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.