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Jailhouse Rock

The Met finally overhauls Fidelio, giving Beethoven's prison-bound opera a grim, updated look while reveling in Karita Mattila's magnificent Leonore.

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Free: Ben Heppner and Karita Mattila in Fidelio.  

For those who consider Fidelio more monument than music drama, the Metropolitan Opera's powerful new production is likely to prove startling, perhaps even revelatory. Yes, the triumph of individual freedom in the face of brutal tyranny fired Beethoven, but he created real people to deliver the message, a fact that director Jürgen Flimm never lets us forget.

It's often remarked, not always flatteringly, that Fidelio begins as domestic comedy, suddenly veers into scene-chewing melodrama, and winds up as a static cantata in praise of Leonore, whose self-sacrificing bravery frees her unjustly imprisoned husband. Flimm seizes on what some would call clumsy dramaturgy and turns it into a virtue. He carefully develops the characters and their conflicting needs in the opening scenes, backs away to show us how the important dramatic action directly evolves from these homely events, and finally integrates everything into the panoramic spectacle that concludes the opera. It's rather like watching a seamlessly made film, one that starts out as a series of close-ups, gradually broadens its perspective to find the larger picture, and ends in one glorious long shot that ties it all together.

Robert Israel's sets and Florence von Gerkan's costumes add a touch of film noir to the production's cinematic flavor. Although no specific time or place is evoked, the atmosphere is unremittingly grim and vaguely contemporary -- the Act One cell block, in fact, would not be out of place in a Cagney-Bogart-Raft prison movie. Florestan's subterranean dungeon is a dank, subhuman environment, accessible only by a very scary perpendicular ladder. In the finale, a marble statue of the tyrant Pizarro on horseback is toppled and replaced by the villain in person, presumably to be hanged just as the curtain falls. At least that is what it looks like; on opening night, the intent of that last scene was not entirely clear, but I expect it will be more effectively realized in later performances.

I've seen some compelling Leonores over the years -- Mödl, Varnay, Silja, Jurinac, Rysanek, Ludwig, Söderström, Jones -- but none ever gave a more complete performance of the role than Karita Mattila does in this production. Mattila may not have a huge dramatic voice, but she eloquently proves that Leonore need not always be sung by an Isolde or a Brünnhilde. When a hefty stand-and-deliver Wagnerian soprano sings the part -- a long tradition at the Met -- the psychological pressures and physical danger of Leonore's situation are pretty much left to the audience's imagination. Not so here. Between them, Mattila and Flimm show us a conflicted woman under terrific tension in her boy's disguise as a jailer's assistant, desperately looking for a way to rescue Florestan. Despite her total immersion in a character teetering on the edge, Mattila never loses vocal control. Her singing is consistently true and expressive, the bravura passages are thrillingly delivered, and her gleaming, centered tone lights up the entire house.

The rest of the cast is more than worthy of this exceptional Leonore. At the first performance, Ben Heppner misjudged the opening of Florestan's big second-act aria, but he soon found the right tone and sang with disciplined authority. Falk Struckmann refuses to ham up Pizarro's villainy, and his rock-solid portrayal is all the more chilling for its understatement. René Pape (Rocco), Jennifer Welch-Babidge (Marzelline), and Matthew Polenzani (Jaquino) not only have superior voices, but they also bring an added human dimension to their roles. Each has been badly shaken by the life-and-death drama that Leonore brought into their lives, and these ordinary folk will never again be the same.

Most impressive of all is the inspirational account of the score by the Met orchestra under James Levine. One expects instrumental excellence from this superbly trained group of musicians, but I was unprepared for the sharply profiled musical character, emotional fervor, and sheer energy of the playing. This was a pleasant surprise for one who usually finds these qualities lacking in Levine's always scrupulously prepared but strangely vacuous interpretations. I also applaud Levine for having the courage and humility to omit the "Leonore" Overture No. 3 between the two scenes of Act Two -- a real sacrifice for a star conductor of Fidelio, rather like asking Lucia to forgo her Mad Scene. The overture is, of course, a masterpiece, but out of place in this context, especially in a production so carefully thought out and dramatically riveting.

José van Dam was in town recently, to sing two recitals of French song at Alice Tully Hall and to repeat his classic Golaud in the Met revival of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. For anyone who admires this Belgian bass-baritone's elegant art, it was an opportunity not to be missed -- Van Dam has paid few visits to New York in recent years, and at age 60, he may not be planning many more. Not that there is anything wrong with his voice. The suave texture is still unblemished throughout its range and the purling tone retains its heady appeal, a sound gently ruffled by the nasal buzz so characteristic of French-speaking singers and a quality that gives Van Dam his distinctive vocal color.

It is the perfect instrument for French mélodie, flexible enough to project the language with fluidity and subtle verbal pointing, but more than sufficiently robust to realize the full musical content of each song. And the two programs were choice, giving due representation to most of the genre's masters (Berlioz, Debussy, Fauré, Duparc, Ravel, and Poulenc) while also exploring a few rarities such as Ibert's Don Quichotte songs and Ropartz's brief cycle based on texts by Heine.

Among many moments of heart-stopping vocal beauty I'll not soon forget were the perfectly placed pianissimo "Amen" of Ravel's Chanson Épique and the delicate tracery of Duparc's "L'Invitation au Voyage." Mostly, though, it is Van Dam's ability to integrate notes and words so exquisitely that makes the difference, and this deluxe voice was fortunate to be so securely cushioned by Maciej Pikulski's sensitively shaped piano accompaniments. Although we hear him live too infrequently, Van Dam has preserved much of his song repertory on disc, and it's good to see that so many of his recitals on the French Forlane label are readily available once again.


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