June 21, 2017

Princeton Festival Presents Mesmerizing Beethoven Opera

WORK AND RIGHTS: As the opera “Fidelio” opens with the Overture, we see how the nobleman Florestan (Noah Baetge, second from left holding the banner) was imprisoned for demonstrating with the workers for “trabajo y derechos.” (Photo by Jessi Franko Designs LLC, Courtesy of The Princeton Festival)

The last two times Ludwig van Beethoven’s opera Fidelio was performed in Princeton, the productions were plagued with blizzards. In the early 1980s, Princeton University mounted a production, only to have a performance besieged by a monster snowstorm. In January 2016, a visiting opera company came to Richardson Auditorium to present the same work, with blizzard conditions predicted for most of the performance weekend and the schedule adjusted accordingly. Hopefully, Princeton Festival had no thoughts about the “Princeton Fidelio snow curse” in opening its production of Beethoven’s only opera this past weekend at McCarter Theatre Center. Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk led the cast members of Sunday afternoon’s performance at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre on a moving journey through the work Beethoven himself described as “the one most dear to him” of all his compositional “children.”

Beethoven composed Fidelio as Napoleon’s armies nipped at the heels of Vienna, finally reaching the city shortly before the opera’s unsuccessful premiere. Beethoven tinkered with the work through the next decade (including writing four opening overtures), and Fidelio was finally launched into operatic repertory in 1814. With only seven principal roles, the opera overflows with the same character intricacy and musical intertwining as Mozart’s ensemble operas, with well-constructed vocal trios and quartets. In Fidelio, Beethoven combined the humor and spoken word of the popular 18th-century Singspiel, the passionate drama of the 19th-century Verdi operas to come, and a militaristic overtone of Napoleon knocking at Vienna’s door. Beethoven set the story of imprisonment and enduring love in 18th-century Seville, but as Princeton Festival’s stage director Steven LaCosse showed in this production, the story has become timeless and can take place anywhere at any time.

Of the four overtures Beethoven composed for Fidelio, two have been discarded over the past two centuries, and the one customarily used to open the opera is Beethoven’s fourth revision. Dr. Tang Yuk began the production on Sunday afternoon with a crisp and sprightly Overture marked by especially clean horns. Rather than dramatically let these minutes go by, director Mr. LaCosse set the scene for how the nobleman Florestan came to be imprisoned with an eerily contemporary pantomime of workers picketing for “trabajo y derechos” (work and rights) while wives and girlfriends hovered nearby. The men were arrested and all, including Florestan, were taken to jail.

The dramatic action caught up with the vocal score as Florestan’s wife Leonore disguised herself as a man to get a job at the prison. Borrowing from the Singspiel tradition, the more humorous side of Fidelio came out as Marzelline, daughter of the head jailor, declared her love for Leonore’s alter-ego Fidelio, which Leonore went along with to gain further access to the prison and possibly Florestan. Sopranos Marcy Stonikas (Leonore) and Danielle Talamantes (Marzelline) were perfectly matched in vocal timbre, playing their characters as formidable and determined women unafraid of anything. Duets between the two were always clean, and the vocal spin on their collective sound was consistently uniform. Ms. Talamantes possessed a rich mezzo voice with strong coloratura technique and a solid foundation to the sound. She delivered her Act I aria proclaiming her love for Fidelio with delicacy and innocence, and along with her fellow principals, delivered the German dialog crisply. Ms. Stonikas possessed the same rich timbre, adding poignancy to her duet with Ms. Talamantes. Her signature first act aria was almost a double-aria, including recitative, a slow movement and fast closing section, and was sung with a rich plaintive sound elegantly accompanied by horns from the Festival Orchestra. Most audiences know Beethoven’s vocal writing from his challenging Symphony No. 9, but Beethoven showed in Fidelio that he could write well for the voice, with a style that fit right into operatic trends of the time.

Florestan does not make an appearance until the second act, and most impressive in tenor Noah Baetge’s performance was his ability to start his vocal line as if from another room and quickly fill McCarter Theatre with sound. Mr. Baetge consistently imparted passion and fervor through his role, and matched Ms. Stonikas well in their final joyous duet. The cast was well rounded out by a comedic Michael Kuhn as Jacquino, a solid commanding bass in Gustav Andreassen’s head jailor Rocco, the revengeful Don Pizarro sung by Joseph Barron, and a regal Cameron Jackson as prime minister Don Fernando. The well-known “Prisoner’s Chorus” and jubilant closing chorus of newly-released prisoners and wives were solidly prepared by chorus master Gregory Geehern, and well placed on the stage. Mr. LaCosse incorporated another pantomime of the prisoners being released during the Leonore Overture #3 which is often played between scenes in the second act, bringing the prisoners up from under the stage. Also impressive in stage direction was Rocco and Leonore’s grave-digging scene, during which they actually dug up parts of the stage, creating a very realistic and dramatic moment.

Dr. Tang Yuk led a crisp and precise Princeton Festival Orchestra through the music, and was always in control of what was happening onstage. Cleanly played, Beethoven’s score was easily accessible, and although the production was more than 2½ hours long, time flew by for the audience, thanks to imaginative staging and directing, as well as superlative singing and instrumental playing.

Princeton Festival will perform “Fidelio” again on Sunday, June 25 at 3 p.m. at Matthews Theatre in the McCarter Theatre Center. For information visit www.princetonfestival.org.