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Symphony takes Beethoven's only opera on an exhilarating ride
- Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, May 29, 2004
They billed it as an opera, of course. But the performance of Beethoven's "Fidelio" that crowned the San Francisco Symphony's summer festival in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday night had a distinctly symphonic feel to it -- just the sort of rendition an orchestra would offer.
The solo singing was adequate to the task, sometimes more, but it wasn't the main focus of the evening. There was a bit of staging and enough scenery to situate the action, but that wasn't the main point, either.
No, what carried the program forward was the superb playing of the Symphony itself, under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas -- a robust, vigorous and commanding performance that kept a listener's attention focused on the instrumental side of Beethoven's musical imagination.
The result was an odd and fascinating metamorphosis that turned Beethoven's only opera into a sort of symphony with words, a precursor to the Ninth Symphony in the composer's ongoing expansion of the genre.
And though the effect was probably simply a function of the artists involved, what if it wasn't? What if this was precisely the historical reorientation that Thomas was trying to achieve?
The notion is not so far-fetched. It was Beethoven, after all, who conceived the idea of encoding particular narratives -- primarily the struggle against adversity on behalf of human dignity and liberty -- into purely instrumental form.
That is precisely the thrust of "Fidelio," in which Florestan, the political prisoner of a corrupt regime, is rescued from his dungeon by his stalwart wife. In its triumphal spirit and devotion to freedom, the opera is of a piece with the "Eroica" and Fifth Symphonies; who's to say that the plot, libretto and so on aren't mere surface phenomena?
If nothing else, Thursday's performance found Thomas and the orchestra collaborating at their finest level since the "Beethoven's Vienna" festival began more than two weeks ago.
Right from the opening measures of the overture, the music had a degree of dramatic urgency and tonal gleam that were exhilarating, and Thomas shaped the performance like an express train -- forceful but sleekly contained, all at the same time.
The low strings set the tone for the great Act 1 quartet with a carpet of plush, shimmering sound, the march came off crisply, and the extended orchestral introduction to Act 2, set in Florestan's dungeon cell, seemed to cast shadows all around. The horn players in particular outdid themselves time and again.
The Symphony Chorus, led by Vance George, also excelled, bringing a sense of unfolding spaciousness to the Prisoners' Chorus (when the inmates are allowed out into the yard for the first time) and a note of encompassing triumph to the final scene.
Among the solo artists, the most striking contribution came from tenor Robert Gambill as Florestan, his sinewy technique and fluent diction enhancing the character's heroic demeanor. He nailed the role's famously difficult first note, then proceeded to dominate the ensuing ensembles.
As his wife, Leonore (disguised in drag under the name Fidelio), Danish soprano Tina Kiberg deployed a strong, rather husky instrument that wavered between sheer power and passages of hooty uncertainty. She didn't make much of her Act 1 aria ("Abscheulicher! ... Komm, Hoffnung"), but her performance opened up in scope and vitality after intermission.
The veteran American bass Paul Plishka was on hand as the jailer Rocco, a signature role that he sang with sturdiness and flashes of humor.
Soprano Anna Christy gave a charming if slightly shrill performance as his daughter, Marzelline, and tenor Eric Cutler was a suitably lovelorn Jaquino. Baritone Tom Fox as the villainous Don Pizarro and bass Daniel Borowski as the virtuous Don Fernando (the deus ex machina of the piece) rivaled each other for sonorous presence and dramatic fervor.
If the majesty of the orchestral playing helped wean this "Fidelio" away from its theatrical roots, so did director Stephen Pickover's unobjectionable but largely halfhearted staging. Set designer Daniel Hubp deftly conjures up the prison with a few crumbling stone walls and some stylized iron bars, and Alan Burrett's crepuscular lighting helps the effect along.
But Pickover's few pieces of stage business never do much to create a world within that space, and the business of having the chorus appear in modern street clothes for the final scene -- thus underscoring the work's "relevance" to our time -- is trite.
Worst of all, though, is the inclusion of some smarmy, didactic narration (its authorship wisely uncredited in the program), which is declaimed in oppressively plummy tones by L. Peter Callender.
This combines incomprehensible evasions ("My name is ... never mind"), program-note cliches about Beethoven's genius and condescendingly obvious insinuations about the links between "Fidelio" and the current political situation. The last thing a performance this strong needs is blather.
San Francisco Symphony: “Fidelio” repeats at 8 tonight, and “Beethoven’s Vienna” concludes with a recital by pianist Garrick Ohlsson at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, both in DaviesSymphony Hall. Tickets: $15-$125. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony. org.
E-mail Joshua Kosman at email@example.com.
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