The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

HGO Fidelio: Wild, unqualified triumph marking heroic return of Karita Mattila - Met production revival (Jurgen Flimm). Michael Hofstetter. 05.11.11.

Common sports lingo might deem this having really hit one out of the park. Such could be very accurate in assessing Houston Grand Opera’s first production now of Beethoven’s Fidelio in twenty-six years. At somewhat an intuitive level, this Fidelio quickly near its outset and for numerous passages to follow had a way of leading its own way - working out by what even to whomever naïve appeared to follow a certain inscrutable and inexorable logic.

One major contributing factor was certainly HGO’s hosting of celebrated producer Jurgen Flimm - in production we borrowed from the Metropolitan Opera. BBC broadcast of Flimm's production ran last summer from London, starring a mildly tentative Nina Stemme and mediocre Florestan - Endrick Wottrich notorious for dissing Pierre Boulez, accompanying producer for their controversial, most interesting recent Parsifal together at Bayreuth. For casting deficiency or two and last minute need to replace on podium Kirill Petrenko with Mark Elder, things did not quite mesh, catch fire as readily as they did at the Wortham Center the Saturday evening, third performance, of this run.

Leads for HGO’s run on this occasion were Karita Mattila and Simon O’Neill. In 1985 they had been Hildegard Behrens and worthy of special note, the underrated Polish tenor Wieslaw Ochman – from whom eighteen months later we picked up a most suavely neurotic Herod – part somebody should have definitely made him record to supplement his Narraboth’s for Bohm and Karajan. Karita Mattila last appeared here in 2006 for Manon Lescaut - with cool Nordic penetrating tone, delivery scoring a considerable vocal and histrionic triumph then.

From several moments into time curtain was up on opening singspiel scene to Fidelio, one could sense something already in the air – even with just merely HGO studio member and returning alumnus Brittany Wheeler (Marzelline) and Norman Reinhardt (Jaquino) on stage, preoccupied as much as their habitual sparring conversation for the day as with polishing the jail office’s firearms arsenal. All, through Marzelline’s aria expressing her perplexity with conflicting romantic entanglements, came across with fine melos and charm without ever stepping over line to turn anything cloying. Especially anybody slightly more than casually familiar with Flimm’s work could pick up his very close manner of having prepared his cast to draw both his audience in and singers amongst themselves. Kristinn Sigmundsson, both figure and voice of ample girth on stage, played a very warm, convivial Rocco, achieving for later more dramatic scenes all on verge of fine gravitas for crucial interaction therein and genuine compassion for leading protagonists (and also never insipidly cowering fear of offending Pizarro).

Hard to locate, highly underrated Nozze di Figaro Flimm staged for Zurich reveals how – in close-up upon simple change of countenance turn to internal strand of the plot can be forced to happen, as though on a dime. Contrast this, if you will, with excess clutter accompanied heavy mug and blither while not blank feel characterizing David McVicar’s over-rated production of Le Nozze. There is more sexual, dramatic. musical tension on cusp of exploding between Eva Mei and Rodney Gilfry – partly for effort to have dropped many useless clichés – than to be seen the other night between a glib, blank-faced Anna Bolena and good Enrico VIII from the Met.

The very fine Falk Struckmann provided Pizaaro sinister mature weight for Met incarnation of Flimm’s production nine seasons back, vis-à-vis notably youthful, almost naively visionary appearing Rocco of Rene Pape. Dynamic between these two shifted for Houston Grand Opera now between Tomas Tomasson (Tomsky - Pique-Dame, 2010) and Sigmundsson. One might detect a little of suavely delivered (and vocalized) proto-Scarpia aspects of Rodney Gilfry’s brilliant portrayal of Almaviva in Tomasson’s Pizarro. With slightly gravelly voice, but determined line, forza infused encompassing of wide range, here was the picture of blind, youthfull choleric ambition, handsomely packaged – dangerously at the ready to close the sale toward dispatching of Florestan – and then eventually anyone else in his way. Such dynamic again between these two may have garbed itself in more conventional format than at the Met, it seemed, but really at only one end of running dialogue – and equally compellingly. Struckmann and Pape always remain a hard act to follow.

Striking contrast to the villainy of Pizarro, an equally dapper looking Kyle Ketelsen provided Don Fernando’s closing weighty benediction with fine shape and profile, artistically meriting equal approval from the hall – even almost as though unawares of sinister goings-on surrounding rear scaffolding – deep clouds hovering above – purposefully clearer and more disturbing to visual and dramatic perspective than as seen on digital video (dvd).

