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A Kafkaesque Fidelio

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
01/24/2009 -  & 27, 30 January, 4, 7, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24 February
Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio
Adrianne Pieczonka (Leonora), Jon Ketilsson*/Richard Margison (Florestan), Mats Almgren (Rocco), Gidon Saks (Don Pizarro), Virginia Hatfield (Marzelline), Adam Luther (Jaquino), Zdenek Plech (Don Fernando), Michael Barrett (First Prisoner), Alexander Hajek (Second Prisoner)
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), Gregor Bühl (Conductor)
Andreas Baesler (Director), Andreas Wilkens (Set Designer), Gabriele Heimann (Costume Designer), Max Keller (Lighting Designer)

(© Michael Cooper)

Before the lights go down we see this quote from Franz Kaftka projected on the drop curtain: “The manacles which torment mankind are wrought from the forms of the bureaucrat”. After the overture the curtain rises to reveal towering ranks of file cabinets among which prison personnel work. The style is 1930s; the text refers to Spain, but it could be any 20th-century bureaucratic tyranny.

This is Adrianne Pieczonka’s debut in the role of Leonora, and it is an auspicious one. She performs with her usual commitment and her voice rings out beautifully. There is a tendency to assume this role is part of the heroic repertory along with heavier Wagnerian roles. Her vocal category, or fach, is that of dramatic soprano as opposed to high dramatic; she is a Sieglinde, not a Brünnhilde. (The musical approach overall is decidedly lighter in texture than what followed in the nineteenth century; accordingly, the COC orchestra has 63 players for this production.)

Florestan is capably sung by Icelandic tenor Jon Ketilsson. He is a sudden replacement for Jon Villars who abandoned the role during the dress rehearsal just three days prior to opening night. Ketilsson therefore did not have the benefit of an orchestral rehearsal and because of this I was prepared for a cautious, foursquare approach to the role; however he brought expressive nuance to his great introductory solo scene. The final ensemble is full of pitfalls thanks to Beethoven’s fiendish rhythmic cross-currents and he negotiated it with aplomb. His voice is similar in weight to Pieczonka’s, a great benefit in their ecstatic duet “O namenlose Freude”.

(Richard Margison assumes the role beginning 12 February.)

Mats Almgren gives a sensitive performance of the jailor Rocco as a hesitant, blinkered man who eventually manages to make a stand. What a contrast from his stentorian master-of-the-universe portrayal of Hagen in Toronto’s 2006 Ring cycle!

Gidon Saks goes all out vocally and dramatically, giving us a tightly-wound Don Pizarro - impeccably tailored and groomed - who is consumed by his desire to murder Florestan. He brandishes a swagger stick that contains the dagger he intends to use.

The role of Jaquino is more substantial than that usually assigned to a member of the COC’s Ensemble Studio; happily, Adam Luther has just the right sound for the part and handles it well. Virginia Hatfield (a recent graduate of the program) sang an accomplished Zerlina in the recent Don Giovanni and has another success as Marzelline. For both young singers, though, a few of the lowest-lying lines were lost.

Zdenek Plech sings a warm-voiced Don Fernando, the good guy whose arrival results in the prisoners’ release. The brief but touching solo prisoner roles are nicely sung by Michael Barrett and Alexander Hajek (also Ensemble Studio members). It’s a pity that the ponderous sets could not be opened up for the chorus; the prisoners must sing of the blessed open air while wandering among the file cabinets.

Making a local debut is conductor Gregor Bühl who, I am happy to say, avoids the fast-and-loud approach to the score. He carefully molds beautiful slow introductions to key moments in the score, such as the introspective quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar” in the opening scene and the later prisoners’ chorus. Orchestra and chorus perform well. The third Leonora overture precedes the final scene; it is useful for covering the scene change, but it is a pity that it’s so long - plus it renders the finale an anti-climax.

Which brings us to the production and the decision to place in the twentieth century (which is fine), specifically with reference to the works of Franz Kafka. In Kafka’s works people are trapped in an absurdist situation from which there is no escape. Following this idea to a fault, director Andreas Baesler has the released prisoners exchange their drab prison garb for gray flannel suits, the very symbol of corporate conformity. Thus the world seems to consist solely of the jailers and the jailed. Beethoven the man and composer is noted for his moodiness, but compared with Kafka he was a cockeyed optimist. The exuberant finale provides a joyous relief to the work’s musical and dramatic tension; the director’s undercutting of this reduces the opera’s impact without enlarging upon its message.

Baesler creates yet another distraction during the finale when he has Marzelline make a suicide attempt which is foiled by Jaquino.

In addition to the brief literary quote cited above, we are shown several longer quotes by Kafka during orchestral passages, including a reference to Florestan in his cell. They amount to overkill; the opening quote is sufficient.

Some staging/design ideas that work really well, for example when the curtain rises on the final scene and the towering files cabinets are all askew while paper rains down. The oppressive bureaucracy seems to have been toppled. Earlier, during the prisoners’ chorus, the freedom whose loss they mourn is symbolized by the sight of their various civilian outfits descending just out of reach above them. Why couldn’t the prisoners have reclaimed these?

The designers also resort to that displeasing device of shining retina-searing lights out at the audience. This occurs throughout Florestan’s big solo scene and detracts shamefully from the attention we should be paying to him. We realize he is in a torturous situation (he is strapped into a chair); this is no reason to torture the audience as well. And after all, the first thing he mentions is dunkel - darkness.

The production is being shared with Opéra National du Rhin in France and the Staatstheater Nürnberg in Germany. It is visually striking and would do double duty should anyone create an opera based on the works of Franz Kafka.

Michael Johnson



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