Arts & Events

Beethoven’s FIDELIO in Concert at San Francisco Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday June 28, 2015 - 12:00:00 AM

Closing out their 3-week Beethoven festival, San Francisco Symphony gave the first of three concert performances of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, on Thursday evening, June 25, at Davies Hall. With Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas leading the orchestra, this Fidelio featured Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Leonore, the wife who, disguised as a young man (named Fidelio) saves the life of her unjustly imprisoned husband, Florestan. This opera caused Beethoven much labor. He first presented a Fidelio in three acts in 1805, then he offered a much revised two act version under the title Leonore in 1806, and revised it yet again before eventually settling on a final two act version (once more as Fidelio) in 1814.  

Based on a drama by French writer Jean Nicholas Bouilly, Fidelio was trans-lated into German for Beethoven by Schubert’s friend Joseph Sonnleithner, who fashioned the original German libretto, which was modified at Beethoven’s request by Georg Friedrich Treitschke. The story’s humanitarian ideals – against political tyranny and for the sacred bond of marital love – appealed greatly to Beethoven’s political and social convictions. On the political score, Beethoven in the spring of 1804 had intended to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, who at the time was considered the standard-bearer of republican values. However, just as Beethoven completed his Third Symphony, Bonaparte had himself crowned emperor, leading a disillusioned Beethoven to scratch Bonaparte’s name from the title-page and re-name it Sinfonia Eroica (Heroic Symphony). Where Beethoven’s social convictions are concerned, he had found it disgraceful that Mozart had composed the opera Così fan tutte on a libretto that treated love in such a frivolous and licentious manner. So, in some ways, Fidelio can be seen as the stiffly moralistic Beethoven’s answer to Mozart in which he defends what he sees as the high ideals of true German love. (As Richard Wagner was later to offer Paris-based composer Jacques Offen-bach a musical rebuke to the latter’s licentious Orphée aux enfers [Orpheus in the Underworld] with the German composer’s opportunistically moralistic Tannhäuser.

In San Francisco, the performance of Fidelio began with a crisp rendition of the brief, succinct Fidelio overture led by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. While the opera offers a high moral tone regarding the Leonore-Florestan union, it also complicates matters in having young Marzellina, daughter of the jailer Rocco, fall in love with Leonore, who, in order to gain access to her imprisoned husband, has gone to work for Rocco posing as a young man Fidelio. In falling for Fidelio, Marzellina has dismissed the affections of Jacquino, who has pressed her to marry him. 

Act I of Beethoven’s Fidelio contains a beautiful quartet in canon form, “Mir ist so wunderbahr,” (“How wondrous is the feeling”), in which all four singers – Fidelio, Marzellina, Rocco, and Jacquino – sing the same theme yet express very different emotions. In San Francisco, soprano Nina Stemme was a splendid full-voiced Fidelio, soprano Joélle Harvey was a bright and perky Marzellina, bass Kevin Lanagn was a darkly robust Rocco, and tenor Nicholas Phan was a convincing if hardly imposing Jacquino. Following immediately after this quartet, Rocco sings a very bourgeois aria in praise of money and the need for it among young people about to marry. (Seeing that his daughter is in love with Fidelio, Rocco is mistakenly counting on marrying Marzellina to Fidelio. Posing as Fidelio, Leonore can do nothing to oppose these marriage plans, lest she give away her secret identity.) 

Suddenly, Don Pizarro, governor of the gloomy fortress where political prisoners are kept, arrives and tells Rocco that a dispatch informs him that Don Fernando, the Minister of State, will soon come to inspect the prison. Pizarro, who bears an intense hatred of Florestan, makes up his mind that Florestan must be killed immediately. Ably sung by bass-baritone Alan Held, Pizarro sings the forceful aria, “Ha! welch’ ein Augenblick” (“Ah! what an opportunity!”) Tossing a well-filled purse to Rocco, Pizarro insinuates that the prisoner in solitary confinement must be killed. Rocco declines to commit murder, but when Pizarro himself promises to wield the dagger Rocco consents to dig the grave. Leonore, who has overheard the plan, gives private vent to her feelings in the highly dramatic aria, “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” (“Accursed one! Where do you rush to?”) This masterful aria was gorgeously sung by Nina Stemme. To herself, Leonore vows that her love and faith will, with the aid of Providence, enable her to save her husband’s life.  

