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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Fidelio: A Proper Noun, Not An Adjective

So I somehow wound up writing about A Wedding instead of Fidelio last week, which is in no way a comment on their quality relative to one another, nor on the level of enjoyment incurred from attending either.

The Chicago Reader is rarely the place to go for movie reviews. Not only is one likely to come away from a Reader review smarting from (usually) undeserved spanking of it (and of oneself for stooping to consider seeing such dreck), that's the best case scenario. Often, one comes away from Reader reviews exhausted, baffled, and unsure of what the original question was. Their reviews are not, as a rule, overly concerned with touching on the subject matter of the movie under review. Such is the privilege of being an artsy free paper in the Big City. The review of The Merchant of Venice, pointed out to yours truly by astute spouse M, really takes the cake in criticizing it for the transparency of Portia's courtroom stint in drag. Sometimes you just have to stare in disbelief at the Willy Suspension, ok? And The Bard usually makes it worth your while.

And so it is with Fidelio. The title hero is, quite blatantly, a heroine, not even of the trouser role variety. Judging from the program essay, Beethoven and his contemporaries (many of whom had dramatized and/or set to music their own versions of the same story), viewed her gender as central to the story: She is the wife who works ceaselessly to free her wrongly imprisoned husband and still the girl worth fighting for. Most other versions of the story (and Beethoven's two previous attempts at it) play under variations on Leonore (e.g., Bouilly's original play is Leonore, ou l'amour conjugal), yet Fidelio is her true name, despite the masculine ending.

It's odd that the plot winds up bearing analysis (at least according to my pea brain); as with most opera, it's hardly the point. Still, there's something in it that both stimulates and irritates. Leonore's ruse is successful with regard to the other characters, yet willfully transparent to the audience. But her gender is even less successfully concealed by the way in which she plays the role of the jailor's errand boy than her sex is concealed by her physical disguise. How that plays out, at least in the first Act, is downright bizarre.

The opera opens with Marzelline, our plucky young soprano, rejecting the attentions of Jacquino (a relatively robust, masculine-sounding [for a tenor] role). Marzelline favors Fidelio, who is pretty, attentive, and helps out around the house. Jacquino might as well have massive pit stains on his wifebeater and walk around continuously scratching his balls and farting for all the headway he's likely to make in this romantic triangle.

Rocco, Marzelline's father, Fidelio's employer, and Florestan's (Leonore's husband) jailor, is enchanted with Marzelline's enchantment with Fidelio, and smiles on the match. There is nothing to suggest that Fidelio has seduced Marzelline to secure Rocco's good opinion. In the quartets that dominate the first half of the Act (so cool, so well done, marvelous blending of the voices on all sides), she laments the pain she will cause Marzelline and the vocal line and libretto both unambiguously support her virtue. Marzelline seems simply to have fallen in love with Leonore's copious feminine charms and, moreover, become convinced that Fidelio loves her deeply in return. Is Marzelline simply that dim? Are all the characters? Or is it just that Leonore, the avatar of feminine virtue, has gotten her Philia (Sororilia [that sounds filthy]? What's the sisterly equivalent?) in Marzelline's Eros?

And then there's the fact that Leonore is likewise chock full o' Agape. She hands provisions around to the starving and silent prisoners. Though her repeated requests for a few daily moments of fresh air and sun in the garden has never been approved (or, indeed, presented to the evil Pizarro by Rocco who shrinks vocally and physically before the tyrant), she takes the initiative and opens that cells. They stream on to the stage, pale, blinking, and timid at first, their voices gradually swelling to an awed and awesome hymn of thanks for the fresh air (with more than a few nods to the 9th in this chours as TWMitU pointed out to me at Intermission). They are literally rehumanized before our eyes by an act of defiance made fundamentally womanly by her vocal contributions. (It reminded me of the moment in Little Women [Good Wives, technically, I suppose] where Meg forces her temperance agenda on poo, joyless Laurie on her wedding day, because no one can refuse her anything.)

Leonore is simply too good to be true. She is firm of purpose, but never too single-minded to do some estrogen-laden good works. None of the ugly business of imprisonment (most of it wrongful) ever touches her. No one wonders at her persitent fascination with helping out in the dungeon or seems to attribute morbid fascination with suffering to her. They are all better for their interactions with her, save Pizarro, and his failure to benefit is implicitly damning.

And then there's the second Act. But I have to run now. More on that and the actual production later.

I note that the Tribune's reviewers claims:

"Mattila's Leonore is no goody-goody "rescue" heroine but a desperate housewife fully capable of stealing money, packing a firearm and deceiving the lovesick innocent, Marzelline (the shining soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian), to get what she wants."

