Tina Kiberg, Leonore
Robert Gambill, Florestan
Paul Plishka, Rocco
Tom Fox, Don Pizzaro
Eric Cutler, Jaquino
Anna Christy, Marzelline
Daniel Borowski, Don Fernando
For purely orchestral glory, it
was hard to beat what Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony
whipped up for this semi-staged performance of Beethoven's only opera.
The Symphony Chorus came close, providing thrills of their own in the
joyous final scene but, with the exception of baritone Tom Fox's powerfully
sung, villainous Don Pizzaro, the cast managed to get through the score
unscathed but without great vocal distinction. In the end, Beethoven's
supremely uplifting music carried the day in this, the final program
of the orchestra's Beethoven's Vienna festival.
Still, the sounds of last year's
semi-staged opera, Wagner's Die Fliegende Hollander, remain sharply
etched in the memory, a stunning example of why a great cast (including
Mark Delavan and Jane Eaglen) is worth the effort. The Fidelio bunch
had its moments, but the only real vocal glories in this performance
belonged to the chorus. "O, gott! Welch ein augenblick," the
magnificent hymn to joy that opens the final scene, practically levitated
the audience. I looked around me to find everyone grinning -- exactly
the effect Beethoven wanted.
Most of the cast never came close
to such sublime vocalism. They all had the right idea of what their
words and music were about, but they lacked that final level of vocal
polish. Danish soprano Tina Kiberg in the title role managed to control
a broad vibrato that often made her sound hooty, especially when she
needed to cut through dense ensembles. Still, her "Noch heute"
came off as properly ecstatic. American tenor Robert Gambilli, whose
program bio identifies him as a bel canto specialist, was working hard
to keep things moving, never a good thing in a role we are accustomed
to hearing from a heldentenor. He strained for the high notes in Florestan's
Act II prison scene, which fits the drama but takes away some of the
As the younger pair of lovers,
soprano Anna Christy and Eric Cutler, both fresh from American opera
training programs, showed stage presence but never quite blended into
trios, quartets and ensembles as seamlessly as they could have. That
might have been partly because veteran American bass Paul Plishka, as
Rocco, barely could corral his near-wobble of a vibrato. Plishka knows
the role, however, and his sheer musicality and dramatic experience
made up for what his aging voice lacked. Polish bass Daniel Borowski
might have looked too young for the jailer's role, but his sturdy bass
would have been welcome in more music than his walk-on in the final
Vocally, the strongest link was
Fox. His baritone may not be as rich and flexible as it once was, but
it has the heft and the color to traverse Beethoven's music with ease.
He also knows how to play a villain without resorting to Snidely Whiplash
mustache stroking. He just stands ramrod straight and looks pityingly
at everyone else on stage.
Davies Hall had been fitted out
with ranks of lights, positioned just below the floating plastic sound
reflectors over the stage, and a few suggestions of stone arches and
perspective-skewed prison bars. An arch high at the back provided a
glimpse of sky (painted on a scrim). A platform ran through the orchestra
separating the string sections from the winds and percussion, connected
to the chorus seats surrounding the stage by staircases. The action
used the setting effectively.
To avoid long stretches of dialog,
some (mercifully uncredited) soul hatched the idea of employing a narrator.
That would have been fine, but whoever wrote the script decided to go
well beyond a summary of what would have been said on stage. Much of
the narration sounded like extensive program notes -- bad program notes
-- delivered with over-the-top histrionics by actor L. Peter Callender,
a regular with the California Shakespeare Company. Digressions about
Beethoven's life and what the opera was "about" are better
left to the program book and the listener's own mind. It's a measure
of how powerful the music-making was -- especially from the orchestra
and chorus -- that in the end even the intrusive narration could not
diminish the trajectory of emotion from the depths of the dungeon at
the beginning of Act II to the ecstasy of the finale.