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Philly’s Abstract Fidelio

Academy of Music
10/10/2008 -  and 12, 15, 19, 24 October
Ludwig van Beethoven : Fidelio
Christine Goerke (Leonore), Anthony Dean Griffey (Florestan), Greer Grimsley (Don Pizarro), Stephen Morscheck (Rocco), Ailyn Perez (Marzelline), Brian Anderson (Don Fernando), Brian Anderson (Jaquino)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, Corrado Rovaris (conductor)
Robert Driver (stage director), Jun Kaneko (sets and costumes), Drew Billiau (lighting)

Ailyn Perez (© OCP)

What drew the most excited applause when the Opera Company of Philadelphia opened its season with Fidelio? The abstract sets and costumes of Jun Kaneko or the singing of a cast led by Christine Goerke and Anthony Dean Griffey? Actually, neither. It was the announcement that the Philadelphia Phillies had kept their World Series hopes alive with another win over the Los Angeles Dodgers that drew cheers from the audience at the Academy of Music.

Philadelphians love baseball more than opera. That was clear from the empty seats for the OCP’s first Fidelio in almost 20 years. Maybe the ticket holders knew what was in store if they showed up. Kaneko is noted for his monolithic sculptures and abstract visual designs. The Japanese-American artist sets Fidelio in a bare space dominated by black- and-white tiled walls that turned the stage into a huge shower stall. Visual variety is provided by lines of bright colors that ooze onto a backdrop. The glowing colors – vivid yellow, bright blue, pristine green – are not ones that Beethoven’s dark-hued music calls to mind. Bizarrely colored and oddly designed costumes add to the muddle. There is little visual drama in Kaneko’s designs. Some moments stand out – like the bold silhouettes of prisoners locked into cells in the first act – but this Fidelio looks inert.

Robert Driver’s neat, flavorless staging fails to intensify the drama coursing so vigorously through Beethoven’s passionate score. So does Corrado Rovaris’ brisk conducting. Musically, this is a light-weight Fidelio. The chamber-sized orchestra and the small chorus fail to add weight or thrust to the performance. Friday evening, Rovaris led a scrappy account of the overture but struck form midway through the act. His conducting valued swiftness and buoyancy over tonal amplitude and intensity. So did the singing.

Christine Goerke found Leonore a better vocal fit than last season’s Norma which found her in near-disastrous form. Her voice rang out with some scale but sounded hard-pressed in the aria and came close to collapse at the end of the ecstatic duet with Florestan. Her high notes, too often, fell short of their target. Griffey sang Florestan’s aria gingerly but opened up his tenor in the trio and duet that followed. Visually, both the Leonore and Florestan looked unsuitable. Goerke made an awkward, self-conscious heroine. Griffey looked much too nourished for a prisoner wasted from long imprisonment.

Dominating the cast was Ailyn Perez’s delightful Marzelline. In her OCP debut, Perez sang with purity and poise and fashioned a lively, appealing character. Brian Anderson’s attractive Jaquino sounded pallid. So did most of the other singers in OCP’s cast. Standing in for Julian Rodescu on opening night, Stephen Morscheck brought little tonal appeal or amplitude to Rocco’s music. His German diction sounded bizarre in the spoken dialogue. Kirk Eichelberger failed to make much of an impact in Ferrando’s brief appearance at the end of the opera. Greer Grimsley left a stronger imprint on Pizzaro. Grimsley projected malevolence and sang firmly if without sufficient depth of tone in the lower range.

Robert Baxter



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