 is beloved by the Zürich crowd (he was musical director here from 1958 to 1969—feels like yesterday, right?). His physical frailty did not interfere with his conducting, which demonstrated sensitivity to his singers and a wonderful sense of phrasing. There were, however, a few coordination problems with the chorus during the second act party-before-the-storm. Still, Santi received a rare (this ain’t New York), and deserved, standing ovation at the end.

Lucia demands an ensemble of singers with considerable virtuosity and stamina, and Zürich mostly succeeded in this respect. Jordi, a Spanish tenor, sang Edgardo immediately after appearing at the same house alongside Anna Netrebko in a run of performances of Anna Bolena. Edgardo has been a pillar of his young career and, despite an excessively bright timbre, he brought significant energy to the role from his ardent head-over-heels entrance to his humiliation after crashing Lucia’s arranged marriage to Lord Arturo (a suave Benjamin Bernheim) to, finally, his aching death scene, during which he sang passionately and showed no signs of strain (rare!).

As Lord Enrico—Lucia’s brother, determined to restore his family’s honour and punish his sister for her forbidden romantic exploits—Polish baritone Artur Rucinski sang with rich, unforced tone and marvellous Hvorostovky-like breath control. He and Jordi incited each other to thrilling effect during their act three pre-duel sing-off. Wenwei Zhang was stentorian and often profondo as the priest Raimondo,

Damiano Michieletto’s production uses the Zürich chorus to excellent effect. Observing the dynamics within Lucia’s fragile world, the singers looked stunning in Carla Teti’s costumes. There is no glass harmonica to accompany Lucia during her mad scene, but there is plenty of glass in the aforementioned set (by Paolo Fantin) and by the end of that monstrously difficult scene, Sierra lets out her last high E-flat, takes a few steps along a glass walkway at the very top of the structure, and leaps to her death. I somehow doubt Zürich favourite Edita Gruberova would be cast in this production!