This ‘ Fide­lio’ is in splen­did hands

Michael Til­son Thomas wisely lets Beethoven’s messy work sim­ply be.


SAN FRAN­CISCO — “Fide­lio” is opera’s never- end­ing fixer- up­per. Beethoven’s only opera and the score the com­poser spent the most time on al­most never works, yet it is all but in­de­struc­tible.

Beethoven at­tempts to ap­pro­pri­ate and trans­form op­er­atic meth­ods of his day, comic and epic, into a screed of un­re­al­is­tic po­lit­i­cal and con­ju­gal ide­al­ism. Hero­ism tri­umphs over op­pres­sion, love con­quers all and sig­nif­i­cance trumps in­signif­i­cance with such Beethove­nian spir­i­tual con­vic­tion that, in the right hands, the opera needs no ex­cuses.

Thurs­day night in the f irst of three con­cert per­for­mances with the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony, Michael Til­son Thomas supplied the hands.

This “Fide­lio is the cli-

max to a San Fran­cisco Sym­phony three- week Beethoven im­mer­sion. The per­for­mance did lit­tle to ad­dress the sig­nif­i­cant is­sues of stag­ing the opera or rad­i­cal­iz­ing con­cert pre­sen­ta­tion. In­stead, with a top­drawer cast, an out­stand­ing cho­rus and a splen­didly pol­ished or­ches­tra, Til­son Thomas pretty much let Beethoven be.

There was slight and not al­ways ideal stag­ing. Some of the Ger­man di­a­logue be­tween mu­si­cal num­bers was re­tained, de­spite its awk­ward­ness on an Amer­i­can con­cert stage. Singers used both the lip of the stage and a plat­form be­hind it, cre­at­ing acous­ti­cal is­sues. Ham- handed act­ing was al­lowed. But en­trances and ex­its were well han­dled, as was the light­ing.

More im­por­tant, Til­son Thomas avoided the dis­trac­tions of the elab­o­rate con­cept for stag­ing with video that he em­ployed in a pro­duc­tion of Beethoven’s Missa Solem­nis ear­lier this year with the Los An­ge­les Phil­har­monic at Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall. He re­peated the pro­duc­tion with his own or­ches­tra to open the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony’s Beethoven fes­ti­val.

This time Til­son Thomas solved the big dra­matic and mu­si­cal prob­lems of “Fide­lio” by sim­ply ac­cept­ing them in a stun­ning per­for­mance of be­atific ma­tu­rity. Rather than find so­lu­tions where there are none, he re­vealed Beethoven’s ge­nius as ris­ing out of the com­poser’s foibles. The hu­man­ity on pa­rade, then, was not so much the char­ac­ters of the opera, but Beethoven’s.

Thus the ill- timed comic open­ing of the po­lit­i­cal prison drama, in which a jailer’s daugh­ter brushes off the ad­vances of a young suitor be­cause she fancies her fa­ther’s new as­sis­tant, Fide­lio, was al­lowed to be clum­sily and un­fun­nily adamant. There was no at­tempt to make Rocco, the ge­nial jailer, as lik­able as Beethoven might have liked.

Best of all, there was no at­tempt to rein in the po­lit­i­cal pris­oner Florestan or Fide­lio ( Leonore, Florestan’s wife in male dis­guise). Best of all, that is, be­cause Nina Stemme and Bran­don Jo­vanovich are larger- thanlife singers who are at their best when at their glo­ri­ous loud­est.

I have en­coun­tered more nu­anced dra­matic in­ter­pre­ta­tions from both the Swedish so­prano and the Amer­i­can tenor. But if Stemme was slightly un­steady this night when try­ing to hold back, when valor was wanted, she un­leashed ster­ling high notes with thrilling power.

Beethoven might have meant Florestan to be an ema­ci­ated pris­oner halfdead in a dark dun­geon, but from his star­tlingly com­mand­ing first ut­ter­ance, Jo­vanovich might well have been a burly Mid­west­erner belt­ing “Ok­la­homa!” He was not silly, though, but mag­nif­i­cent from his first mo­ment to last.

More­over, this was a mag­nif­i­cence that gave room for Alan Held to be as nasty a Don Pizarro, the gover­nor in­tent on tak­ing re­venge on Florestan, as he liked. As if know­ing what was about to come, Ni­cholas Phan and Joélle Har­vey could then play the open­ing duet be­tween Jaquino and Marzelline not for light­hearted laughs but for ar­dor.

As Rocco, Kevin Lan­gan left room for am­bi­gu­ity, a jailer for whom good and duty were not al­ways in ad­mirable dual­ity. The cho­rus added noth­ing but glory to the evening.

But the true char­ac­ter of the per­for­mance came from the or­ches­tra. Til­son Thom- as brought some­times star­tling life to small points of Beethove­nian ex­pres­sion, by let­ting an oboe line pro­vide bet­ter nar­ra­tive con­tent than any stage di­a­logue might. With suavity, the strings con­veyed Beethoven’s con­vic­tion that spir­i­tual won­der un­der­lies ev­ery­thing in life. The brass were golden, whether pro­claim­ing men­ace or tri­umph.

As a re­sult, the orches- tra’s ex­am­ple of democ­racy be­came the un­ex­pected glue to hold to­gether a messy opera while still con­vey­ing the opera’s mes­sage of democ­racy. And in do­ing so, Til­son Thomas re­minded us that what makes “Fide­lio” a rad­i­cal and im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal opera is that, like it, democ­racy is a never- end­ing fixerup­per.

Ste­fan Co­hen

SO­PRANO Nina Stemme and tenor Bran­don Jo­vanovich are at their best at their loud­est in “Fide­lio.”

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