OPERA NEWS - Fidelio
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Grand Théâtre de Genève

Beethoven's Fideliobegins as a singspiel with bickering domesticity and ends as a universal plea for freedom and reconciliation. This shift in musical and dramatic tone makes it one of the most difficult operas in the repertoire to produce and conduct. The Grand Théâtre in Geneva chose director Matthias Hartmann and conductor Pinchas Steinberg to lead the company’s final new production of the season (seen June 12).

Raimund Orefo Voigt was responsible for the sets and Tamás Banyai designed the lighting. A stark, bare stage was variously filled with set elements that appeared like drawers opening from the walls and floor; the atmosphere suggested a modern penal institution with the prisoners under video surveillance. The prisoners were daubed with orange crosses, adding to the dehumanized, totalitarian flavor of the setting. The caged detainees emerged from below the stage; the promise of natural light and a whiff of freedom were only partially fulfilled by a visit to the recreation room with its cigarette machine and functional furniture. 

The singing actors were clearly directed by Hartmann, but some ideas worked better than others. Rocco's capitalist aria about the advantages of gold, found Marzelline scampering about the prison looking for hidden stashes of her father’s cash, a device that was neither funny nor appropriate. Don Pizarro was a melodramatic villain clutching at his face at the thought of being uncovered as a psychotic thug, before bullying a reluctant Rocco to help him fulfill his murderous plans. In sharp contrast to the sterile atmosphere of Act I, the dungeon scene of Act II opened in a natural hollowed out crevice of more Romantic hew, allowing Leonore to engineer her husband's liberty from Stygian depths. It was not Elena Pankratova's fault that she could never be mistaken for a man, and her costume, designed by Tina Kloempken, did little to disguise this Fidelio's curvaceous figure. 

Steinberg, an experienced conductor, drew fine woodwind and brass playing from the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in the overture. He also understood the need to keep a lighter hand for the music of Marzelline and Jaquino. There were, however, too many problems of ensemble to make this an entirely satisfactory reading. Leonore began her aria at a different tempo from the conductor and Florestan rushed ahead of the maestro in an effort to fulfill the vocal terrors of his cries for freedom. The dispersed staging of the finale with the prisoners high above the cavern also made no concession for the need for tight, jubilant ensemble. 

The most complete performance came from Albert Dohmen, his chiseled bass and weighty dialog lent humanitarian depth to the character of Rocco. Despite his pecuniary interest, this Rocco seemed genuinely appalled by the destiny of the prisoners under his control. Detlef Roth overplayed Pizarro; more consistent attention to the vocal line was needed from this artist. Pankratova’s plush, powerful, Russian-accented soprano easily encompassed the toughest moments of the score, fielding bodice-ripping power for Fidelio's Act II sexual revelation. 

Any Marzelline has to find a way of resolving her character's disappointment with very little music, but Siobhan Stagg's soprano was pert and tuneful throughout, opposite the busy Jaquino of tenor Manuel Günther. Christian Elsner's Florestan was more problematic: he looked far from haggard from lack of nourishment and his intonation was often faulty. Elsner’s lack of heroic vocalism was not compensated for by dramatic intensity in the finale, where smooth-voiced baritone Günes Gürle entered from too far upstage to give Don Fernando’s liberating sentiments sufficient weight. —Stephen J. Mudge

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