OPERA NEWS - Fidelio
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Michael Tilson Thomas & San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony capped its three-week Beethoven Festival with three performances of Fidelio. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas has scored unqualified successes in semi-staged productions of operas by Wagner and Britten in recent years, and if this concert version didn’t reach the same peak of dramatic focus, it offered a stirring account of the composer’s paean to justice, liberty, and marital devotion. (seen June 28).

This Fidelio was a decidedly unadorned staging. A curved wall of worn wood panels on a platform behind the orchestra was the only suggestion of a set; this served as the dungeon where Leonore, disguised as the young jailer’s assistant Fidelio, finds her husband, the unjustly imprisoned Florestan. Additional scenes were played on the lip of the stage, in front of the orchestra; the chorus made entrances and exits on a tier above the stage.

This approach didn’t particularly enhance the opera or the drama, but the staging didn’t detract, as it has it many heavily conceptualized productions. Under Tilson Thomas’s energized direction, the orchestra sounded first-rate, and the singers responded with fervent, fully committed performances.

Nina Stemme, dressed in a mannish suit, delivered the title role with considerable vocal splendor. In her first San Francisco appearance since her riveting Brünnhilde in San Francisco Opera’s 2011 Ring cycle, the Swedish soprano sounded radiantly urgent in Act I’s “Abscheulicher!,” thrilling in the Act II confrontation, and ineffably tender in “O namenlose Freude!” with Florestan. Brandon Jovanovich was an uncommonly robust Florestan, his generous tenor registering as dramatically forceful, if rather lacking in dynamic range, in “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier.”

Nicholas Phan’s velvety tenor and Joélle Harvey’s bright soprano blended attractively in the comic prison yard scenes between the young innocents, Jaquino and Marzelline. Bass Kevin J. Langan was an excellent Rocco, investing the jailer role with crisp articulation and elegant musical line. Alan Held sang with unflagging power and a convincing snarl as the sadistic governor, Don Pizarro. Luca Pisaroni, looking aristocratic and singing with appealingly firm tone, made a brief but invaluable appearance as Don Fernando. Matthew Newlin (First Prisoner) and Craig Verm (Second Prisoner) sang eloquently in the Act I courtyard scene. Ragnar Bohlin’s chorus, singing with ineffable pathos, covered itself in glory.

Still, the greatest pleasures of this Fidelio came from the orchestra. Over the course of the three-week festival, Tilson Thomas and the ensemble had already performed the Missa Solemnis, the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, and a recreation of Beethoven’s own legendary “Marathon” concert of 1808. The taut, edgy playing in SFO’s Fidelio brought the composer’s “problem child” to life in one vibrant episode after another. The overture introduced a glowing sound world of mellow horns, silvery woodwinds, and incisive strings, and each successive episode was marked by cohesion and telling detail. As the conductor emphasized the score’s buoyant rhythms and contrasts between darkness and light, tender beauty and thunderous rejoicing, the performance approached the sublime. —Georgia Rowe

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