POV’s Fide­lio vis­ually ar­rest­ing, mu­si­cally el­e­vated

Times Colonist - - Arts - KEVIN BAZZANA Kev­in­baz­zana@shaw.ca

What: Pa­cific Opera Vic­to­ria: Beethoven’s Fide­lio When/where: Oct. 13 and 19, 8 p.m.; Oct. 17, 7 p.m.; Oct. 21, 2:30 p.m.; Royal Theatre; pre-per­for­mance lec­tures one hour be­fore cur­tain Tick­ets: $27-$144, stu­dent rush $15. Call 250-386-6121 or 250-385-0222; on­line at rmts.bc.ca; in per­son at the Royal and McPher­son Box Of­fices and POV (925 Bal­moral Rd.)

Pa­cific Opera Vic­to­ria has mounted Beethoven’s Fide­lio only once be­fore, in 1988, with a pro­duc­tion that was momentous in sev­eral re­spects (it was shown on tele­vi­sion by PBS). On Thurs­day, POV opened a new pro­duc­tion of Fide­lio, one that is vis­ually ar­rest­ing, emo­tion­ally in­tense and mu­si­cally el­e­vated.

The opera cen­tres on Leonore, who dis­guises her­self as a boy named Fide­lio and be­comes an as­sis­tant to a jailer, Rocco, to res­cue her hus­band, Florestan, a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner who is threat­ened with ex­e­cu­tion by the prison gov­er­nor, Don Pizarro. Run­ning along­side this story is a home­lier sub­plot in­volv­ing Rocco’s daugh­ter, Marzelline, and an­other of his as­sis­tants, Jaquino.

With its cri­tique of tyranny and in­jus­tice and its pro­found hu­man con­cerns (con­ju­gal love and fidelity, free­dom, broth­er­hood, courage), Fide­lio cer­tainly re­flected Beethoven’s En­light­en­ment beliefs. The li­bretto has weak­nesses, it’s true, and Beethoven was not by na­ture a man of the theatre, but the score, a quin­tes­sen­tial doc­u­ment of his mid­dle-pe­riod style, is full of mag­nif­i­cent, dra­mat­i­cally charged mu­sic.

Alas, Fide­lio was a no­to­ri­ous prob­lem-child for Beethoven. He wrote three ver­sions of it, which were mounted in Vi­enna in 1805, 1806 and 1814. (For good mea­sure, he wrote four over­tures.) The work had some suc­cess, but Beethoven, who said he de­served a “mar­tyr’s crown” for all the trou­ble it had given him, would never again try his hand at opera.

Though it is in Ger­man, Fide­lio was based on a French li­bretto and it is a late spec­i­men of 18th-cen­tury French-style “res­cue opera.” The score is much in­debted to French opera and or­ches­tral mu­sic, and as in French opéra comique, there is spo­ken dia­logue in­stead of recita­tive. In POV’s pro­duc­tion, both singing and dia­logue are in Ger­man, with sur­titles.

Di­rec­tor Wim Trompert, work­ing with set and cos­tume de­signer Nancy Bryant, of­fers a con­vinc­ing and ap­pro­pri­ate mod­ern-dress con­cept and stag­ing that is thought­ful, but un­fussy. Bryant’s strik­ing-look­ing tri­an­gu­lar set proves ver­sa­tile, and opens up sev­eral times to splen­did ef­fect — for in­stance, for the mov­ing cho­rus of pris­on­ers in the Act 1 fi­nale.

To serve his con­cept, Trompert has tweaked the li­bretto, plac­ing Leonore among a group of re­sis­tance fight­ers (he es­tab­lishes this through mime dur­ing the over­ture). And his con­cept is un­der­scored by a kalei­do­scope of still and mov­ing images (de­signed by Mon­ica Her­nan­dez) that are pro­jected onto a scrim and along one side of the “tri­an­gle.” They pro­vide run­ning com­men­tary on the ac­tion, though they are some­times dis­tract­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally head-scratch­ing.

The two so­pra­nos are both com­mand­ing tech­ni­cally, but have very dif­fer­ent vo­cal per­son­al­i­ties ap­pro­pri­ate to their char­ac­ters: Miriam Khalil as Marzelline is the more in­gra­ti­at­ing, while Aviva For­tu­nata as Leonore is the more heroic, emerg­ing as a real pow­er­house in her Act 1 aria Come, Hope.

For­tu­nata is well matched with tenor Brent Reilly Turner, who ren­ders the im­pris­oned Florestan’s Act 2 aria (God! What dark­ness here!) with im­pres­sive pas­sion and power across a range of feel­ings — de­s­pair, res­ig­na­tion, for­ti­tude and long­ing. When hus­band and wife fi­nally re­unite late in Act 2 (O name­less joy!), we hear a ver­i­ta­ble ex­plo­sion of ar­dent lyri­cism.

All of the vo­cal ensem­bles, in fact, make a big im­pact, and there is strong work in the smaller roles, es­pe­cially in two bass parts: Va­le­rian Ru­min­ski, as Rocco, af­fect­ingly con­veys a ba­si­cally de­cent man weighed down by eth­i­cal com­pro­mises, and Peter McGil­livray, as Pizarro, of­fers a juicy por­trait of a man all but de­ranged by his thirst for power and vengeance. (McGil­livray was fondly booed dur­ing his cur­tain call on Thurs­day — sure ev­i­dence of ef­fec­tive vil­lainy.)

The Vic­to­ria Sym­phony, con­ducted by POV’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, Ti­mothy Ver­non, plays with ex­tra­or­di­nary colour and fer­vour, and un­der­scores the mu­sic’s hero­ism — for in­stance, through promi­nence of wood­wind and brass sonori­ties and a string tone that is solid rather than sen­su­ous. Ver­non in­jects much en­ergy and mo­men­tum into the per­for­mance (the Act 2 cli­maxes are thrilling), but also takes time gen­er­ously to al­low for a wealth of nu­ance.

Brent Reilly Turner and Aviva For­tu­nata in Pa­cific Opera Vic­to­ria’s pro­duc­tion of Fide­lio.

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