Monday, June 29, 2015

If Only I Gave a Damn About Fidelio.

To SFS last night, for the last of their semi-staged? concert? performances of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. I am afraid that it merely confirmed my past experience of the piece, that while it's got a lot of decent music, it's not a very good opera. There's a decent opera somewhere in the story (I said that about another opera recently....) but Beethoven and his librettist don't manage to find it.

And that is because not only does not much happen in the opera, which has about five minutes of dramatic tension, but the first act is really a waste as far as advancing the plot goes. It is all about how poor Marzelline has fallen in love with the young man Fidelio (actually Leonore in disguise) and therefore rejects a more suitable match, a young man who adores her. Hey - we know she will be disappointed, and I hate how the libretto treats her; it doesn't give her even a couple of phrases at the end of the opera to express her disappointment and shock. A better opera composer would have paid attention to her and demanded some way to resolve her situation.

Okay, about advancing the plot. There really isn't one! If it's about Leonore's struggle to free her husband, it might include how she discovers where he is, how she disguises herself as man (which would be something of a big deal for an 18th century woman), and how she gets the job in the prison, with appropriate obstacles along the way, including how Marzelline falls for her and she fends off Marzelline. Instead, we are dropped into the story just as a crisis is about to occur. There is no dramatic buildup at all.

The stripped-down presentation at SFS reinforced how weak the opera is. Without sets or props and with the entire cast in varieties of black, there's nothing to pay attention to except the musical flow and what the cast is doing. Couldn't they have found a nice flintlock pistol for Nina Stemme to pull out of her jacket in the prison scene?? As it is, she is left standing putting up her hands to keep Don Pizzaro from killing Florestan. What??

I left my program home, so I can't check whether there was a director or not. I liked the conducting and playing well enough; while I think there probably could have been more musical drama, even great conducting wouldn't fix this opera. (I will haul out Toscanini some time soon and see what he does with the thing, though.)

The singing ranged from good to great. Back in 2011, when Nina Stemme starred in SF Opera's Ring production, I drafted a never-published blog post expressing some concerns about her singing: the short top, the way she braced herself against the stage when any high notes were coming, and the difficult-sounding attack. None of that has improved. Her top is turning strident, even when she's warmed up; she had problems getting the notes out cleanly in "O namenlose Freude" and "Komm, Hoffnung" had moments of struggle as well.

She is still a fine actor and her lower and middle voices are still impressive, but it does seem that she is on a vocal downswing.

Alan Held and Kevin Langan both have long experience as Don Pizzaro, the villain, and Rocco, the hapless jailer, and they were both excellent, able to assume their roles vividly even with no props, sets, or costumes.  Nicholas Phan and Joelle Harvey both sang gorgeously, with fresh and beautiful voices and as much charm as is possible for these roles.

And then there was Brandon Jovanovich. Um, wow. Jovanovich gave far and away the most interesting performance among the singers. His Florestan is a real, suffering human among the cardboard characters on stage, and he does it largely through extremely beautiful and dramatic singing and a detail physical portrayal. What a voice! It is gorgeous and has exactly the right weight for the part. His diction is excellent; there's obviously plenty of power in reserve, too. And Stemme's vocal problems were altogether too obvious in "O namenlose Freude," which Jovanovich dispatched with ease...and she did not.

As usual, the SFS chorus sang magnificently, both during the male-prisoner-only music of Act I and the joyous finale.


mountmccabe said...

There was no director or similar listed in the program.

I found Leonore confronting Don Pizarro to be riveting, perhaps that was aided by what little staging there was. Similarly her reunion with Florestan was all the more joyous for their embraces being the only singer-singer contact of the night.

I was thrilled to hear Nina Stemme (and did not notice the flaws), in part because she was one of the few who were able to sing over the orchestra, as uncontrolled as it was.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Did you have problems hearing any of the singers? I was in the orchestra, Row O (which is admittedly pretty close) and everybody came through beautifully.

mountmccabe said...

I could only hear Joélle Harvey during her high notes (which I agree were gorgeous). Alan Held and Kevin Langan also seemed to be overpowered at times.

I was front and center in the 2nd Tier; maybe that is not the place to hear such a concert at Davies.

Peer said...

I was there on Friday night and Stemme had no problems with her top. She obviously has to work for her highest notes, but they were more than satisfying.

