Also, could this have fit any better into the schedule?
This was to be my first opera experience, but that title subsequently went, somewhat unexpectedly, to Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole, a piece I had the pleasure to attend last month, one I felt to be an excellent first-opera experience. But this was very different.
Last night’s showing of Fidelio put on by our National Symphony Orchestra was a performance I had been looking quite forward to for some time, and was the first time I’d attended anything inside the National Theatre, across an enormous courtyard at the Chang Kai Shek Memorial hall from the National Concert Hall, at which I’m a regular. Choosing seats was different. I’d never been there, don’t know what the view is like, where I should be sitting… so I trusted the nice lady at the desk and figured spending a bit extra on a ticket should mean I have a pretty good vantage point from which to enjoy my first real opera experience, and did I ever.
It’s unnecessary to say how different Fidelio is from L’heure Espagnole, so I was eager to see a large production like this, even if it isn’t considered one of the greatest must-see operas in history.
Where do I begin?
For one, as I’d been told, the sound in the National Theatre (or any opera house, I assume) is very ‘dry’, entirely free of echo. It’s a very different atmosphere from the concert hall, whose (tiny) echo suddenly becomes very apparent, an openness to what’s going on to let the music swell and fill the room, but starkly quiet here. It’s also an extremely gorgeous hall. While the currently-under-renovation concert hall is handsome, with dark coffee-colored hardwoods and white marble facades carving out the space, the theatre is opulent and feminine.
The staging for Fidelio was also quite minimalist. The entire thing was framed inside a gray box, with only one open side, that toward the audience, much smaller than the actual space the stage would allow. It was covered in what looked to be a soft gray suede or fabric of some fine texture, and the entire production was in black and white: clothes, props (all two of them), everything in grayscale (solid black, white or [the same] shade of gray), a very modern, minimalist layout, but one
that was starkly eye-catching and captivating.
I should interject (again) at this point and say that while this write-up is primarily a review of my experience at last night’s staging of Fidelio and also my review of the opera as a work itself, I cannot but ‘review’ and address things that may be common to modern stagings of this work, or of any work, modern or not, because I don’t know what’s common to the production of this piece or to all operas. It’s like never having been to a restaurant and talking about the crisp white napkins they have that, as you would know if you go to a few more, most restaurants also have. So there’s that.
So I think we could break down the article into discussions of a few main areas, because if the above is any indication, I’ll be all over the place.
1. The opera itself. Again, Fidelio is not (or at least I’ve been told it’s not) a staple of the opera repertoire, but it isn’t an abomination either. I feel the story, the idea behind it, is a noble one, and recalls the Eroica in its themes of justice, freedom, and heroism. The story isn’t terribly complicated, but has a sufficient complexity and dynamic to maintain interest and tension. The characters themselves aren’t terribly individual: the guard, his daughter, prisoners, governor of the prison, but this simplicity is perhaps made up for in the uniqueness of the focal point of the story itself: Leonore very successfully disguising herself as a man (the eponymous Fidelio) to save her husband who is suffering at the hands of a tyrant. There are glimpses of emotions aside from despair and romance, as when our leading lady is perplexed at Marzelline’s come-ons, but for the most part, it’s a pretty straightforward drama, an easily understandable canvas upon which to make a political, marital, moral, and overall human statement.
The music isn’t bad either. It seemed…. safely Beethoven. It was clean and Classical but by no means boring. I’ll talk about it more below, but it was a pleasure to listen to all around, although (obviously) nothing like Wagner or Berg or anything (the most recent operas I’ve watched). It’s a very good safe first opera.
2. Production. It was absolutely beyond stunning visually. Pictures of rehearsals and stage design were released a month or so before the opening night, and it did indeed seem quite modern: black suits, white shirts, all very slick 007 type stuff, and a handgun, one of only two props. The prisoners were also all dressed in black suits, white shirts, and even white boxers.
