Beethoven only wrote one opera, refusing to return to the medium after the self-described torturous process of getting Fidelio to the stage. Upon finally seeing the much-anticipated production at the Canadian Opera Company (their first since 2009), it’s not difficult to see the fault lines where creative conflict surely stepped in.
The opera’s premise is incredibly strong- a badass wife disguises herself as a male prison guard in order to free her political prisoner husband from a corrupt system. A+, no notes. The music is beautiful, it’s Beethoven; props to the person with the confidence to criticise Beethoven but it’s certainly not me. And so we come, as we always seem to in my very grumpy reviews of operas written by not-Verdi, to the story. Opera librettos (this one by Joseph Sonnleithner and George Friedrich Treitschke) always leave much to be desired as repetition and vowel manipulation are central to the vocal performance aspect of what is always a musical medium before it’s a storytelling one. But it’s the structure, story beats, and character development of Fidelio that don’t live up to its premise potential. There’s really no excuse for a good story told badly, and that’s precisely what Fidelio is.
The action starts well after the dramatic inciting moment when the title character makes their biggest decision (to infiltrate the prison) and her actions ultimately have very little effect on the outcome of the story. You could remove Leonore completely from her own opera and Florestan would suffer then be released all the same. The intriguing and timely themes of corruption in the prison system and the importance of compassion are wasted when a bad apple villain is undermined by virtuous saviours above him in the power structure (high in the power structure being the notorious hangout of virtuous saviours). Director Matthew Ozawa attempts to rescue the terrible story by highlighting the universality of the premise’s rich themes and placing the action in modern day. Unfortunately, despite the thrills of Alexander Nichols’ giant rotating set and the distraction of his very dramatic projection work, Ozawa’s all-concept, no-solutions modernization fails to mask Fidelio’s flaws in order to let its best parts shine.
The famous Prisoner’s Chorus does not disappoint musically, as the COC’s ensemble rarely does, but the TTBB composition of the piece only further highlights strange directorial choices. Why are there women in this prison, let alone children? Beethoven wrote the prisoner parts for men only so what this inclusion in effect gives us is a crowd of modern women with nothing to say. And why are only about half of the prisoners in uniform? If the concept is that of an off-the-books detainment centre, less formal infrastructure is necessary to convey those lack-of-due-process conditions. Or is Ozawa’s intention to criticise the larger prison industrial complex? In which case, a far more researched approached to capturing that world is absolutely necessary. The simplistic book with cartoon villain and deus ex machina resolution seem an unfortunately weak base on which to hang the dense thematic promises of the opera’s thrilling premise.
The COC has, at least, assembled a capable cast. Dimitry Ivashchenko as chief jailer Rocco, despite being mysteriously costumed like Al from Home Improvement, delivers the piece’s most consistently engaging performance in the only role granted any sense of real moral conflict. Miina-Liisa Värelä is a capable leading lady despite her character’s deceptive lack of agency, and her strong connection with Clay Hilley’s wonderful Florestan is a crucial success that ups the emotional stakes nearly high enough to distract from the fact that she’s not actually the one who rescues him.
The direction of any theatrical medium where the majority of works are centuries old is a challenging task and the lack of story prioritization in the creation of most operas makes it that much harder. The COC’s programming of Fidelio, despite its written flaws, makes total sense and, as a piece of musical performance, it’s definitely a success. Unfortunately Ozawa’s production does nothing to help ease the tension between music and story quality. He makes big choices but they’re not thoughtful choices and the potential inherent in Fidelio deserves more consideration.