Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, May 26

By Sarah Bryan Miller

The Enlightenment was an optimistic time, and the men who shaped the age believed that their optimism was justified. They’d thrown off the shackles of superstition-based religious authority and governmental tyranny, and in their vision of the future, humanity would rise from the darkness into the light of reason on a steady upward path.

Ludwig van Beethoven, who witnessed the overthrow of various decrepit monarchies as well as Napoleon’s tyranny, was a firm believer in the ideals of the Enlightenment, and he expressed that in his works. His Ninth Symphony stands as an implicit emotional monument to the idea of universal fellowship and the goodness of God, and his only opera, Fidelio, is an explicit statement of the same hopes for the triumph of goodness in the political realm.

Given the revolution that overthrew communism and its ideals in the last decade, Fidelio might be expected to come into its own again. But too many contemporary intellectuals and artistic leaders can’t seem to divorce themselves from a deep cynicism or from a compulsion to recast every work in their own morose worldview. Can Beethoven’s message of the perfectibility of humankind and the triumph of liberty survive an encounter with postmodern nihilism? To judge by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s production of Fidelio, only with great difficulty.

Part of the problem lay in the nature of the production. In the beginning there was opera–staged, costumed, a theatrical as well as musical spectacle. Later came concert opera, with singers lined up across the stage in front of the orchestra, scores on music stands. A popular variation on this theme is the semistaged concert opera, performed in concert dress but with limited movement–an acknowledgment that opera is more than just music, even as it saves lots of rehearsal time and money.

During his tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim has taken this concept one step further, creating what might be termed the “semiconcert opera.” The newly deepened stage of the reworked Orchestra Hall allowed him considerable latitude for this year’s effort, a version of Fidelio that all but erased the line between fully staged opera and concert opera. A raised stage, complete with trapdoor, was constructed along with a towering backdrop of 11 bookcases full of gray file binders that evoked a bureaucratic brand of evil. There were even costumes–a dumpy blue pantsuit with oversized jacket for Leonore/Fidelio, a green uniform for Rocco the jailer, a pinstriped suit for the malevolent Don Pizarro (the action was shifted from the Napoleonic era to the 1920s). According to the director’s note–when you have to read the director’s notes to understand the concept behind the staging you know you’re in trouble–the effect was intended to be reminiscent of Kafka.

This semiconcert form became the excuse for deleting the usual spoken dialogue and replacing it with a set of often awkwardly phrased soliloquies for Leonore, commissioned from Edward Said, an academic with an impressive resume (he’s soon to become president of the Modern Language Association) but little feel for dramatic effect. Most of these narrative inserts were prerecorded, which helped undermine the dramatic tension–a big problem given that this relatively static opera needs all the tension it can get.

Admittedly, Fidelio is a problematic work–Beethoven never fully resolved the dramatic difficulties that kept him busy revising it for so many years. The basic story line is simple enough: a loving wife, Leonore, disguises herself as a young man, Fidelio, and goes to work at the jail where her husband, Florestan, is held. When his enemy Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison, decides to murder Florestan, Leonore is there to hold him off at gunpoint. The king’s emissary shows up to depose the tyrant, and the prisoners are released to general rejoicing over the power of a loyal woman’s love.

But there’s a silly subplot that has the jailer’s soubrette daughter falling in love with Fidelio, and one or two sections that are downright embarrassing. Beethoven could limn nobility in sound like few others, but his muse disdained commonplace people and everyday emotions; his secondary lovers, Marzelline and Jaquino, lack the humanity of Mozart’s working-class characters and the comic charm of Rossini’s. Their first-act duet, which normally opens the show, was cut–and not missed.

The workmanlike dialogue might not have been missed either, but the new narration far too often committed the cardinal sin of telling instead of showing–and what it described was frequently wrong. Instead of an overture, a long revisionist speech by Leonore opened the opera. “Our victory was all too brief,” she said, “and now I find it hard to grasp what happened, hard to accept or imagine that our idealism and faith left so few traces, lasted for so short a time.” This theme of a short-lived triumph over an evil that’s destined to win in the long run was repeated throughout the show–and it almost completely undermined Beethoven’s basic concept of love and right overcoming wrong and his belief in liberty as the most important component of human life. This late-20th-century point of view warped the story almost beyond recognition.

Slightly less destructive but equally wrongheaded was the narration’s characterization of Rocco, the jailer for whom Fidelio goes to work. Both Beethoven’s music and the character’s words and actions paint a bluff, decent man–not too bright perhaps, but good-hearted and fundamentally honest, interested in security for himself and his daughter, but unwilling to commit murder under any circumstances. When Leonore brings the prisoners out of their cells and into the sun, it’s Rocco who takes the brunt of Pizarro’s fury and comes up with a plausible excuse: “It is the king’s name day, a day of celebration.” Yet Said has made Leonore entirely contemptuous of him: “There was always something coarse and conniving about Rocco,” the new narration has her say. “And he worshiped money, of course, no matter the source.” Some of the statements that Said has put in her mouth are completely unsupported by the libretto: “Rocco saw a clever prospective son-in-law in me, and why? Because I could buy things at a discount.” The narration even faults Rocco for giving the suffering Florestan wine in place of the water he requests. This sort of bourgeoisie bashing was popular in left-wing European (and Euro-wannabe) circles a couple of decades ago, but it seems particularly dishonest now.

The music end of the production was better than the dramatic. Barenboim’s conducting was inconsistent, but at times it was absolutely brilliant, as in the final scene. The orchestra rose to the challenge of the score in shining form, but the singers stood behind the orchestra, making projecting unnecessarily difficult. (The orchestra pit in a real opera house offers some protection to voices striving to be heard over the instruments.)

The vocal performances were likewise uneven. The best singing came from bass-baritone Rene Pape as a genial, likable Rocco very much at odds with the characterization of the narration; his voice is rich, full, and beautiful. Mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier has the dramatic temperament to pull off the role of Leonore, and she sounded wonderful when singing on the staff or below. But the part is written for a dramatic soprano, and its brutal tessitura too often forced her to hang in the high end of her range.

Thomas Moser isn’t a heldentenor, but he gave a good account of Florestan’s music, excepting a few strained high notes toward the end of his aria. Ekkehard Wlaschiha barked his way through Pizarro’s villainy. As Jaquino, Endrik Wottrich displayed a light and pretty tenor, but Marzelline, Carola Hšhn, sounded underpowered and at times verged on shrill. Bass Mark McCrory, clad in a white greatcoat and set amid the black-clothed women of the chorus, had a little trouble projecting over the combined forces for his first entrance as the royal emissary Don Fernando, but he sang sonorously once he made his way out of the crowd.

The chorus, including soloists Thomas Dymit and David DuBois, captured the pathos of the condemned and the joy of the released (though the men of the chorus looked ridiculous in the first act wearing black T-shirts under tuxedos with shiny lapels). Curiously, everything was sung from memory until the finale, when the chorus suddenly reverted to reading the music from the score. Yet at least here Beethoven’s glorious music managed to triumph over the nihilistic nonsense around it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Dan Rest.