Now the ordinary political prisoners are released from their cells and allowed to step out into the prison courtyard, where they welcome the fresh air with the softly sung, “O welche Lust, in freier Luft” (“Oh, what joy to breathe fresh air”.) However, in this performance, conductor MTT and chorus director Ragnar Bohlin ignored the usual practice of having the opening lines sung very, very softly, then gradually build in volume to an irrepressible effusion of joy, followed immediately by an admonition to “speak softly.” This seemed to me a fault, for without these dramatic shadings of volume, the psychology of the prisoners is lost. They are intimidated and unwilling to openly show their momentary joy at gaining access to fresh air lest this privilege be instantly revoked. Immediately after this chorus of prisoners, Leonore-Fidelio learns that she/he will accompany Rocco into the prison depths and help him dig a grave. 

Act II of Fidelio opens in the dark dungeon where Florestan is in chains. He stirs and utters a pained, “Gott, welch Dunkel hier!” (“God, what darkness here!”) Over a growling motif in the cellos, he bemoans the silence with the words, “O grauenvolle Stille” (“Oh, murky stillness”.) The timpani now sounds the rhythm of a heartbeat. I have always interpreted this Act II opening as Beethoven’s own outcry over his increasing deafness, where the only sounds he hears are those of his own heartbeat. Beethoven, like Florestan, feels imprisoned in a world of murky stillness! 

Florestan, Beethoven’s alter-ego, cries out, “O schwere Prüfung!” (“Oh, painful trial!”) After acknowledging that he must submit to God’s will, Florestan launches into the poignant lament, “In des Lebens frühlingstagen ist das Glück von mir geflohn” (“In the springtime of life has happiness flown away”.) This too is Beethoven speaking through Florestan. In San Francisco, tenor Brandon Jovanovich sang this highly dramatic material in robust fashion, with great clarity of diction. Florestan continues, singing proudly that he dared to speak truth boldly, and chains are his reward! He takes comfort in the fact that he has done his duty. This statement is sung with particular emphasis on the word ‘duty’! Beethoven, like Florestan, places great importance on doing one’s duty. By the end of this aria, Florestan, exhausted, thinks he sees an angel resembling his wife Leonore coming to his side. In his debilitated state, Florestan thinks he’s hallucinating and collapses. When the opera is fully staged, we see that it is in fact Leonore, who, disguised as Fidelio, is now approaching Florestan’s underground dungeon with Rocco.  

When Rocco begins digging a grave in the cistern, Leonore offers a bit of wine and bread to the prisoner, whom she is still not sure is her husband. It’s not at all clear when she actually realizes that it’s Florestan. Suddenly, Pizarro enters hell-bent on killing Florestan. Leonore throws herself between Pizarro and Florestan, and defiantly proclaims that Pizarro will first have to kill Florestan’s wife. This throws everyone into confusion. Leonore draws a pistol and points it at Pizarro. A trumpet call, here coming from the Davies Hall balcony, announces the arrival of the Minister of State. The voice of Jacquino is heard summoning Rocco to return above ground to meet the Minister. Leonore and Florestan rejoice, while Pizarro curses at his bad luck. 

In this concert version of Fidelio, MTT wisely elected not to play Beethoven’s Leonore overture, now often given between the two scenes of Act II. Here, how-ever, devoid of staging, there was no need to cover a change of stage-sets. There remained only the formalities enacted before Don Fernando, the Minister of State, here ably sung by bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. A chorus of prisoners and local people sing the praises of just government, which banishes tyranny. The political prisoners are freed, and Pizarro is led away. (In this performance, he simply walked offstage on his own – a mistake of half-hearted staging.) Only Marzellina is bewildered and disappointed – to put it mildly – to discover that her beloved Fidelio, whom she hoped to marry, is actually Leonore, the faithful wife of Florestan. Every-one, except no doubt Marzellina, now rejoices in praise of this courageously faithful wife, as Beethoven’s Fidelio comes to an end.  

There is much in this opera that is implausible, and the last-minute rescue by Don Fernando is a primary, highly contrived case in point. There is also something of a musical mash-up in mixing a high moral tone, on one hand, and comic opera conventions of identity confusion and misplaced love interest, on the other hand. Marzellina, who figures so prominently in the Act I action, has in Act II only a single astonished line, “Oh, unhappy me, what’s this I hear?” when in the final scene she discovers that Fidelio is in fact Leonore, the wife of Florestan. This effectively reduces Marzellina to a hopelessly naïve and comically deluded bimbette! I simply can’t imagine this was Beethoven’s intent when he composed such fine music in Act I sympathetically portraying Marzellina’s youthful ardor for Fidelio. Why, in the opera’s final scene, couldn’t Beethoven simply have Leonore speak a consoling word to Marzellina? Surely, Marzellina deserves this much. Nonetheless, in Fidelio there is so much splendid music; and, furthermore, so much of the musical and dramatic material relates very directly to Beethoven ‘s own struggle with his deafness and how he sees himself dealing with this “painful trial,” that I never fail to find Fidelio a thoroughly engrossing operatic experience – even in a concert version.