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BWW Review: Reshaping Beethoven's FIDELIO into Lang's PRISONER OF THE STATE at the Philharmonic

BWW Review: Reshaping Beethoven's FIDELIO into Lang's PRISONER OF THE STATE at the Philharmonic
Alan Oke, Jarrett Ott, Julie Mathevet,
Eric Owens. Photo: Chris Lee

The New York Philharmonic finished up its season with a powerful performance of a new version of the FIDELIO story by composer David Lang, which he neatly titled PRISONER OF THE STATE, summing up a key part of the story.

Lang's score and the staging by Elkhanah Pulitzer--not to mention the pulsating performance of the score by the Philharmonic under music director Jaap van Zweden--were triumphs, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats as the 70-minute work unfolded.

However, the opera itself endured almost as much pain as its hero, simply called "The Prisoner" in Lang-speak, from what they call on Broadway "book problems." In other words, the libretto left something to be desired. It's one thing to cut a story down to size; it's quite another to leave the audience puzzled.

It's not surprising, considering that Beethoven himself somewhat underwent a similar fate, going through several librettists and even different versions of the overture (that have happily survived) trying to slap the opera into shape. He ended up with a treatment that still doesn't quite work, except when the greatest of musicians make us forget the opera's shortcomings and leave us remembering the heroine's "Abscheulicher!" and the duet for the married couple, "O namenlose Freude!" as well as the Prisoner's Chorus and, of course, the great finale.

Beethoven's version suffered from having too many characters and situations, particularly those offering comic relief that the opera didn't need. Lang, on the other hand, who wrote his own libretto, chopped off too much of the story, so things didn't quite make sense, counting on the audience's knowledge of FIDELIO to follow along. Still his percussive, despairing score and the first-rate performances of the cast almost made it work.

Soprano Julie Mathevet (here, "The Assistant," rather than Beethoven's heroic wife, Leonore) was a touching, gleaming presence in the opening "I was a woman" and elsewhere, though her character was disappointingly not very well drawn. Baritone Jarrett Ott (The Prisoner-cum-Florestan) did some fine singing, even when he was singing from below the stage (a la Jochanaan in SALOME), but looked suspiciously buff for a guy who was supposed to be starving in the depths of a prison (Maline Casta's costumes could have helped more here). The libretto also took too long letting us know why he was a prisoner.

Tenor Alan Oke gave a piercing performance of the evil "Governor" while bass-baritone Eric Owens did well as the weak-willed but realistic "Jailer" (with his "Gold" aria) almost made the thing work. The work of the men of the Concert Chorale of New York as the other prisoners, was first rate (multiplied on screen by Adam Larsen's projections) in "O what desire" and other set pieces, against the blunt backdrop of scenic designer Matt Saunders.

A year ago, a feisty New York company called Heartbeat Opera did its own version of FIDELIO, again cutting extraneous characters but using Beethoven's own music. While its libretto had some problems of its own, it did a much better job of laying out the story to make it more understandable. (Its use of real prison choruses on film was also spectacularly successful.)

And while it was fascinating to hear what David Lang had to say musically about the story (originally called "Leonore or the Triumph of Marital Love" by Beethoven) the next time he is looking for a libretto, he might remember the old saw about "The lawyer who represents himself..."

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From This Author - Richard Sasanow