There is nothing in particular to recommend the Met’s recent performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, beyond the opportunity to hear the moving, majestic score performed live.
The story of a woman pretending to be a man, in order to rescue her imprisoned husband, is rife with latent, fascinating readings. However, in its current state at the Met, these possibilities go unexplored. And, generally, the performances are capable, if not revelatory: they don’t offend, and they don’t surprise—they are merely competent.
On Thursday night, in the role of Leonore, Adrianne Pieczonka’s thick soprano was rich and powerful, but it lost much of its momentum over the course of the evening. In light of the difficulty of Beethoven’s score, this was not altogether that egregious. Her performance of “Abscheulicher!” began well enough, but near the end her reserves ran dry, and her singing took on a shallow quality, wavering in intonation.
However, Pieczonka’s physical embodiment of a young man was credible, and she maneuvered nicely between the desperate Leonore and her male creation, Fidelio.
As her husband, Florestan, Klaus Florian Vogt, had similar problems with unwieldy pitch, but on the whole his tenor brought a fervent urgency to his music and character. He was a nice compliment to Pieczonka’s strong-willed Leonore, with a physical bearing that suggested a morally unyielding man with a noble character.
Hanna-Elizabeth Müller made a pleasing debut as Marzelline, the daughter of the prison warden who has fallen in love with Leonore’s fictive Fidelio. Her singing was both agile and substantial, moving through the first act with athletic vigor. She also managed to communicate the varied mix of naïve optimism and shocked confusion that attends her character’s narrative trajectory. Her theatrical flexibility was well managed and believable.
And as her father, Rocco, Falk Struckmann brought a warm, paternal quality to his work, thankfully without slipping into easy clichés. His performance seemed rooted in genuine affection for both Marzelline and Fidelio. And as his boss, Don Pizarro, Greer Grimsley was a formative and consistent villain.
Jürgen Flimm’s production, acclaimed when it debuted in 2000, hasn’t aged well. While the director supposedly returned to oversee rehearsals—an anomaly in today’s overscheduled culture—his Fidelio remains vague, toothless, and disappointing. Set in some unfixed contemporary time, one longs for a more excoriating reading of the industrial prison complex and the dehumanizing aspects of our penal systems.
These concerns are the most fascinating and contemporary notions within Beethoven’s opera, and hence the most fertile for modern operagoers: I’m thinking here less about the more traditional rhetoric within the opera—commendations of the faithful wife—and more on the thin, tenuous line between citizen and outcast.
In fact, there is much to say about the similarities between the plot of Fidelio and the ancient myth of Orpheus. Derived from the French Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, the opera asks a great deal of romantic attachment; the plot essentially hinges on a similar Katabasis to that of Orpheus, a descent towards a type of underworld—in Beethoven’s opera, hades is the solitary confinement of a brutal prison.
As we follow the plot, Leonore braves this perilous underworld, using artifice to bring her beloved back from the dead. However in this instance, unlike Orpheus’ venture, the mission is accomplished through her unwavering faith. She does not turn to look back, to make sure he is following her.
Leonore’s connection to Florestan is what enables him to return to freedom. It is their association, her memory of him before his incarceration, which allows her to enact his resuscitation, to recuperate his humanity.
During a surreal scene in which the inmates wander out of their cells into a common space within the prison, one wonders about the relations these prisoners have to the outside world—if, indeed, there is someone there to remember the past for them, to connect them to the living.
These contemporary concerns, lodged within the opera, really go unexplored by Flimm’s staging. Yes, there is a modern quality to the sets and costumes, but it is vague in terms of time and place. At the end of the opera, as the open sky is finally revealed, one gets the feeling that we are surfacing somewhere in the Middle East?
It might have been more interesting to set this opera in a distinctly American place, where the corporatized prison system has wreaked the most havoc, has done the most physical and psychic harm.
With these opportunities missed, what one has left to recommend regarding the performance is Beethoven’s music, which stirs the soul with its grand optimism. Sebastian Weigle’s sensitive conducting did well on these terms; and the chorus, prepared by chorus master Donald Palumbo, were a glorious wall of luminous sound.
Working in tandem with the principal performers, these rather competent musicians did service to the opera, suggesting its potential as a work of social criticism—a potential that Flimm’s production fails to realize.
Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.