It’s quite an experience to see the one and only opera by that master of sweeping musical thought: Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” It’s even better when the key role is played by a masterful soprano making her U.S. debut: Christiane Libor. Those two experiences outweigh any minor complaints of staging (and Beethoven’s own inability to write well for voice) to make Seattle Opera’s “Fidelio” – which just opened at McCaw Hall and continues through Oct. 27 – a musical treat you shouldn’t miss.
Of course, it’s not Libor alone who carries this opera, though as Leonore – a devoted wife who disguises herself as a male prison employee to rescue her husband Florestan from political imprisonment and death – the German soprano gives the role both strength and truly convincing emotion with a voice that flows like molten gold through Beethoven’s every register change, octave leap and endless phrase.
No, like any good production this “Fidelio” is strong on almost all sides. In the pit is guest conductor Ascher Fisch (who wowed audiences with SO’s recent “Turandot”), guiding a responsive, warm-toned Seattle Symphony through Beethoven’s glorious score and giving the singers plenty of room while supporting the emotional thunderclouds. Choosing the third “Leonore” overture (the length of which is bravely handled by a slow unveiling of the maximum-security prison fence and security screen room) Fisch contrasts tranquil woodwind with tumultuous strings and roiling timpani, and goes on to do a skillful job of gathering singers into unified tempi.
Sharing the stage is a star-studded cast that shines individually and blends beautifully: young Anya Matanovic as a flirty Marzelline who falls improbably in love with ‘Fidelio’ (Leonore’s alias) and whose glossy soprano just gets better and better; the pleasant-voiced John Tessier as her rather pathetic suitor Jaquino; Arthur Woodley as her father Rocco the head-jailer, who brings complexity but an unfortunately cloudy bass; a terrifically psychotic Greer Grimsley as the evil Don Pizarro (complete with plummy bass-baritone mwa-ha-ha); and of course Clifton Forbis singing Florestan with his astonishingly deep tenor and heart-wrenching, shuffling despair.
Beethoven, for all his good points, had no idea how to write well for voice, which is why “Fidelio” isn’t done often outside Europe. This cast, however, rises supremely over the difficulties to create a luscious aural landscape. Over them all soars Libor, with her gutsy low range, perfectly powerful upper notes and fierce conviction.
As an opera about political conscience and justice, though, “Fidelio” needs more than just good singing, and Seattle Opera’s production (last seen in the Seattle Center hockey rink in 2003) tells the story well: a stark barbed-wire fence, dazzling white searchlights, threatening Stormtrooper guards and some electrifying lighting effects, like Leonore bathed in gold as she sings of courage and redemption. The biggest fault, though, is also highly distracting: Director Chris Alexander deals with Beethoven’s endless harmonic lines by overusing a stand-and-sing blocking that occasionally works (the delicious first quartet) but mostly just adds visual boredom.
Yet everything else comes together, and by the time the well-disciplined chorus and extras flock on stage for the heart-warming liberation, with waves of harmony unfolding like a sunrise, the audience is wrapped in an extended Beethoven bliss that only this opera can achieve, telling a story of love and political justice that never loses its relevance.
“Fidelio” runs 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17, 20, 24 and 27. From $25. Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 503 Mercer St., Seattle. 800-426-1619, seattleopera.org