BWW Review: Elza van den Heever Thrills in Her 'Date' with Beethoven's FIDELIO at Caramoor
South African soprano Elza van den Heever has long had a 'date' with Beethoven's Leonore, in his only completed opera FIDELIO. It wasn't exactly a blind date - she has known for years that, eventually, she would take it on, she told me - but it was a roaring success in her role debut, at the Venetian Theatre at the Caramoor Festival, under Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke's.
Taking on a role for the first time in public is surely a daunting challenge for a singer. Yet, van den Heever pulled it off with finesse, her burnished voice, flexibility and fine acting providing a fine look at this woman driven to save her spouse. Her "Abscheulicher!" -revealing the depth of her devotion to Florestan - was a stellar achievement and her later scene with him in their wonderful duet, "O namelose Freude," was incredibly moving, showing great rapport with the sometimes fervent, sometimes strained, performance of tenor Paul Groves, who delivered a powerful entry aria, "Gott! Wech dunkel hier!"
In some ways, a semi-staged concert is the perfect way to see this opera, with the orchestra front-and-center and not in a pit, since Beethoven's orchestral writing - from the first strains of the overture - is so strong and the instrumental ensemble is really one of the characters of the piece. Heras-Casado, St. Luke's principal conductor (and Beethoven 'fiend') led a nuanced, if sometimes overly fussy, performance that showed off the orchestra's strengths, including some great French horns. His strong hand was shown to its best in the success of the ensembles, from the "Mir ist so wunderbar" of Act I. As necessary, he kept the audience in tow, refusing to be rushed when the enthusiastic listeners burst in with applause for the singers before he reached his final phrase.
On the other hand, FIDELIO's gloomy atmosphere was not well served by concert attire, except for Leonore, the faithful wife of a political prisoner disguised as a man (Fidelio) in order to free him. With her short hair and man-tailored suit, van den Heever looked as well in the part as she sounded. Some of the other principals were not so fortunate.
For example, the excellent soprano Georgia Jarman in the role of Marzelline - the jailor's daughter who falls for Fidelio and wants to marry 'him' - sang (and acted) the part with gusto but looked totally wrong in her flowing fuchsia gown and it detracted from her otherwise well-sung performance. And as her father, Rocco, bass Kristinn Sigmundsson gave an achingly sympathetic turn, but his tuxedo helped keep the audience at arm's length. I had less of an issue with the formal dress of the solid chorus (as other prisoners... really?), the members of the Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists and Apprentices, though something less formal might have abetted the excellent the young singers as the First and Second Prisoners, tenor Cameron Schutza and bass Andrew Munn.
Groves fared better, with an outfit that was less traditional and a match for his Leonore, as did bass-baritone Alfred Walker in a lusty, well-sung performance as Pizarro, governor of the prison and the "heavy" of the piece, who is out to kill Florestan. Tenor Andrew Owens provided in a light-voiced turn as Jacquino, the suitor whom Marzelline rejects in favor of Fidelio (modestly attired, it was clear he was no match for Marzelline in her fuchsia outfit) and newcomer baritone Xiaomeng Zhang, a Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artist, did well as the prime minister, even in his tux.
Beethoven's vocal writing is notoriously hard on singers - treating the voice as a musical instrument having some mechanical precision and frequently setting the music in an uncomfortable place between registers - and except for van den Heever, many of the cast fell into his traps from time to time.
In fact, it's odd that FIDELIO was programmed at Caramoor, which is known for its specialty in bel canto operas, though it is venturing outside that sphere more and more these days. Yes, FIDELIO is contemporary with the bel canto movement in Italy - it premiered the same year as the Festival's other entry this summer, Rossini's AURELIANO IN PALMYRA - but I'm not sure that 'beautiful singing' was high on Beethoven's agenda. Whether or not he wanted it, he got it, particularly from van den Heever's brand-new Leonore as well as from her colleagues at Caramoor.