Cher Public

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!

  • Krunoslav

    Adam, thanks for all the detailed observations.

    I seem to be taking issue with lots of generalizations this week, but I would want to contest this one:

    “The first act is light and Mozartian”

    That might be true of the initial Marzelline/Jaqcuino scene and Rocco’s aria, but not of the rest:

    --Mir ist so wunderbar (maybe Gluck is the inspiration here; nothing light about it)

    --Pizarro’s scena?

    — Leonore’s scena?

    • armerjacquino

      Nothing Mozartian about the Pizarro/Rocco duet either. And while ‘Gut, Sonchen, Gut’ and ‘O Welche Lust’ may have moments that are reminiscent of Mozart, I wouldn’t call either of them light.

  • Ilka Saro

    Was it part of the konzept that Fidelio looks a lot like Ellen DeGeneres in the main photo? Maybe Leonora is playing hard to get with Marzelline just for appearance sake.

    • Camille

      Oh, you are so bad.

      In the original of Leonore, there is actually a somewhat cozy duet for the to of them somewhere in th first act, I forget where. Kind of a shame as it was pretty but didn’t keep the action moving in a forward direction…. I think I heard it on Gardiner’s recording, or maybe I’m just remembering the music from the score, anyways…….

      • Buster

        I did hear Gardiner do Leonore at the Concertgebouw, with Martinpelto, who was always a little boring.

        • manou

          Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs! What is the connection with Fidelio?

          • Ilka Saro

            ganz konzeptuel

        • Camille

          Yes she was to me, too, but quite thorough and conscientious, at least. And Gardiner certainly liked her as she’s on umpteen recordings of his.

          Lucky you to have heard the Leonore live!! don’t suppose that’ll be coming soon to the Mostly Mozart Festival.

  • Adam: I’m confused. Does the production begin with a “flash forward” to Leonore’s revelation and the announcement of Don Fernando’s arrival and then start again at the beginning? What happens when that moment comes in sequential order?

    • armerjacquino

      According to the review, it’s repeated.

  • Camille

    I wouldn’t even call Jacquino/Marselline’s duettino Mozartian but very much more of the opéra-comique style. The canon is what it is: ein Wunder s’ists!

    While Anja Kampe is a fine and most sympa actress, and I preferred her interpretation far more than Mattila’s, by a league—ah, how I can say this diplomatically—she was challenged on the high end of the voice in this formidable role as far back as 2007 when I heard her, so I am kind of thinking the voice, which I heard and saw again via webcast mit der Gott Jonas, is going to be serviceable to the task, but not a lot more. Things just don’t work that way, that this type of voice coupled with the thpe of declamation improve over time. It is great that there is someone around capable of bringing this really difficult part off so convincingly and that’s realy the point of the matter.

    Delighted, indeed, to hear of the success of Nadine Sierra, who impressed me greatly in the singing I’ve heard before, which is posted above. And am looking forward to hearing her Gilda this winter, even if it means I have to take a trip to VEGAS, a place I deplore and would never willingly return to otherwise.

    • Lohengrin

      Kampe and Kaufmann were Siegmund und Sieglind on the CD with Gergiev from Petersburg.

  • Camille

    And although the dialogue is somewhat of a problem for non-German speaking audiences, that would certainly not be the case in Zürich, so why this approach? Is it made for export? And the speeches, usually drastically truncated and almost always cut to the specifications of each production, are not THAT objectionable and do carry bits of information, and bring things forward. Further, there is that operatic rarity, the Melodram between Leonore and Rocco at the beginning of the second act which was a form that legitimatedly existed in the first half of the 19th c., even Wagner indulgd himself in it in his Faust scenes, and ES MUSS gesprochen SEIN!

    I mean to say, it doesn’t seem that we should dismiss this spoken portion so easily. Beethoven went along with it, after all, and could he have not followed the Italian model and written a durchkomponiert opera. I wonder if he had, how it would have gone and I wonder why a Lachner-type singing recitativo style has never come along, or maybe it has and I am unaware of it. Probably no one DARES.

