Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Fidelio at Los Angeles Opera, 9/29/07

Back in the day when Beethoven was just a little tyke with a tiny white-man ‘fro, his abusive, alcoholic daddy had high hopes of making his son into the next Mozart, i.e. he wanted to milk his son’s talent for bloody great wadges of cash. So Beethoven kind of lived in the shadow of Mozart the child prodigy. Then when he grew up to cranky adulthood and was a great composer in his own right, he went through a period where his work was kind of derivative of that of Mozart and Haydn, who had been his idols. Even after plunging straight into Romanticism and becoming well-known for that Beethoven sound, the pressure to measure up to Mozart must have remained, though. If Beethoven were a cat macro, he would say, “Opra iz seriuz bizness. I iz seriuz kumpozer. I must 2 be kumpozing an opra!” OK, no more cat macro Beethoven. Anyway, Beethoven was probably thinking, “I’ll never be as great as Mozart unless I compose an opera!”, all the while trying to stuff his crazy hair under a white wig, so he could look like Mozart too.

The problem is that opera is usually about people, and Beethoven just wasn’t that interested in people. (Wagner didn’t seem to be particularly interested in people either, but that’s probably why most of his characters are gods.) Beethoven was a famous crank. Check out his portrait (see below); he looks like he’s trying to figure out if his conductor’s baton is strong enough to double as a shank. Dude was played by Gary "Crazy" Oldman, for god’s sake. Anyway, Beethoven is interested in ideas, which is great for symphonies, but opera needs people. So how did Beethoven work out this delicate conundrum? By writing faux-Zart. There’s very little music in the final version of Fidelio that would make you say, “Oh hai, Beethoven!”, but there is plenty of very Mozartean froth and brightness. The most Beethovenish bit is probably the Leonore no. 3 piece that is nowadays kind of awkwardly wedged into the second act because it’s just too gorgeous to cut out. Originally, this was one of the four overtures that Beethoven wrote (three of which he obviously discarded); Leonore no. 3 ended up being passed over because Beethoven decided it was too damn good to be an overture. The result is that Fidelio is full of beautiful music, but it’s not angry, Romantic, crashy, straight-from-the-loins Beethoven, and that’s just wrong. I like my soda cold, my pie hot, and my Romantics wangsting, damn it!

In a rare show of subtlety (? Or creativity?), the LA Opera production of Fidelio almost seemed to capitalize on this faux-Zartean flavor. The very first scene was like a perverse Marriage of Figaro with the working-class Marzelline and Jacquino going about their domestic duties and bickering… only instead of ironing the Countess’s frilly underpants in a palatial manor, Marzelline was folding sheets for prisoners on a rack. In another Mozartean touch, Anja Kampe’s Fidelio/Leonore was disconcertingly Cherubino-like at times, which was probably a combination of the costuming and Kampe’s attempts at seeming boy-like.

One interesting aspect of Fidelio is that the viewer is kind of thrown into it in media res. The events of the opera unfold over a 24-hour period, but Florestan has been imprisoned for years, and Leonore must’ve been masquerading as Fidelio for at least a few months, since Marzelline is already in love with her/him when the opera begins (though it’s equally likely that Marzelline is easy or that Leonore has some kind of cross-dressing juju magic.) I don’t think that there’s even any sign that Fidelio is a woman (outside of the program notes) until she starts singing about her husband. Of course, audiences today would hopefully be aware (especially if they had the misfortune to sit through one of conductor James Conlon’s meandering pre-opera lectures; the man needs his own personal Tim Bisley to tell him to “skip to the end.”). Knowing that Fidelio is actually a woman led to some good times during the parts where Marzelline was singing about marrying Fidelio—it was so easy to mistake the sadness on Leonore’s face for her thinking “I mean, really I don't even understand how two women can make love, unless they just kind of scissor or something.” (2:10 in the linked video.)

The singing was pretty strong throughout, especially from the two main characters. Rebekah Camm looked and sounded much older than her headshot would indicate that she is. Rather than being sweet-sounding and soubrettish like other Marzellines I’ve seen, she seemed more like a pathetic middle-aged harpy who wanted to make a human s’more with Fidelio’s face as the chocolate between her marshmallowy mams. Her clucking voice made it difficult to be that interested in her character, though it was funny at the end when she saw Leonore (who she knew as her would-be husband Fidelio) holding hands with Florestan—“Fidelio, you two are…good friends? But I thought we would be good friends. Well, let’s see how friendly you get when you’re sharing a prison cell!” OK, maybe it was just funny to insane Futurama fans like me. Greg Fedderly as Jacquino was capable; his voice is nothing special, but he’s the operatic equivalent of the Anything People on Sesame Street--he’s just there’s to make Bert and Ernie (or Leonore and Florestan) look good.

Matti Salminen was an enormous, fatherly Rocco, and his voice was resonant enough to overcome James Conlon’s crushing orchestra. Eike Wilm Schulte’s villainous Pizarro wasn’t as lucky, and he would’ve been a lot scarier if he had been audible. As it was, he was basically just a boring, cardboard villain who looked like the hypothetical love-child of Monstromurk from the ‘80s Rainbow Brite movie The Mighty Monstromurk Menace and the Roger Delgado-era Master on Doctor Who.

