Sunday, November 16, 2008

Opera Review: Fidelio in Portland

It seems odd that it took seventeen years for an avid opera goer like myself to make it to a performance of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, but that's how it turned out.

I confess, Fidelio is not one I'd really been dying to see. The Met had a new production with Ben Heppner and Karita Mattila when I was still in New York, and even though it was a hot ticket, I imagine I could have gotten in if I'd summoned a little effort. I just wasn't that interested; in college, while I was busily devouring every recording I could get my hands on, I borrowed Fidelio from the library -- admittedly, the messy Behrens/Hofmann recording which, to put it nicely, doesn't capture either of them at their best -- and just wasn't that impressed. I don't know it nearly as well as the rest of the standard canon.

Fortunately, I was able to attend both the opening and closing performances of Portland Opera's recent run, which ended last night. The PO folks should be extremely proud of the first-rate roster they were able to field of this extraordinarily difficult-to-cast opera. It was the best all-around singing I have heard there, and would have impressed audiences at any of the great houses in the world.

In the title role, soprano Lori Phillips tackled the often awkward vocal line with gusto, especially on closing night, in which she and the rest of the cast were infinitely more confident and committed. Her voice is strongly reminiscent of Leonie Rysanek's. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris may not have the most appealing tone quality, but he has the technique and stamina to get through some of the least gracious vocal lines ever set to paper, plowing heroically through the ridiculous -- and yet, emotionally powerful -- "In des Lebens."

Deeper voices were gloriously represented by Greer Grimsley as Don Pizarro, Arthur Woodley as Rocco and Clayton Brainerd as Don Fernando. Grimsley has one of my absolute favorite voices; his incredible power and infinitely rich tone more than compensated for the handicap of being stuck with a one-dimensional role and school-pageant style dialogue. Mr. Woodley has an especially appealing voice; a wonderful basso cantabile, I hope he comes back to Portland soon and would love to hear him in a lieder recital. In Don Fernando's brief outing, Clayton Brainerd nearly stole the show just by virtue of his incredibly imposing presence and classically handsome face. That he can sing -- and sing very well! -- was just icing on the cake.

In the smaller roles, Portland Opera studio artist Brendan Tuohy gave an affecting account of the first prisoner's solo. Tenor Jonathan Boyd sang prettily as the oaf Jacquino. The best singing of the evening came from soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge in the role of Marzelline; she has an extremely beautiful voice and is charismatic and comfortable onstage. I hope to see her return in a meatier role.

Under the baton of Arthur Fagen, I would say that perhaps Beethoven's score would fare better with a slightly more polished orchestra, except that they played so well in Aida and Traviata. It just didn't seem to me to be a particularly passionate, imaginative rendering. The augmented chorus was impressive.

I would complain that the updated, modernized production gave no hint of the story's Iberian setting, except Beethoven's music has about as much Spanish flavor as knockwurst and sauerkraut. I remain unconvinced as to the wisdom of producing operas sung in the original language but with English dialogue; it seems hopelessly schizophrenic. The supertitles aided and abetted the contemporary setting in questionable fashion; I am pretty certain that Jacquino does not actually sing, "Damn that telephone!"

I'm afraid it's 0-2 for director Helena Binder at Portland Opera, whose debut was last season's trainwreck Rodelinda. True, she has taken on difficult assignments. Rodelinda makes no sense at all, so Fidelio -- which starts out as a quirky romantic comedy and then abruptly makes a 90-degree turn to populist political thriller -- seems like Shakespeare in comparison. Still, there is no evidence that she has any clue what to do with a singing actor. Ms. Phillips, in particular, would have benefited from a better director. Having not seen this production's original incarnation under Chris Alexander at Seattle Opera, I cannot say what Ms. Binder's innovations, if any, were. Overall, the stage action was limp at best; the choral finale, while vocally thrilling, lamely consisted of a casual semi-circle and unconvincing, synchronized fist-waving. God only knows why a prisoner would attempt to scale a barbed-wire fence under the watchful eyes of six automatic-rifle-armed guards two feet away, but if Ms. Binder was just being faithful to the original production, perhaps she might have selected a chorister for the job who looked less like he was barely able to hop the curb, let alone a fence.

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