Has any opera company of any size, anywhere in the world, run up in its first
five years a more distinguished string of successes than that of our own Music
Center Opera. Sure, there have been lapses along the way, but Tuesday night’s
“Fidelio” wasn’t one of them.
The very excellence of the high points in Beethoven’s sole operatic venture
makes “Fidelio” one of opera’s great problem pieces. One problem is the
difficult balance between the shattering passions at the work’s sublime
moments and those other moments — the love/hate bickering between the
juvenile lovers, and the crushing vulgarity of the final chorus — that raise
questions about the composer’s sanity. Another problem is the theme of its
story, and the temptations it presents to a stage director to turn those plot
elements — the political oppression meted out to defenders of truth, and the
heroism of their rescuers — into some sort of contemporary allegory.
There is no question what contemporary images the opera has stirred in
director Goetz Friedrich’s own imagination. His Prisoners’ Chorus is
unmistakably a vignette out of Buchenwald or Dachau; his final scene, with the
prison now pulled apart into fragments of scenery and the citizens daubing
graffiti on every available surface, is just as obviously the destruction of
the Berlin Wall.
Those are his references; to his credit, he does not pound us over the head
with them. Designer Peter Sykora’s costumes are, perhaps purposely, of no
particular period: some Biedermeier, some Victorian. The arch-villain Pizarro
(sung a little drily by Michael Devlin), is by contrast a most fearsome, up-
to-date 1990’s skinhead in floor-length leather coat; his office, furthermore,
sports an electric fan.
If this “Fidelio” bounces around in various historical eras, its musical
direction is commendably straightforward. Aided considerably by the splendid
impulse of Jiri Kout’s conducting, Friedrich gets us past even the opera’s
real nuisance scenes with remarkable dispatch. His Marzelline (Karen
Beardsley) and Jacquino (Jonathan Mack) have become, this once, creatures of
flesh, blood and a fair amount of anger. Wise old Father Rocco, his garrulous,
patchy music splendidly thundered forth by Matti Salminen, is also a far more
compelling figure than usual.
The Fidelio is Karan {cq} Armstrong; the Florestan, Gary Bachlund. These are
roles often visited by the Wagnerian contingent, and the sheer animal
intensity of a Nilsson or a Vickers isn’t easily gotten out of the memory.
Those are not the sounds at the Music Center, however. Armstrong is a
marvelous actress, and sings like one. Her smallish, over-bright tones on
opening night went harsh at the top, yet she had the consistent ability to
make her singing mean something, and that counted for a lot.
Bachlund’s Florestan was, similarly, a dramatic creation of genuine power.
Lighter of voice than most tenors who brave the role, he still produced some
thrilling sounds at the start of his stupendous aria, which he began virtually
prostrate; when he stood up near the end, however, the music seemed to run out
of steam.
These are minor points, however; the major point is that this uneven but
spellbinding masterpiece of Beethoven’s has received full treatment at the
hands of conductor Kout and director Goetz Friedrich and their assembled
forces, and when the climactic scene arrived and Fidelio flung forth her
incredible revelation, that moment was observed at the Music Center through
not very many dry eyes.
THE FACTS: WHAT: Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” produced by the Los Angeles Music
Center Opera.
THE CAST: Karan Armstrong as Fidelio; Gary Bachlund as Florestan; Michael
Devlin as Pizarro.
BEHIND THE SCENES: Goetz Friedrich, stage director; Jiri Kout, conductor, with
the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Peter Sykora, designer.
WHERE: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown.
WHEN: 8 p.m., September 7, 12, 15; 2 p.m., September 9.
TICKETS: $15-$80; information: 213 972-7219; 213 480-3232.
OUR RATING: * * * *

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