He is so high on smack.

So, in short (HA), I've decided that Fidelio is a pretty weird, genderfucked story. Those musings were based on Act I. In some ways, I rather wish the whole thing had ended with Act I, as Act II splashes on the Brut to make up for its rah rah Chyx ways in Act I.

In brief: Florestan is sad, hungry, in despair, and likely quite smelly. Rocco and Fidelio make their way down to dig his grave. Fidelio comes over all Billie Burke for no good reason. Pizarro wrings his hands, twirls his moustache, and plays a constant F..dim, to obliterate any and all ambiguity to the character. Florestan is saved in the short term by Leonore scolding Pizarro and whapping him on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. In the long term, he's saved by the arrival of Don Fernando, who disempowers Pizarro for good and all, invoking the political power of the mighty penis.

John Warrack, resident pompous essayist, notes "There are still those who feel that Fidelio is a work that begins in one world, that of 18th century Singspiel, and finishes in another, that of Revolutionary and Romantic opera." I don't know what, if anything, that might have to do with innie genitalia versus outie, but it seems there must be some kind of parallel. At any rate, Ludwig's Fidelio may have been a reaction against the Austrian frivolity of Mozart's operas (another point raised by Warrack), but it just ends up weird. Opera is not, it would seem, Beethoven's natural medium.

Criticisms of the text aside, lyric's go at this was positively splendid. The Tribune refers to it being set in "a banana republic," but both L and I thought "Nazis. I hate these guys." During Act I, stage left consisted of two tiers of cells with six steel buttresses aligned from downstage to up, that jutted out almost to center. Rocco and Marzelline's front door, stoop, and a small plaza occupied downstage right. Upstage of this were large roll-up doors leading out to the garden. This means that the majority of the stage is actually an enclosed courtyard within the prison complex. As much as Lyric's tendency toward grey-on-grey with a side of battleship goes horribly wrong, this really doesn't. It's a bit creepy that this production debuted in 2000, given its rather pointed commentary on issues of wrongful imprisonment, torture, dehumanization, etc.

The set in Act II hardly matters. In scene 1, it's barely lit, and as long as you recognize the filth, you've got the general idea. In scene 2, it's supposedly a rooftop triumph, but the backdrop and lighting looked as if no one had actually bothered to design it.

The cast was superb all around. This was the second time around for us to hear Isabel "Canadian-Armenian Babe" Bayrakdarian (Marzelline) and Karita Mattila (Fidelio/Leonore) in the same performance. If you have the means, I highly recommend it. It is so choice. Despite its frivolity, Don Giovanni is the superior work; nonetheless, this staging of Fidelio gave better opportunities to enjoy both their voices. Mattila simply because her role was more extensive and Bayrakdarian because her slightly underpowered voice did not suffer nearly so much from the asstastic soul-killing staging in DG.

Our man on the inside tells us that Mattila is something of a pain in the ass (a diva being a Diva? Go figure!), and Bayrakdarian is a sweetheart. Be that as it may, Mattila managed to infuse Leonore/Fidelio with the necessary charm to prevent the audience from wanting to stab out their own eyeballs to relieve the potential sanctimony of it all. As for our Marzelline, well, I predict that pocket-sized Isabel Bayrakdarians will sweep the nation. She's just. that. cute. Given the strength of their voices and acting performances, their duets in act I are just completely delightful.

That extends to all the group pieces in Act I (and there are many). Rene Pape as Rocco is understandably squeeful about the young lovers and his bass, as well as Steve Davislim's aforementioned manly tenor, balance extraordinarily well in the quartets. Things skip lightly from duet to aria to quartet to trio back to aria, and so on. If there's any flaw in this, it's Beethoven's attraction to looooooong interludes during which nothing at all is happening. In a two-Act opera, that presents a significant staging problem, unless you want to send in the mimes (not even the French want that). F..dim and Snidely Whiplash tendencies aside, Falk Struckmann's Pizarro is enjoyable, although the part is not written to give a strong idea of what the baritone is really capable of.

As beautiful as the group pieces are, they're merely teasers for the prisoners' chorus at the end of Act I. The minute the first notes of that sound, all the dawdling and awkward plotting and characterization don't matter a bit. Technically, I suppose the finale of Act II has many of the same things going for it, but it's a bit hollow without the charming build-up of Act I. I suppose the sugary Revolutionary coating was quite key to Beethoven's Rescue Opera agenda, but that also jangled a bit for me.

Still in all: Come back Ludwig, all is forgiven. Just don't write any more operas, 'kay?

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