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Posted on Sat, May. 29, 2004

S.F. Symphony's 'Fidelio' is fantastic


For Bay Area opera lovers, Davies Symphony Hall was the only place to be Thursday night, as Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony unveiled a gripping new semi-staged production of Beethoven's "Fidelio."

Presented as the crowning event of the Symphony's three-week Beethoven festival, the composer's only opera was an outstanding choice, not only to celebrate Beethoven in theatrical style, but to cement Tilson Thomas' growing list of credentials as one of this community's most reliable opera producers.

Thursday's 21/2-hour performance, which has its final repeat tonight, was both musically elegant and dramatically effective. As he has done for several years now -- most notably, with last season's stunning concert production of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" -- the conductor brought together a cogent design team, a committed cast and a phenomenally well-oiled orchestra. The results were superbly integrated, with the emphasis where it belonged: on the music.

It was cause for rejoicing for opera fans weary of overblown "concept" productions. This was a stripped-down "Fidelio," to be sure, but one that clicked like clockwork. The singers used multiple playing areas behind and above the orchestra, with ramps and stairways for entrances and exits.

Scenic designer Daniel Hubp, who set the stage for last year's "Dutchman," gave the new production a suitably oppressive look, framing the Davies stage in the outlines of a rock dungeon. Chains hung from the ceiling; steel bars placed across an upstage wall suggested a cell block. Lighting director Alan Burrett allowed the audience to glimpse a piece of blue sky through an arch over center stage.

Director Stephen Pickover let the story speak for itself, and it did so with keen dramatic sensibility. Beethoven may have had a specific revolution -- and his own heroic journey -- in mind when he created the story of Leonore (aka Fidelio), the courageous wife who goes underground to rescue her political prisoner husband. When it's well-staged, the opera is a timeless condemnation of institutional injustice, and Pickover's production seemed to resonate specifically with the abuses of our own times.

Yet it was the dynamic leadership of Tilson Thomas that gave this "Fidelio" its greatest luster. The orchestra was simply magnificent. "Fidelio" has always had its detractors. But in this conductor's hands, the score sounded as expressive, and as powerful, as any of Beethoven's great symphonies.

The soloists contributed handsomely. Danish soprano Tina Kiberg possessed ample reserves of the steely resolve and penetrating vocal sound necessary to sing the role of Leonore; after a warm, quietly affecting "Komm, Hoffnung," her performance continued to grow in strength and dramatic urgency. As the persecuted hero Florestan, tenor Robert Gambill started off sounding a little unfocused, but rose admirably to meet the demands of the role in Act II. Baritone Tom Fox played the villain Pizarro as a middle-management thug in a three-piece suit, striking a series of menacing poses and singing with commanding, eloquent tone.

Bass Paul Plishka was a sympathetic, if somewhat imprecise, Rocco. Anna Christy introduced a lightweight yet agile soprano as Marzelline. Tenor Eric Cutler was a sturdy Jaquino, and bass Daniel Borowski was a clear-voiced Fernando. Kevin Gibbs (First Prisoner) and David Hess (Second Prisoner) made the most of their brief appearances.

This "Fidelio" included running commentary -- some of it insightful, much of it extraneous -- clearly delivered by the strong-voiced Shakespearean actor L. Peter Callender. It also benefited, particularly in the glorious finale, from the beautifully shaped singing of Vance George's San Francisco Symphony Chorus.

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