  • Sir Ferris

    As in…….someone else setting the spoken Fidelio dialogue to music? I seem to remember that the Met did something like that in the 30s.

    Incidentally, Camille, thanks so much for the info about the two Galicias. (That was you, was it not?) There’s folk etymology out there linking them with Wales and Walloons and wie sie alle heissen--thanks for setting me straight.

    • Buster

      Bodanzky did, Sir Ferris. Hilarious, Flagstad is doing her best, but it all sounds very silly.

      I love the story when Klemperer was rehearsing Fidelio at Covent Garden, and a donor suggested he cut even more dialogue. She gave him a textbook with the passages marked that could go. He looked at it, and saw it included all of the Abscheulicher. Uh-oh, was his reply.

    • Camille

      Oh thanks, Buster, I was thinking there was that conductor who discovered Flagstad, was that Bodansky — that had attemped some recitatives but I couldn’t remember his name and the dates and etc., so thanks for that little tidbit. And OMG there is a recording with Flagstad?????? Oh I must get that!!

      Dank U Buster!!!!

      • Buster

        It is on an old Music&Arts CD, Camille. Flagstad is in superb form, but she is just as good on the slighly later Bruno Walter recording, without the Bodanzky recitatives. Fun to hear just once, I am sure you will enjoy hearing it:

      • luvtennis


        There are TWO Flagstad Fidelios. EMI with Furtwangler and one on Naxos with Bodansky (?). I much prefer the earlier Flagstad, but the sound is a bit cleaner on the EMI and Furtwangler is not to be missed.

        • Buster

          I have heard four Flagstad Fidelios. The Met Bodanzky (1938). The two Met ones conducted by Bruno Walter (1941 and 1951), and Furtwangler (1950). The one on Naxos is a lesser transfer of the 1941 Met performance. The WHRA box is the one to get if you are after the Walters. There is a third Bruno Walter Fidelio, incomplete and in English, but with the very young Regina Resnik definitely also worth hearing.

          • Camille

            Since today is Maestro Klemperer’s birthday, I post this in loving tribute—

            And I thank both of you fine fellows for all the further informations on Flagstad’s Fidelio. As I only have the one from the Salzburg Festival—is it not?—with Julius Patak, I would be greatly interested to hear her on form at a far earlier period so am greatly indebted for this Auskunft. Never having even heard of the Music & Arts label, would have never dreamed of such a thing and look forward to satisfying my curiosity about this Bodansky affair. I wonder what possessed him?

            SHE is someone I love to return to for a brief respite on an island of calm, far away from the vibrato-driven, the over-driven, the overly-ambitious, and the over-parted in this part of parts, an impossible kne, really, in which everyone jumps in and does what she can and hopes to high heaven for the best. All for an impossible ideal of die Liebe.

            Thank you both, kind fellows.

            • Camille

              That should be Julius PatZak, and he is a fine Florestan and makes a big impression so should not muck up his name and leave out his zeta.

    • Camille

      The tale of two Galicias was a team effort with me maybe acting as quarterback.

      Batty iterated an important point that the Asia Minor bunch is spelled GalaTians. I had forgotten as I am a lapse Whiskipalian. Forgive me my sins.

  • Constantine A. Papas

    I cannot believe Santi is sill active. I remember him conducting the touring Met in the late 70s and early 80s. A real work-horse of the Italian repertoire singers love to work with.

  • pasavant

    Another German opera freak- out. Perhaps Herr Homoki can smooth out some of Beethoven’s jarring melodies, harmonies, and orchestration .

    • Lohengrin

      Wait for next big Fidelio-event taking place in Salzburg in August, Director Claus Guth.

  • PCally

    Does anyone know if the Naxos version with Nielsen is worth a listen? I only know Nielsen as my favorite studio Salome but I’m looking of other recordings.

    • armerjacquino

      It’s good but not great. Nielsen is as serious and musical as ever but it’s not ideal for her voice. Winbergh is a lovely singer not at his best. Decent stuff from Titus and from an oldish Moll. Forgettable Marzelline and Jacquino, rather dull conducting.

      • armerjacquino