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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Operatic Beethoven

I'm working on Fidelio right now. That's Beethoven's only opera. Actually it's not officially an opera if you go by those old definitions of opera. It's a Singspiel 'cause it's got dialogue (think Zauberflöte). However, it's not a comic opera by any stretch of the imagination, even though three of the main characters are straight from central "comic opera" casting, one other is a stock villain, and the main character is in drag the whole opera.

That's one way of looking at this opera...

Thankfully, there's always multiple ways of looking at anything. I choose to focus on the underlying themes of the piece: Hope, Freedom, and the Power of Love. Leonore's aria "Abscheulicher... Komm, Hoffnung..." is the heart of the opera. It's about never despairing and keeping Hope close to your heart so that Love can give you the strength to conquer any obstacles. It's a fantastic aria, terribly difficult to sing, and challenging on an emotional level. I get all emotional when it comes to holding onto Hope and pushing Despair away -- ever since reading Tolkien's LOTR and discovering the same theme in Sam's character. It's so easy to despair. I find it takes great strength - and usually great faith in something or someone - to actively NOT despair.

Hope is slightly less active. One can "hope" in a passive way, which is usually not all that dramatic to witness as an audience member. One of the challenges in Fidelio is to creat an URGENT sense of Hope. Part of that challenge comes from Beethoven and his inconsistent way of treating the characters' text. I'm speaking about clarity of text and subtext, something Mozart was so adept with and something that Beethoven seemed not to have learned from, and then evolved into perfection (like he did with his sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets).

Showing the oppression onstage is easy and, frankly, fun. I'm adding in two thugs who beat up a prisoner onstage during Pizzaro's aria, and I'm adding in an execution of a prisoner at the very end of Act One (just as Rocco and Leonore head down into the dark, deep reaches of the dungeons.) I'm doing this not to be gratuitous, but to SHOW in more vivid, physical means, what Leonore is up against: an oppressive, sadistic regime that has unjustly imprisoned her husband in solitary confinement for two years while slowly starving him to death. Hopefully this will help everyone understand the difficulty Leonore has in keeping Hope alive within her while she looks for her husband in order to somehow save him.

In the midst of this great opera, a magical musical moment occurs which I think is heartbreakingly beautiful: the Prisoner's chorus that starts the first act finale ("O welche Lust"). Leonore convinces Rocco to allow the prisoners a brief moment of freedom to breathe the fresh air and feel the sun on their faces. He agrees and they come out of their darkened cells (to chords that sound a bit like Bernstein's West Side Story...) to sing about freedom. It's riveting.

The chorus that sings this is comprised almost entirely from the students at Concordia College. I have been so impressed with these young men - their voices blend brilliantly, and their attention to Beethoven's musical demands is beyond most professional choruses I've worked with. People should come to the show JUST for these five minutes!

The cast is also REALLY terrific. I'm looking forward to getting this into the theatre next week and seeing how it will all come together once the orchestra is added to the mix.

A perfect opera for this season of Christian Hope.