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BWW Review: FIDELIO at the Met – Not THE MET – Proves Beethoven's Only Opera Is No Museum Piece

Heartbeat Opera’s Revisions Bring FIDELIO Smartly into the 21st Century at New York’s Met Museum

BWW Review: FIDELIO at the Met – Not THE MET – Proves Beethoven's Only Opera Is No Museum Piece
Kelly Griffin as Leah.
Photo: Russ Rowland

It's no secret that many of the standard repertoire's most famous operas had troubled premieres--often (but not always) at the hands of overzealous censors--but Beethoven's FIDELIO had more than its share.

Still, as the program notes, the opera's message is of "hope in the face of despair."

Thanks to the efforts of the small but vibrant Heartbeat Opera, which performed its revised version at New York's Met Museum this past weekend (before a short tour), we can see the forest for the trees. Many of the work's problems have been dealt with in a surprisingly effective way and the story brought up to date without destroying its integrity and remaining mostly true to the many writers who worked on the original versions of the libretto: Joseph Sonnleithner from the French of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, Stephan von Breuning and Georg Friedrich Treitschke.

BWW Review: FIDELIO at the Met – Not THE MET – Proves Beethoven's Only Opera Is No Museum Piece
Curtis Bannister as Stan.
Photo: Russ Rowland

In this adaptation, crisply directed by Ethan Heard, Leah (the original's Leonore) attempts to free her husband, a Black Lives Matter activist who has been wrongfully incarcerated by a corrupt warden. Disguising herself as a female correctional officer to infiltrate the facility where she believes he is being kept, Leah, known as Lee, is determined to prevail despite the warden's racism. As in the original, this FIDELIO is about courage in the face of danger.

Beethoven's sumptuous arias are performed in their original German form--grandly sung by the cast and a chorus taken from Midwest prisons--and the story is in English with free hand given to presenting it in current vernacular. Scissors have been taken to the entire work, by director Heard (also adaptor/co-book writer); Marcus Scott (co-book writer); and Daniel Schlosberg (music director/arranger), with characters excised wisely and smartly, and Heartbeat has found, well, the heart of the opera.

BWW Review: FIDELIO at the Met – Not THE MET – Proves Beethoven's Only Opera Is No Museum Piece
Corey McKern and Derrell Acon.
Photo: Russ Rowland

The cast is now just five principals, with all giving noteworthy performances. Soprano Kelly Griffin, is a major presence and voice as Leah/Lee, the Leonore of the original, whose efforts to free her unjustly incarcerated husband Stan (the strong tenor Curtis Bannister), Florestan in the original, is at the center of the opera. Baritone Corey McKern was a fearsome presence as the warden, Donnie (ahem) Pizarro, who has no shame and knows a thing or two about torturing prisoners. Bass Derrell Acon was a fine jailer, Roc (originally Rocco), with soprano Victoria Lawal a full-voiced Marcy, his daughter (originally Marzelline).

BWW Review: FIDELIO at the Met – Not THE MET – Proves Beethoven's Only Opera Is No Museum Piece
Member of East Hill Singers. Photo: Russ Rowland

However, it was the chorus of more than 100 voices of incarcerated singers and 70 volunteers from six prison choirs that made for a thrilling experience, both touching and exhilarating: Oakdale Community Choir, Kuji Men's Chorus, Ubuntu Men's Chorus, Hope Thru Harmony Women's Choir, East Hill Singers, and Voices of Hope.

The simple sets were designed by Reid Thomas, with lighting by Oliver Wason, sound by Kate Marvinand projections by Caite Hevner. Costumes were by Valerie Therese Bart and Kara Branch. Nigel Semaj was the movement director and fight choreographer with Emma Crane Jaster the original movement director.

Music director Schlosberg was conductor and one of two pianists, with Euntaek Kim, in the chamber ensemble, with Nicolee Kuester and Kyra Sims on horns, Clare Monfredo and Nathaniel Taylor on cello and Brandon Ilaw on percussion. They did a remarkable job on Beethoven's wonderful score, though I did miss the bracing overture (the composer wrote four) that was cut from this version.

That's not to say that all the problems of Beethoven's original have been solved or that others haven't been added, such as power of the recognition scene, since the wife no longer is disguised as a boy. The fusing of the serious and comic elements seems to have backtracked somewhat since the last time I saw the company's version of the story--it was performed in 2018 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center as part of the NY Opera Fest--and not necessarily to the work's advantage. And the framing device, with the faithful wife efforts to get her husband released from jail, didn't totally work for me.

Still, the majority of what has been accomplished by Heartbeat Opera is spectacularly good and seems like quibbling against the company's achievement.

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From This Author - Richard Sasanow