Now, as I said to a friend the afternoon before the performance, it’s hard to speak intelligently about a live performance of a piece of any kind that you’re not familiar with, so the only question to be asked, then, is ‘did it work?’ and I’ll answer that later. I have nothing to compare it to, but even had I not been informed earlier, I would have noticed that the performance from last night did not begin with Act 1, scene 1 (Marzelline and Jacquino’s argument about the potential for marriage). In fact, it began with one of the quartet scenes from the end of the second act as a prologue. When the overture began, the performers turned away from the audience to face the back wall, on which was projected in the deepest, richest most handsome black font I’ve ever seen, various words, notes, or names, the first of which was Ludwig van Beethoven. At some point, then, the rear wall of the gray room begins to fall away from the audience, like a drawbridge being let down, opening up to a great expanse of blackness, letting in an enormous crowd of women in black dresses and men in suits (our prisoners). The change of order was only one of an apparent number of changes to the opera. Again, I am not familiar with the piece in its original conception, but I am told that music, arias, and various things were cut and/or rearranged, and that this was not the first time this has been done to Fidelio in Europe in an attempt to make the piece more interesting.
Many aspects of it, were in fact, quite surreal. The entire absence of props, aside from a handgun and some piles of money added to the extreme minimalism of the piece. Aside from the people, the only other things that moved were the rear wall and two doors, one on either side of the gray box that entirely disappeared when closed. The projection on the back wall served to propel the story, giving direction that the rear of the stage is X, the right is Y, or that something has just happened, etc. These handsome footnotes were all in Chinese, and my understanding is they made up for some of the excisions to the work. At these moments, anyone on stage would turn to look at the words, perplexed but drawn in like a moth to flame, until it was time to continue the performance. At a number of points throughout the piece, single lines from the scene were projected in much larger font and left there for the duration of the scene, only to mostly fade as the scene progressed, enough that when you looked away, they disappeared, but when you looked back, they reappeared, like that optical illusion of the disappearing dot. If only by watching, not hearing, one would never have associated this design and staging to this work, or at least this amateur wouldn’t have, but the juxtaposition was fascinating.
3. The performance. Our NSO was as solid as ever down in the pit where they couldn’t be seen. Our conductor, whose head alone was visible for most of the performance, peeked up for the prisoners’ choruses with big baton gestures to give the Taipei Philharmonic Chorus the direction they seemed almost not to need. They were wonderful as well.
Most critically though, were our Leonore (Ann Petersen), Florestan (Kor-Jan Dusseljee), Rocco (蔡文浩), Marzelline (林慈音), Jaquino (洪宜德), Don Pizzaro (Miklós Sebestyén), and Don Fernando (巫白玉璽), an international cast who did a fantastic job. I must say my favorites, whether because of the character itself or how they brought it to life were, thankfully Petersen in the lead role, and Rocco, seemingly the two most convincing people on stage. Don Fernando and Don Pizzaro make only occasional appearances, but when they did, they counted. Sebestyén is a big dude and has a commanding presence, but 巫白玉璽 is not a towering figure until he opens his mouth. Truly amazing. They stole their scenes. Dusseljee’s Florestan was almost beyond desperate, to the point of being more convincingly at peace with his condition and impending doom, but then again, I haven’t seen another Florestan, so it worked for me. Grace Lin’s Marzelline was cute, bold, and would turn on a dime between forceful and annoyed with Jaquino to enamored and puppy-eyed to her Fidelio.
Again, this is my first opera, and the combination of all of the above made it a thrilling, captivating, even entrancing event. The clean, Beethovenesque Classical-ness of an opera written in the first decade of the 19th century contrasted against the stark minimalist modernism of the stage design was counterintuitive to the point of fascination, but emphasized strongly the timelessness of the lessons to be learned from the work; powdered wigs and poofy dresses would certainly have dated the production and taken us farther away from a relatable modern day.
All in all, I say bravo. My initial thought was that… I need to come back here again soon. I’d even thought that I’d probably go again on Sunday if I weren’t busy (and if tickets weren’t probably already gone). It’s a lot to digest, but there is nothing like it, I can say for sure.
The next opera on the schedule is Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, tickets to which I am buying today.
This brings us to the end of our Beethoven stretch, and so tomorrow we begin with something else. See you then.