Lisa Hirsch said...

mountmcabe, my experience has been that Davies is variable in sound quality, depending on the orchestra size and stage setup as well as where you're sitting. Those panels set up at the back of the stage area did a lot to reflect sound out into the orchestra seating, and I was almost on a level with the singers' heads, so I heard them directly. Sound doesn't always reflect up to the 1st and 2nd tier so well, and the side seats were so bad the one time I sat there that never again.

I do remember a concert where I was at the front of the 2nd tier and Bernard Labadie was conducting, I think a program that included a Haydn mass. The orchestra was smallish that night and the sound was quite good. I also have friends who swear that the sound is best at the very back of the hall. It is a long time since I sat there, though.

Darrick Chen said...

I generally sit 2nd tier, last row and have not had problems hearing vocalists. On one of my early trips to SFS, I sat in Orchestra (as that is where I normally sit in the Opera House) and had problems hearing Margaret Price when she sang the Four Last Songs. The Orchestra just drowned her out and I don't consider her to have a small voice.

Since that awful experience, I've sat in 1st Tier and 2nd Tier....I much prefer those seats and have never sat in Orchestra. Someone told me that the boxes on the side of the orchestra are good, but I am skeptical.

Regarding Nina Stemme: I can't believe she's added Turandot to her rep. I, like you, felt her voice is strongest in the middle. I've only seen her as Brunhilde when she sang it here a few years ago and got the impression the top part of her voice is the problem part. It's plenty loud, just not pretty. But one can't have everything. U an tempted to go see the Met HD of her Turandot just to see how she does, but that might be one long morning. I am hoping SFO will revive it in 2016 with Lise Lindstrom. I'd like to hear her when she isn't suffering from strep throat.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Yeah, Turandot seems like the worst possible fit for Stemme. That's a role that really depends on the singer's ability to nail everything from F to high C and sound good doing it. Stemme's voice is just not built like that.

I thought Irene Theorin was good in the last bring-up, would be happy to hear Lindstrom or Jennifer Wilson. Wilson sounds GREAT on YouTube, though the performance there is a few years old.

I missed Lindstrom's Senta, got sick during the run, was out of town before I got sick, etc.

I would be doubtful about the orchestra boxes myself.

John Marcher said...

It took me a long time to warm up to Fidelio, but after I was presented with an interpretation viewing the opera as a deliberate spiritual/philosophical journey from darkness to light and a musical one from the classical era to the (early) romantic, I began to see its strange bifurcation in an entirely different light, and now admire it quite a bit.

Will it ever be on my top ten list? No. Would I pass up a chance to see it? Never. The prisoners chorus and Florestan's introduction/aria are incredibly powerful moments- I would even go so far as to say that dramatically and musically they are richer than anything in any other opera seen locally these past few weeks (ducking for cover as Lisa hurls a certain horse's head my way in disbelief).

While Jovanovich could be a contender for the most underrated tenor in the world right now, I thought SFS' presentation lacked in a big way- the effort put into the Missa Solemnis should have to gone into Fidelio instead, but this was much better than the butchering it received in the same house 15 or so years ago. Did you notice Stemme said these would be her last performances of Leonore? Makes sense to me. Interestingly, the SFS did not ask Mattila to sing it, which I found very, very odd.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I've seen Fidelio three times, with different casts, in the last ten years, and at this point I think nothing will make me warm to it, given its real dramatic clumsiness.

I don't think Jovanovich is the most underrated tenor in the world, largely because of his impressive schedule of engagements. :)

My own candidate is William Burden, and I attribute his comparative lack of fame to the exceptionally unusual repertory he sings: a mix of new opera, Britten, Janacek, and other non-top-ten composers. However, he has also got a healthy career, and sings in SF a lot, so I can't complain.

Nothing will persuade me that anything in Fidelio is musically or dramatically richer than Troyens. I hope you are ducking. :)

John Marcher said...

No doubt Troyens is certainly the better opera, but I'll stick to my guns in claiming it lacks anything approaching those two moments in Fidelio, and take cover.

Lisa Hirsch said...

oooooh, I misunderstood you. Those are good moments, but I'd put some great moments in Troyens up against them. The end of La prise de Troie, everything leading up to the mass suicide, is pretty intense. Also Didon's Immola^^^ death scene.