Opera News, March 2009
PARIS — Fidelio, Opéra National de Paris, 11/28/08
It has been twenty-five years since Fidelio was last seen at the Opéra National de Paris. It seemed fitting that a new Fidelio production by Johan Simons should be given its premiere at a gala to celebrate the sixty-fifth birthday of outgoing director Gerard Mortier, with musical direction entrusted to Mortier's loyal colleague Sylvain Cambreling (seen Nov. 28).

Simons is familiar to Paris audiences for his miserable, politicized take on Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, seen here in 2007. Fortunately, the producer was more at ease with the up-front idealism of Beethoven's masterpiece. His Fidelio was set in a monochrome penitentiary, designed by Jan Versweyveld, with banks of video cameras and a bleak concrete chill. To achieve a satisfactory tonal structure, Cambreling chose the least known of the Fidelio overture options ("Leonore I") and reorganized the running order of Act I to incorporate a trio from the composer's earlier version of the opera. Within this context, Simons contented himself with telling the story in a straightforward manner. The downfall of the performance was the dialogue, as rewritten by Martin Mosebach.

The intellectual dissatisfaction that both conductor and new librettist have with Act I of Fidelio is not solved by larding the spoken dialogue with extra "meaning": for example, it does not help our understanding of this hymn to freedom to know that prior to meeting Fidelio, Marzelline had always dreamed of hairy men. Nor do we need to know Jaquino's homespun philosophy on marriage, or hear Leonore's detailing of custodial restraints. Beethoven's music transcends the original singspiel text: the opera can move unaided from the trivial to the essential. The new dialogue might have worked efficiently if the delivery had had some pace, but lengthy, supposedly "dramatic" pauses made Act I interminable. Cambreling's rough, deliberate musical approach echoed the earnest seriousness of the production by weighting the score's lighter moments with a leaden premonition of the sublime. The conductor honored the revolutionary nature of the score, but his attack yielded moments of rocky ensemble and lackluster choral work.

Leonore's explosion of anger after she hears the plotting of Pizarro is a moment at which Beethoven's response to the drama is accurately timed. In the Simons production, poor Leonore was left alone onstage to close the windows in eerie silence before the introduction to her aria. Angela Denoke — entirely convincing in her male disguise — is a responsive actress, but dramatic spontaneity was difficult to generate in such circumstances. Despite the best of intentions, Denoke's voice lacks weight and metal at either end of the range, and the role was miraculously survived, rather than savored, at this performance, the second of the run.

On the other hand, Jonas Kaufmann proved that he is the finest exponent of Florestan since Jon Vickers: his rock-like security for the murderous climax of his aria was managed with poignant lyricism. Jaquino was ideally sung by the keenly lyrical Alesš Briscein; his equally persuasive Marzelline was soprano Julia Kleiter, whose forceful aria found the maestro at his most lumbering. Alan Held presented a chilling portrait of Nazi-style evil as Pizarro, with exemplary venom and attack. Warm tone and grand phrasing characterized Franz-Josef Selig's compassionate Rocco. Paul Gay delivered Fernando's final message of humanity with confidence, topping off an evening that was less than the sum of its parts.

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