Caramoor’s summer opera is best known for bel canto, but director Will Crutchfield has gone afield before, including last year’s inspiring Dialogues des Carmelites. Still, Beethoven’s Fidelio was a surprise (as was the Sunday afternoon slot — had I not taken one last look at the tickets, I’d have missed it!). Perhaps to acknowledge its different sound-world, Crutchfield also yielded the podium to Pablo Heras-Casado, who is the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Principal Conductor, and who has made some exceptionally good recordings with other orchestras of Mendelssohn, Schubert and more.
It was in many ways a great choice. Heras-Casado led a propulsive, exciting reading of the score, with finely articulated details. (Members of the orchestra seemed to gaze at him adoringly throughout.) And frankly, Fidelio is a good opera for a concert staging — productions I’ve seen in the opera house have rarely achieved any dramatic impact. (More on that later.)
I share Casado’s preference for fast tempos — wonderful, for example, in the little march in the first act — but occasionally it was almost too much. One could sense that Georgia Jarman wanted longer, tapering phrases in Marzelline’s aria. Jarman is luxury, leading-woman casting in this ingenue role, and her burnished tone launched the first act quartet very beautifully.
For me, the other vocal highlights were in the lower-lying roles. Kristinn Sigmundsson, a veteran character bass, played Rocco, a part he has also done at the Met; his sonorous voice, even throughout the range, was consistently pleasing. Alfred Walker is likewise experienced in his role (Don Pizarro, the villain of the piece), which he imbued with theatrical vitality and sang with style and a biting, powerful baritone. Two smaller parts – Jacquino (tenor Andrew Owens) and Don Fernando (young baritone Xiaomeng Zhang, one of Caramoor’s Young Artists) — were ably done.
I had more mixed feelings about the protagonists. Paul Groves (Florestan), always a committed and stylish artist, sang well in the middle register, but had to navigate the upper portions with audible care. (Critics often complain that Beethoven didn’t write well for the voice — usually I don’t agree, but listening to the climax of Florestan’s aria, I’d have to concede there’s something to the point.)
Elza van den Heever’s voice rang out thrillingly in the upper portions of Leonore’s music; at least as welcome (and more unusual) was her deftness in the occasional but important florid passages. Her lower register is not comparably fulsome, though, and she captured the character’s dignity, but not her passion. Some of this may come with more experience. (She was cheered wildly for her performance, which I think may have been her role debut.)
But even the most theatrically-engaged Leonore (and there are souvenirs of some great ones — Christa Ludwig, Anja Silja, even, rather surprisingly, Gundula Janowitz) can do only so much. Fidelio remains an enigma to me, with passages of fervent grandeur alongside some much more formulaic writing, and even some stretches of Kitsch. I can’t think of another opera that rises to greatness after such a shaky start (the mincing cuteness of Marzelline and Jacquino, as father Rocco beams idiotically). Sometimes, Fidelio seems to pave the way for Wagner; at other times, for Lortzing and Nicolai.
Yet the best of it is indeed wonderful. And Heras-Casado and company made the strongest case for the opera that I’ve heard live so far…