By Michael H. Margolin
For its first-ever production of Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio,” Michigan Opera Theatre caught the wave and brought one of the best dramatic sopranos around, Christine Goerke, to sing the role of Fidelio/Leonora, who, in 18th century Spain, disguises herself as a man and seeks, then rescues, her husband from a dungeon and death. (Sung in German with English supertitles.)
“Fidelio” is called a rescue opera since, reductio ad absurdem, someone is rescued at the end – the kind of ending that Brecht and Weill mocked in the closing moments of “The Threepenny Opera. But in “Fidelio,” when the full chorus and the principals sing of Leonora’s courage, there is no mockery; soaring and passionate are the words that come to mind.
As is fairly well-known, Beethoven struggled for many a year revising this work; there are even three or four “Leonora” overtures, one of which is often played as a concert piece. Yet it does not sound or seem overworked, though if you don’t read the program synopsis, you may think you’ve been dropped into the middle of an ongoing drama.
Still, that does little to degrade the very clear message that is still relevant today and that DNA has proved: Many innocents have been sent to prison and, perhaps, put to death. In the last few hundred years, some things have remained constant.
Above all, whether you agree with the moral, there can be no doubt that this is a brilliantly sung “Fidelio.” Goerke has become a dramatic soprano as her career continues. She owns a sensuous, powerful voice with a pure effortless top. The wrongly imprisoned Florestan, sung by last-minute replacement John Mac Master, possesses a large, trumpeting voice. In their second act duet that is one of the evening’s highlights, they reach high, then higher, each of the notes ascending towards heaven.
The third major role is Rocco, the somewhat-conflicted jailer who is a bit of a pragmatist – he follows orders, but then his sympathies can be engaged and he mellows – was sung by Danish bass Per Nach Nissen. His voice is also powerful and dramatic, and he has brio in the way he moves.
The first act quartet, with Goerke, Nissen and young performers Cameron Schutza as Jacquino and Grosse Pointe native Angela Theis as Rocco’s daughter Marzellina, is a canon, each singing the same melody as they join in. It is lovely musicianship. Theis has an aria in this act that she sang charmingly, though the lower register is not suited to her lighter voice, which succumbed under the orchestra.
Speaking of the orchestra, they played Beethoven with a striking degree of Germanic attitude. They were led by Christian Badea who kept a superb balance between stage and pit.
Among the several other named roles, Nicholas Fitzer and Errin Brooks, first and second prisoners respectively, and Carsten Wittmoser as the evil dude, Don Pizzaro, who took exception to Florestan’s truth-telling, proved their worth. As the deus ex machina, young Ricardo Lugo sang gravely as Don Fernando, whose arrival to review the prison finalizes Florestan’s freedom.
In John Pascoe’s production – he also directed – his lighting design with Ruth Hutson was splendid and, among other things, showed off the excellent costumes and makeup by Cindy Ludwig.
This “Fidelio” was good to see, great to hear, and firmly authenticates David DiChiera’s strengths as an artistic impresario, the sole role he assumes at MOT this fall, leaving the business end to a newcomer not yet in place.
Michigan Opera Theatre, Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St., Detroit. 7:30 p.m. April 17, 19, 20 & 2:30 p.m. April 21. 2 hours, 35 minutes. $25-125. 313-237-SING. http://www.motopera.org