Sunday, October 14, 2012

Free the prisoners!

Seattle Opera photo by Elise Bakketun

Beethoven's lone opera, Fidelio, returns to the Seattle Opera stage just in time for election season.

The contemporary staging emphasizes the modern-day relevance of this two-century-old story. After all, what could be more touching than the heroic story of a political prisoner and the loyal wife who comes to his rescue?

"I didn't plan it to happen in the election season," general director Speight Jenkins told a radio audience on KING FM, "but it's certainly not inappropriate to produce an opera about freedom from oppression during the political season."

The values behind Beethoven's rousing music--personal freedom, individual initiative, --resound with half the political spectrum. But then there's that chorus of prisoners, the 47 percent, opposed to the tyranny of the rich, who haven't lost faith that justice will be done, and whose liberation in the final scene is the purest expression of hope and joy in opera.

There's a tired, long-suffering bureaucrat, the jail-keeper Rocco; an ambitious, morally reprehensible jailer, Don Pizarro; an innocent prisoner, Floristan; and his spunky savior, Leonora, who disguises herself as a man (Fidelio) so she can gain access to the prison.

It was guest conductor who made the call to begin with the so-called Leonora III overture, which emphasizes the haunting, haunted melodies of a prisoner, rather than the one Beethoven himself decided on (the Leonora IV, or actual Fidelio overture). Dragged on forever in melancholy, it seemed, followed eventually by Beethoven's trademark resoluteness.

 Christine Libor, a radiant German soprano, portrays Leonore. So convincing is her disguise that the jailor's daughter falls in love with her assumed persona. Rescue Floristan she does, of course, and justice triumphs. The prisoners are freed, the bad guy is led away, and the chorus (under guest chorusmaster John Keene) chants righteously that love conquers all.

Beethoven is the master of the uplifting chorale, the closing chorus of the Ninth Symphony, set to Schiller's lyric "Ode to Joy" being unequalled, but the prisoners' joyful "Heil sei dem Tag" (Praised be this day) in the second act of Fidelio sure comes close.

"It's like going to church," bass Greer Grimsley told an interviewer. You don't know whether to stand and applaud or kneel and pray.

Seattle Opera presents Fidelio, through October 27th at McCaw Hall. Tickets $25 to $225, online at or by phone at 206.389.7676 or 800.426.1619.

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