Speaking of hypothetical love-children, Klaus Florian Vogt (Florestan) looked like the product of an unholy mating between Brian “My Upper Body Is a Perfect Square” Dennehy and figure-skating gold medalist Alexei Yagudin. In spite of that, it was good to see him not completely painted gray, Robert Wilson. Vogt has a gorgeous voice, which I don’t often say about tenors. There’s a fair amount of Tamino-ness to it, but during one of Florestan and Leonore’s duets, I realized that the music that his voice was meant to sing was the tenor part from Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. The mere thought is making my ears drool. Florestan’s first vocal appearance took place while the stage was still black, so all the audience heard was this beautiful, disembodied voice singing, “Gott!” in a seemingly never-ending arc of sound. While Vogt didn’t have much to do acting-wise, his voice blended nicely with Kampe’s and could be heard throughout the hall and over the chorus in spite of its lightness.

Anja Kampe as Leonore/Fidelio reminded me a little of Waltraud Meier, only with about 25% of Meier’s stage presence. That isn’t a knock on Kampe, though—Meier is just that good. Kampe’s voice was warm, dark, and billowing, more mezzo-like than soprano-like. Her portrayal of Leonore wasn’t quite complete yet, but I almost have to wonder if that’s a fault of the libretto, rather than the singer, since all the characters were a bit two-dimensional and seemed more like symbols than people. Of course, I was the one giggling to myself during Leonore’s aria about giving Florestan “sweet consolation” because I knew she really meant “poon”, so what do I know? Aw, don’t worry about him too much, Leonore, I’m sure he’s already found some sweet consolation in the form of prison turlet sangria.

The chorus of prisoners, as well as the two soloists (Robert MacNeil and James Creswell), performed well vocally, but their acting was a little one-note. All of them staggered around the stage, clutching one of their arms with the opposite hand like a bunch of adolescent girls who felt fat, to the point that I began to wonder if the prison specialized in some kind of bizarre arm torture. In spite of Pizarro’s concerns that the prisoners would go ape-shit and start tearing up the place, they didn’t seem to have much of a hankering for some shankering. Maybe they just aren’t watching enough of MSNBC’s Lockup series.

No performance at the Music Center would be complete without some nonsensical stage direction, though, and Fidelio had a few laughers. When Florestan and Leonore were reunited, they sang “You, in my arms once more”… while standing across the room from each other. Maybe Florestan is actually Jimmy the Reach? Also unintentionally hilarious was when Pizarro was sentenced to pain by a drill team made up of escapees from a Hats Throughout the Ages exhibit, who then declared to the be-beanied prisoners that the long, dark night of the skullcap was over and the long lame day of the top hat had begun. LA Opera also pretty much abstained from their usual Ministry of Silly Walks shenanigans, except during the march of the soldiers. The choreographers that LA Opera hires have yet to hear a march that they couldn’t set a funny walk to.

The sets were all appropriately prison drab and spare. One interesting innovation was the use of filmed computer-generated sequences projected on a screen instead of scenery. It looked a little too much like a video game at some points, but it was a good idea and a better use of money than papier-mâché pig heads or flashlights. I kind of expected Leonore to break out dual magnums like Lara Croft and start taking out wolves, or Rocco to announce that he was a 12th Level Prison Warden and was going to Kalimdor to battle Orcs. The only time the filmed footage became a bit baffling was during the Leonore No. 3 intermezzo in Act II, when it seemed to be a Travelocity virtual tour of the dungeon that ended in a Stargate. I guess after suffering at the hands of the Goa’uld (and Richard Dean Anderson’s acting), prison doesn’t really seem that bad.

The orchestra played fairly well under the direction of James Conlon, apart from a few weird slip-ups in the horn section during the overture. They were especially good during Leonore No. 3, which was beautiful but also seemed a bit like the musical equivalent of James Conlon’s interview answers, i.e. kind of pointless. Gustav Mahler introduced the idea of playing that piece as a kind of scene break during Act II, and it supposedly is a reflection of the exciting rescue scene that happens before it, but I almost had to wonder if, like the bloviating interview answers, playing the piece in this production wasn’t just an ego-stroke for Conlon. Still, it’s the most Beethoven-y music in the opera, and that’s a good thing.

I can only imagine what an opera by Beethoven, writing as Beethoven, would’ve been like, but at the same time, I know it would’ve been ultimately unsatisfying, just as Fidelio was. Conductor William Furtwängler said that Beethoven is not “a musician for the theater or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary,” and it’s true. While Beethoven didn’t have the power to tell isolated stories of people’s lives (and portray universal truths in that manner), he was a master of tapping into something much larger, something much more immediate and essential, of illustrating in music the idea of being human. It might not make for an evening’s light-hearted entertainment, but damn if it isn’t powerful.

Photo copyright Robert Millard

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At December 29, 2007 at 12:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude - why the vitriol toward Conlonoscopy? Aren't conductors supposed to by self important?

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