Review: Fidelio as Drama vs. Fidelio as Concert…Discuss

OdM and OM present concert version of Beethoven’s only opera

As a sneak-peak into the 250th year celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth coming in 2020, the Opéra de Montréal (OdM) and the Orchestre Métropolitain (OM) joined forces under the baton of OM’s artistic director and principal conductor—Montreal’s very own Yannick Nézet-Séguin—to present a concert version of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. Enjoyable as the performance was, the question that kept popping up as I listened and watched this first co-production between the two organizations was why. Why a concert version? Why not a fully staged and realized production? Isn’t Fidelio worth it? Isn’t Beethoven’s 250th birthday worth it? Isn’t the opera fully dramatic enough to sustain itself as both a visual and audial experience? Is this some manifestation of the “opera as drama” versus “opera as music” divide?

First off, I have no problem with concert versions of dramatic pieces, but Fidelio is a strange choice. Coming out of the Singspiel tradition (think of it as a German musical), yet mixed with post-French Revolution opéra comique (it’s a rescue opera—Google it), it has spoken dialogue between solos and ensemble pieces. Inevitably, this work is going to force the singer/actors to act with each other or ignore each other in varying degrees, and aye, there’s the rub. Watching this Fidelio, and yes, I mean watching, I am tossed into that old split of whether opera is music or drama first.

(Photo Credit: Francois Goupil)

Fidelio as Concert

Musically this performance is a delight: not a delight as in the joy of a light and sweet confection, but the kind of elation from consuming something full of spice and presence. Nézet-Séguin’s brisk tempo in the overture sets the tone: this story moves with vigour and resolve. He maintains an assured control over the orchestral sound that includes bravado and nuance. Nézet-Séguin is no keep-the-beat kind of maestro. He is well-known for his energetic and dramatic style, and he gives it to us in spades. I do feel the balance between singers and orchestra tips against the singers at rare moments, and the horns could have cleaner entrances in a couple of key spots.

The entire cast and chorus are excellent. However, the standout is Norwegian dramatic soprano Lise Davidsen singing Leonore/Fidelio. This is a commanding voice capable of subtlety. Davidsen’s sound is lush yet precise, clean and complex at the same time. Her vocal portrayal of the compassionate and brave Leonore—who must pretend to be a man (Fidelio) in order to infiltrate a prison in search of her condemned husband—is multi-layered and riveting. The confrontation scene in the second act where she reveals herself and confronts the evil Don Pizarro sizzles with intoxicating tension. Although I single Davidsen out, the other singers in this moment contribute their share of sizzle as well: Canadian Michael Schade as Leonore’s husband Florestan, Raymond Aceto from the USA as the jailer Rocco, and Luca Pisaroni (Italy) as the evil bad guy, Don Pizarro. Still in her early thirties (young for an opera singer), Davidsen is someone to keep track of.

(Photo Credit: Francois Goupil)

Fidelio as Drama

There are many reasons why the OdM and OM would decide to do a concert version. The expense of a full production most likely played into it. I get it. It is not a bad idea to do a concert version as an extra to a season. But in the end, this is an opera company doing operas, and opera IS music AND theatre. That’s what makes it different from, say, an oratorio. There. I’ve put my foot down and shown my political stripes.

What this “production” needs is someone to coordinate the visuals of a concert performance, someone to make sure that everyone is on the same page: someone like a stage director. As a company dealing with both the theatrical and musical, this would have been a step outside the traditional box.

In concerts, singers stick close to their music stands and although the good singers act up a storm, they stay within the confines of their place. In this production, some singers did just this but others did not use a score and moved about the stage connecting with the other characters and acting as though they were in a stage production. It made for a visual and dramatic disconnect. A perfect example of this is Pisaroni first entrance as Don Pizarro. Up to this point, it was a traditional concert performance, but he came in a bit differently dressed from the other formal bow-tied males waving a piece of paper meant to be the dispatches his character is supposed to be reading. He moved about the stage and we saw as well as heard the drama. He is the evil bad guy and we bought it. His performance was gripping and the audience responded accordingly with enthusiasm as though a theatrical gust of wind whirled about us. They wanted theatre and not just a concert.

Other singers tried, most notably Schade, but there was no consistency. A stage director could have smoothed this out, choosing who moves and when. She would have coordinated the attire even though there were no costumes. Davidsen wearing a pants suit made perfect sense as a woman character dressing up as a man. It was a nice choice. What other visual choices could have been made?

A stage director would have decided on key props or no props at all. Pisaroni’s piece of paper was the only prop used and so when others were called for in the plot, it made that one stand out as odd. Deciding to acknowledge applause between numbers as one does in a concert and does not in an opera (usually) could have been decided ahead of time, whereas here it was sometimes done and sometimes not.

When an offstage trumpet announces the imminent arrival of Don Fernando, two of the singers looked in the direction of the trumpet and the others continued to stare out over the audience. It was comical at a moment that was not meant to be so. A stage director would have coordinated that as well.

I have more examples but I will not belabour the point. Fantastic concert of music? An enthusiastic yes! An opera with its inherent theatricality? A disappointingly missed opportunity. Do not Fidelio and Beethoven deserve it?

L’Opéra de Montréal and L’Orchestre Métropolitain co-present
by Ludwig van Beethoven
Libretto by Joseph Ferdinand von Sonnleithner
in German with French & English surtitles
October 25 & 27, 2019 at Maison symphonique | (514) 985-2258

Andrew Cuk

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