Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Steven LaCosse's intelligent production examines the opera through a contemporary lens. In an invented backstory that plays out during the overture, we see Florestan (Noah Baetge) cast as a labor organizer, arrested by the wicked Don Pizarro (Joseph Barron) while leading a workers' protest. Pizarro, a prison governor, is envisioned here as a corrupt general, commanding an army of jackbooted troopers who beat down the demonstrators with nightsticks and shields. Inside the prison, the warden Rocco (Gustav Andreassen) and his daughter Marzelline (Danielle Talamantes) represent the banality of modern jailhouse employment; in his drab gray suit and brown tie, Rocco could easily pass as Warden Caputo from "Orange is the New Black." Jonathan Dahm Robertson's effective prison set creates a world of existential darkness, supported by Norman Coates' unforgiving lighting.
The production makes perhaps its strongest collective statement in its presentation of the glorious prisoners' chorus, which is some of the most beautiful choral music in the entirety of opera. When Leonore (Marcy Stonikas), passing as Fidelio, persuades Rocco to allow the convicts a brief moment in the prison's sun-filled garden, they sing of the juxtaposition between nature's bountiful beauty and their grim existence: "Here alone is life! / The dungeon below is a grave." Here, the prisoners are clearly marked as victims of institutional violence; some are in wheelchairs, some on crutches, and all bear the marks and bruises of brutality. Under the gorgeous preparation of chorus master Gregory Geehern, their song truly feels like a brief and transcendent moment of freedom from a life of unremitting hardship.
The festival has assembled a strong cast, with several soloists deserving especial mention. Florestan is a brief but punishing role that begins with the treacherous aria "Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!" ("God! What darkness here!"). Baetge approaches the role's challenges with aplomb. Here is a voice with both the heft of a heldentenor and abundant lyricism. Baetge is also a compelling actor, strongly conveying both Florestan's initial anguish and the ecstatic revelation that his wife has worked to rescue him.
Talamantes brings a healthy amount of pluck and spunk to Marzelline; for once, she feels a worthy opponent for Jaquino (Michael Kuhn, in lovely voice), her would-be fiancé. Andreassen wrestles with the complexities and ambiguities of Rocco's character, presenting him as an ultimately compassionate man trapped as an agent of a corrupt system. His solidly supported bass rings out in sonorous waves; his duets with Barron, a lyrical bass-baritone, offer much for fans of lower voices to enjoy. The young baritone Cameron Jackson is memorable in the brief role of Don Fernando, the righteous nobleman who saves the day.
Stonikas has a rougher time as Leonore/Fidelio. Her soprano is supported by a warm and appealing lower register, but sounds worn and wobbly in higher passages. Leonore's thrilling and difficult first-act aria "Abscheulicher!" ("Villain!") here seems more an endurance test than a commanding cry for freedom and fidelity. Stonikas' vocal estate improves as the opera progresses, but falls short of being completely compelling. More problematically, her dainty manner and feminine carriage make it hard to believe she could pass for long stretches of time as a man, much less attract the romantic attention of Marzelline and the paternal approval of Rocco. Marie Miller's ill-fitting costumes, which barely temper Stonikas' womanly figure, do little to help.
Princeton Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk conducts the score with style and vigor, supporting the cast throughout. McCarter Theatre Center's intimate Matthews Theater is truly a lovely venue for opera, similar in size and design to smaller European houses; the singers can project their voices effectively without pushing to fill a gargantuan space. The connection between the singers and the audience, coupled with the immediacy of this smart and auspicious production, make this festival Fidelio a must-see.
The Princeton Festival's production of Fidelio will be repeated on Sunday, June 25, 2017, at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton NJ. Tickets can be purchased by calling 609-258-2787 or visiting www.princetonfestival.org, where information on other festival events can also be found.