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S & H International Opera Review

Beethoven, Fidelio (concert performance), Soloists, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, May 29, 2004 (HS)

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 music's power.

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 scene.

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.

Harvey Steiman


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