Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio; Canadian Opera Comapny & Chorus; COC Orchestra, Johannes Debus conducts. Directed by Matthew Ozawa. Sept. 29, Oct 1, 7, 12, 14, 18 & 20, Four Seasons Centre. Tickets here.
It has been a long 14 years. Last staged by the Canadian Opera Company in 2009 to critical and audience acclaim, Fidelio is finally making a welcome return to open the COC’s 2023-24 season. It was well worth the wait.
With much of the world in social and political turmoil, the kernel of truth in Fidelio, that of the triumph of freedom and justice over tyranny and oppression, has never been more relevant. Yet this opera has only been presented four times in COC history, a company that’s nearly three quarters of a century old.
It is perhaps due to difficulties of casting the two principal roles that make presentation of Fidelio infrequent — after all, dramatic sopranos and Heldentenors don’t grow on trees. COC audiences have been fortunate to have heard great Leonores in the past, from the extraordinary Anja Silja (1970) and Helena Döse (1991), to Canada’s own Adrianne Pieczonka in the most recent revival.
A good Florestan is perhaps even harder to find. Though a short role with less than half an hour of singing, it requires a heroic timbre and the ability to tackle the near-impossible tessitura of the last 30 seconds of “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier.” Richard Margison was a memorable jump-in when the announced Jon Villars withdrew in a huff in 2009. Interestingly, the two great Canadian heroic tenors, Jon Vickers and Ben Heppner, never sang Florestan at the COC.
With the current revival, the COC has assembled a great cast, with several outstanding voices making their Company debut. American tenor Clay Hilley is an ideal Florestan. He began his scena with the word “Gott” sung imperceptibly, slowly crescendoed into a hall-filling forte, then with a diminuendo that ended with the voice disappearing into thin air, all in one breath — a stunning start. He proceeded to give a performance of such passion and intensity that it will stay in the memory bank.
Finnish soprano Miina Liisa Värelä made her COC and role debut as wife Leonore, who disguises herself as a male prison guard to free her husband. Possessing a big voice of bright and somewhat cool timbre, she sang “Abscheulicher” well, albeit with less than ideally free and focused top notes. Her costume as a security guard was entirely convincing. Johannes Martin Kränzle was a terrific Don Pizarro, with a voice almost too beautiful for such a vile character. Serbian bass Sava Vemić made an auspicious Company debut as an unusually youthful Don Fernando.
Last heard locally as Hunding and Oroveso, bass Dmitry Ivashchenko made a welcome return as a warm voiced and sympathetic Rocco, fatherly to his daughter Marzelline, prettily sung by Ensemble Studio soprano Anna Sophie Neher. Her frustrated suitor, Jacquino, was well taken by Canadian tenor Josh Lovell, also making his COC debut.
The production from San Francisco Opera by stage director Matthew Ozawa is updated to the present day. Rather than set in Spain, it’s a prison facility in some indeterminate location. While I am not a big fan of updating, Ozawa’s vision works well. I have no problem with resituating it to present day, given the timeless nature of the struggle between tyranny and oppression versus truth and justice. Directorially it’s faithful to the story, perhaps with the exception of the kid glove treatment given to Pizarro — he just walks off, without any indication that he’s captured and sent to prison as intended.
The unit set of a rotating, two-level steel and chrome structure, while very efficient in the numerous scene changes, is aesthetically cold and impersonal. It may be quite appropriate in depicting a prison facility, it doesn’t work as well in the opening scene which is supposed to take place in Rocco’s home. Incidentally, I believe this is the first opera in the FSC involving a mechanized rotating set of this size. Any rotating sets in the past were much smaller and people powered. I remember interviewing the late COC General Director Richard Bradshaw back in 2006 when the new house opened. He told me there was no built-in turntable, implying that the cost was prohibitive.
Musically, it was a glorious evening. Marvellous singing, as noted, only matched by the thrilling playing of the COC Orchestra under Music Director Johannes Debus. Some might find it a bit too high in the decibels department, especially in the overture. Not to my ears — Beethoven is making a statement here and I want to hear every note. The choral writing is incredible in Fidelio, and the COC chorus did full justice to Beethoven, with a moving prisoners’ chorus as well as the mixed chorus in the Finale.
Last words? Anyone needing a spiritually uplifting experience, a performance of Fidelio is just what the doctor ordered. Highly recommended.
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