Beethoven’s only opera is a masterpiece, yet it hasn’t been performed in Chicago since 1981. Few sopranos can do a great Leonore, and Florestan, who doesn’t appear until late in the show, has to sing an extremely demanding aria without having warmed up. Beethoven struggled from 1805 to 1814 with this tale of hope, love, courage, and freedom, which has the bold heroism of his Fifth Symphony and the warmth and lyricism of his Sixth. He even wrote three Leonore overtures–it’s the third we hear when the curtain rises. In the story, based on real events, Leonore disguises herself as a young man, Fidelio, to gain access to the prison where her husband, Florestan, is being held as a political prisoner by the sinister Pizarro. In this production Karita Mattila is superb as Leonore. She’s a riveting actress and has a huge vocal dramatic range, gorgeous singing a high pianissimo and electrifying at full throttle. Kim Begley (Florestan), also an excellent actor, has a beautiful yet powerful tenor. Rene Pape, outstanding as the warden, has a magnificent warm baritone, and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian is wonderful as the warden’s daughter. These characters’ first-act quartet is among the most serenely beautiful anyone ever wrote, with one voice following the next in canon. The rest of the cast is also very good, and Christoph von Dohnanyi, who’s been conducting Fidelio since his late 20s, maintains just the right balance between the lighter first act and the increasingly intense second. This is glorious music–when Fidelio opens the gates to let the prisoners out for air, we truly sense the dawning of a radiant new day. Don’t miss it. Sat 2/5, 7:30 PM, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, 312-332-2244, $40-$170. See also Tuesday.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.