Cast Fidelio

Photos Courtesy: S.F. Opera

SAN FRANCISCO, CA --  Before  composing the score of his first and only opera in Vienna, Ludwig Van Beethoven, one of the great musical geniuses of all times, began  looking for a libretto focused on a subject more powerful than love.  But what is more powerful than love?

Beethoven found it a French opera's libretto by the name of "Leonore, ou L'amour conjugal" (Leonore, or Conjugal love), written by Nicolas Bouilly, that was based on a true story that had taken place during the French revolution (May 5, 1789-Nov 9, 1799). The story demonstrated two different types of love: Filial love (The love of a wife for her husband and a husband for his wife) and the innate human's love for freedom

The heroine in this libretto was a French woman, named Leonore, whose husband Floristan, trying to overthrow the tyrannical regime of Don Pizarro in a revolt, was imprisoned by him.  So, trying to rescue her husband,  Leonore,  disguises herself  as a man, and under the  name Fidelio, gets a job in the prison where she believes that Floristan is imprisoned, and working as the  helper of Rocco, the jailer, starts searching for him among the prisioners. In the process, she gets a chance to observe  their suffering becoming aware that they are treated like animals,  chained to the walls of  humid dark cells, starving for lack of food,  and thirsting for water.  She has searched the prison for two years, but has been unable to find her husband.  And the reason is that Leonore had never been allowed to descend to the solitaire dungeon, at the bottom of the building, where Don Pizarro, had chained her husband.

In his genius as a poet and writer, Bouilly wrote a realistic and moving libretto for Lenore ou L'amour Conjugal and when he did, he even choose the names of his principal characters to define them. The pronunciation in French of the name Leonore is similar than the pronunciation of the French word for  lionne which means lioness in French, and as we all know, in the animal kingdom, the lionesses are the very fabric  of the lions pride because they (not the males)  are the ones who nourish and protect the lion's family. The name of Leonore's husband, Floristan, when pronounced in French, sounded similar than fleur, which in French means flower. So by  his name alone, we may deduct that becase of years of torture, Leonore's husband is now as delicate, as a flower after been chained,  in solitary confinement for two years, and starved. And for Leonora's other name, Bouilly selected Fidelio, which means Fidélité (fidelity) in French, and describes two types: the mutual fidelity that a bride and a groom promised to give each other for the rest of their lives, when pronounced man and wife by a priest, in church, during their marriage ceremony, and the one in the motto of the Franch Revolution: égalité, ( Equality) Fraternité, (Fraterniy) and Liberté (Freedom) that Floristan was fighting to return to the French people.

Because knowing,  as a  fact, that  the Libretto of  FIDELIO the opera,was based in a true story which happened in France during the French Revolution, many  believe  that  Nicolas Bouilly may have based his libretto  on his own life, because the Playwright  had also been a Politician,   during that time.

When Beethoven decided to select Bouilliy's  Libretto  for his opera's debut  (1805) Leonore's  story  had already been told  in two other opera's librettos, but Beethoven could use  the story again in his work, because in the year  l800, it was common for writers and composers  to steal works from each other, because there were no copyright laws.

Soprano Elsa Van den Heever as Leonora and Tenor Russell Thomas as Floristan
Soprano Elsa Van den Heever as Leonora and Tenor Russell Thomas as Floristan

History tells us that Beethoven also  wanted to name his opera  Leonore, (The name of the protagonist of the Opera) but Emanuel Schikaneder, the Director of the Theater an der Wien in Vienna,  where the work debuted,  persuade him to change the opera's name to Fidel(Fidelity) because  Fidelity is at the core of the story.  Leonora's Fidelity to Floristan her husband, and Floristan's Fidelity to his ideal: to free the French from Tyranny

The contrasts between good and evil in the story's plot, also inspired Beethoven to create many musical changes in his score. He changed his overture, four times, and changed Leonore's pivotal aria "Abscheulicher" (This is hideous) and Florestan's "Gott welch Dunkel hier!" (God, what darkness in here) Considered master arias in Oper's repertoire.

Director Matthew Osawa
Director Matthew Osawa

The masterfully  FIDELIO, Directed by Matthew  Ozawa , a-new production  of San Francisco Opera which opened  live and in stream for the first time in the history of S.F. Opera, on the night of  October 14th, transported  the action in FIDELIO  from the l800's to the present times. It worked, because, sadly, in actuallity, we still have violations of human rights

Because it was modernized, this  FIDELIO uses modern wardrobe for the singers, and the dark dungeon, (in previous productions of the opera representing  realistically, the jails in France) was replaced by a Modern Detention Facility  which imitates a realistic-looking building   (designed  by set designer Alexander V. Nichols) constructed with  parallel vertical metal tubes,  and horizontal, illuminated  parallel bars. The  two story-high jail rotating building has large glass windows which allow the audience to watch the action taking place in each room, from different angles.


And if visually the opera is impressive, musically it is superb. From the very first notes of the overture, we recognize that as a composer of nine symphonies and other piano pieces, Beethoven is the supreme exponent of the Architectural use of tonality.

He did not write arias for his opera; (They not follow the opera;s arias' pattern) what Beethoven wrote, to be sung by the singers, were master pieces, some sounding similar to symphonies, in different rhythms, and by combining the arias with short dialogues, the action in FIDELIO feels natural

Enhancing the S.F. Opera production of FIDELIO was a cast of magnificent singers which included: Elza Van Den Heever, returning to the cast, Russell Thomas, Greer Grimsley, James Creswell and Soloman Howard and the Music Director Eun Sun Kim

Conductor Eun Sun Kim (Photo by Kim Tae-hwan)
Conductor Eun Sun Kim (Photo by Kristen Loken SF Opera)

On opening night, the energetic direction of Eun Sun Kim gave such unity to the instruments of her orchestra, that the opera's Overture had full sound, especially in the strings and brass instruments.

And later on, singing their roles in German, a very difficult language to sing in, all the singers mastered their roles and represented them with the veracity that their role required. There were two memorable moments in the production. One was in the scene in which Leonore (van den Heever) convinces Rocco (James Creswell) to allow the prisoners to go out in the sunshine for a few minutes so they could see light, (they live in darkness) and the men, singing in a perfect-sounding choir (Directed by Choir director Ian Robertson) go to stand in the front of the building (on the stage) and sing with a longing look in their eyes extend their arms and open their hands as if longing to touch the light.

The other was created by projections. in the Solitary confinement of Floristan (Russel Thomas represented by a triangular small set only big enough for the chair where he is sitting down. As he sings, projected on  the panels of the walls of his cell, we see different  events in his life, including pictures showing Leonore his wife.

Tenor Russel Thomas as Floristan
Tenor Russel Thomas as Floristan

As production, FIDELIO's action was realistically portrayed, so it was moving. Every aria in the opera interpreted by the singers, with the proper feeling, and because the plot of a woman loving her husband to such extend was understood by many, the audience response to the production was unique. When it ended, everyone inside the War Memorial Opera Building stood up, smiling, clapping and shouting BRAVO. The ovation was long,

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