With even dramatic shift of power, even seemingly into the right hands, element in society can still persist toward trying to recover its way or holding of sway – perhaps more potently now than before – and as realized here also a little more violently – completely without overkill. Witness the sometimes arbitrary police berating of Occupy Wall Street, related protesters across our own fair land. So well articulated in having both Pizarro and Fernando both decked out in three-piece suits, is timeless long by now – since robber baron, wealthy bureaucrat decked out giants and gods respectively of Patrice Chereau’s Ring – oh, not to mention how efficiently laptop, fax machine, water cooler accommodated Alan Titus’s Wotan was for Flimm at Bayreuth two decades later. Very efficient timelessly modernized sett design (Robert Israel) in deep browns and grays, wall of tiered cells distinctively to the right with arms sticking out plus costuming (Florence van Gerkan) and lighting (Duane Schuler) were spot-on.

Couched by the fine simplicity driven musical leadership of Hofstetter, honed to near perfection all evening long - delivered with sufficient weight - long passionate high G from (visually) darkness enshrouded Florestan of Simon O’Neill starting his opening Act Two monologue rang out with compelling force and projection, but leading into fine shaping, encompassing of well nuanced lyricism of the part as well. For more dramatic utterances, O’Neill’s tone is not found the most ingratiating, but the certainty and ferocity of his delivery was sufficient to perhaps recall sometimes a hardly more tonally ingratiating James King on a good night as Florestan. The feel he provided for imploring Fidelio and Rocco for remote chance to see Leonore, his wife, again, through both spoken dialogue and song became deeply moving here.

Helping alongside Flimm and Hofstetter stitch all together was the magnetic Leonore of Karita Mattila, at first sighting stumbling onto stage carrying bag of groceries – as though still learning the steps of being a boy – but then this time perhaps bailing on daily potassium intake; perhaps Wortham Center pantry backstage or distributor was short on supply of bananas. Perhaps a Jurgen Flimm Wozzeck brought up to date, selenium or quercetin intake delivered or sitting around might also come handy – but then Wozzeck’s rage might turn out less violent and then the play would no longer be the same. (I could not help tonight but note Flimm’s place of birth being Giessen – site of Buchner’s alma mater).

Fidelio marked heroic return by Mattila to the Wortham Center stage. Shift of registers, making reach for high notes, sustaining line up to them is all such for which she has lost a little ease during the past several years. Within picture of quietly intense, flexible shaping of all that occurred here, depth of feel, perspective Flimm provided – Mattila recovered some of the above with fine malleability, color, flexibility, even some of the bloom of former years.

Between Mattila and Flimm, this Fidelio proved how great stage direction, production of opera requires a good ear on part of the producer - in addition to on part of who may be conducting. With Mattila fully understanding, encompassing very compelled, commanding line, filling much subtle nuance therein – through the challenging hurdles of ‘Komm, Hoffnung’ and elsewhere – dramatic impetus Beethoven’s music opens out, compels forward became complete, filling out all Fidelio is about. This was work matching highest current international standards for both directing and singing Fidelio – and especially from Karita Mattila, both always looking very comfortable in her own skin and thus filling out Leonore with most magnetic, engaged self-effacing warmth. One could not help but be moved.

Why much mention of Wozzeck above? One might guess and very reasonably that part of Marie Met – could figure before long within Karita Mattila’s sights. Given all the dramatic excitement happening on stage, the classic grosse pause Alban Berg parodied during Act One seduction scene thereof got slightly over-stepped here. There is still opportunity to ameliorate matters, fully recover the mother of all dramatic pauses in music history – to supplement good handful of pregnant, dramatically rife pauses interjecting earlier dialogue, interaction. Apart from that, Hofstetter, in pacing Fidelio, flexibly filling out its lyricism very seldom put a foot wrong. Mild prudence accommodating one or two slightly strained voices during Act Two may have slightly undercut dramatic tension, quasi-period abrupt accent or two may have slightly broken line - churlish to mention any of this.

Choral preparation (Richard Bado) is still fine, yet in this context I intermittently found several lines during Prisoner’s Chorus slightly louder in volume than might provide most moving results. Note however the hush, spaciousness with which Hofstetter infused slowly ascending strings to implore men sideways – and then prudent spacing, weight provided, underpinning them throughout and through sometimes aimless extending out through through-composed dialogue to follow –everybody’s attention rapt instead – toward poised, gently drifting off conclusion to Act One. Luminous warmth, achieved by HGO orchestra winds, alacrity infused witty pointing of opening singspiel, anticipatorily hushed Act One quartet (‘Mir ist wunderbar’) and highly spirited uplift infused finale to Fidelio marked Hofstetter’s return as very compelling (since good 2008 Beatrice et Benedict – featuring excellent Benedict of Norman Reinhardt) – always toward very clear goals in mind. He should soon get invited back.

This Fidelio is such necessity to go see, should anyone reading this be in the area - anything no longer important months, years later can get put aside for this opportunity. Houston Grand Opera has scored an unqualified triumph this week. Certainly for local yokels but perhaps for visitors from away to reckon HGO entity of true international standing - was occasion to feel very fortunate to be alive to witness this.

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