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The Art of Resistance: Although it works well as a thriller, Fidelio is also a fervent call for human rights. More than perhaps any other opera, it reflects the spirit and conflicts of its time. Yet over more than two centuries, the opera's message has been co-opted by the very states and tyrants that it challenges.
A Memorable Fidelio: Journey back 30 years to Pacific Opera Victoria's 1988 production of Fidelio.
Concept, Cast, and Creative Team: Find out about director Wim Trompert's approach to the current production and meet the artists who are bringing this opera to the stage.
Ayre: A stunning 21st century song cycle comes to the Baumann Centre at the end of October. Learn more about Ayre and the singer who has made this work her own.
Events Calendar: What's on at Pacific Opera – opera performances, free public previews, activities for schools and artists.
One fine morning
I woke up early
to find the fascists at my door.
These chilling words are from Bella Ciao (Goodbye Beautiful), a century-old Italian folk song that has leapt to new prominence with Tom Waits' elegiac performance on an album called Songs of Resistance, 1942-2018.
The song originated as a late-19th-century field song protesting working conditions in the rice fields of Northern Italy. It was reborn in WWII as the anthem of the anti-fascist partisans. Since then it has been adopted by activists and causes world wide and is now an international anthem of resistance. Tom Waits' rendition, with guitarist Marc Ribot, is accompanied with video related to today's political turmoil.
Like Bella Ciao, Beethoven's opera Fidelio is instantly recognized as a call for human rights, for resistance to tyranny – both express the human spirit in song, reinvented to reflect new times and traumas.
Bella Ciao is a farewell from the singer to his love as he goes off to join the partigiani, and perhaps die for freedom.
In Fidelio too, the story centres on loved ones who are torn apart, and who must confront the fact that death may be the price of freedom.
When Florestan, a political activist, disappears, his wife Leonore, desperate to find him, disguises herself as a boy, Fidelio, and infiltrates the prison where she believes he is being held.
Florestan's bitter enemy is Pizarro, the corrupt prison governor, who has arrested Florestan and cast him into a dark, hidden dungeon. When Pizarro learns that he is about to be investigated for his crimes, he resolves to kill Florestan. Fidelio heroically tracks down her husband and confronts Pizarro with a pistol, saving Florestan in the nick of time. General rejoicing ensues as Don Fernando, the government minister, arrests Pizarro and restores justice.
Fidelio was forged in the cauldron of the French Revolution. It is based on a libretto by Jean Nicholas Bouilly – Léonore ou L'amour conjugal (Leonore, or Conjugal Love), which was set to music by Pierre Gaveaux in 1798. Though there is no proof, Bouilly alleged that the story was based on a true incident from the Reign of Terror, and that he had shifted the setting to Spain to protect the lady's identity.
Heroic rescues and prison scenes were all the rage at the time, and Léonore falls into the tradition of the "rescue opera," as does Fidelio, which, despite its idealist underpinnings, also works as a thriller.
The story's tropes are familiar to any modern movie-goer. Our action hero (this time a woman!) is on a desperate mission to find and rescue her husband without blowing her cover. The villain Pizarro, like all perfect mustache-twirling evildoers, gloats over his hapless victim until the final dramatic standoff.
There's even a romance to lighten the story. Marzelline, daughter of the jailer Rocco, develops a crush on Fidelio and ditches her boyfriend Jaquino. However, Beethoven ignores the love triangle once Leonore and Florestan are reunited, and the libretto never tells us whether Marzelline mends her broken heart and returns to Jaquino. In POV's production, director Wim Trompert deals neatly with this plot hole: Marzelline and Jaquino become resistance workers who help Leonore enter the prison; Marzelline and Fidelio then concoct a love affair so that Rocco will take on Fidelio, his prospective son-in-law as an apprentice.
But Fidelio transcends romance and derring-do as Leonore's quest moves from the personal to the universal. Though she never deviates from her mission, her empathy for the other inmates is awakened. She advocates for them to be briefly released from their cells. Later, as she digs a grave for the wretched man whom she hopes and dreads may be her husband, she vows that no matter who this prisoner may be, she will save him.
Fidelio's compassion and sense of justice find expression in music of heart-stopping beauty: the Act 1 Canon Quartet, a radiant, reflective interweaving of fear and longing; the Prisoners' Chorus, its orchestral opening blessing the inmates like a sunrise as they revel in the simple joy of breathing the open air; Leonore's aria with its stormy beginning, followed by a sublime prayer for the power of love and hope to dispel her fears; Florestan's great Act 2 aria, an emotional journey from bleak anguish to reflective calmness, culminating in a delirious vision of Leonore, an oboe counterpoint winding round his words like the very spirit of madness ... or hope.
Beethoven's passionate belief in justice and humanity reflects an idealism that many of us have long discarded. But Beethoven was no wild-eyed socialist. His Pizarro is a malicious bad apple rather than an agent of the state. The opera's triumphant ending is engineered by the King's minister Don Fernando, who represents – and restores – the existing order.
Therefore, even as Fidelio issues its clarion call for human rights, the literal trumpet call at the end of the opera ushers in, not a revolution, but the representative of the state, who puts everything right. As a result, the opera's message is sometimes appropriated by the very forces it challenges.
Fidelio has been called a chameleon opera for the way it can reflect clashing political colours. As one reviewer noted, What constitutes freedom and justice is sometimes a matter of perspective, and having Beethoven's music on your side does wonders for your cause.
Fidelio premiered in 1805 in Vienna, a week after Napoleon's troops occupied the city. It played to an audience of invaders. Not surprisingly, it flopped. (The interior of the Theater an der Wien, where Fidelio premiered in 1805, is shown at right.)
Fast forward to Fidelio's revival in 1814, again in Vienna. Napoleon was gone for the moment, exiled to Elba; the opera breathed the air of European liberation and shared in the hoopla around the Congress of Vienna as dignitaries gathered to redraw the map of Europe.
Just over a century later, Fidelio played to new conquerors: a 1938 staging at the Vienna Staatsoper celebrated the Anschluss, Nazi Germany's "liberation" of Austria. Hermann Goering presided as the guest of honour, with the Völkischer Beobachter extolling the event as an uplifting celebration of liberation.
Fidelio continued to serve as a tool of German nationalism during WWII. The Nazis, somehow wilfully blind to its seditious possibilities, did not ban it. The exiled Thomas Mann wrote in 1945, How could Beethoven's Fidelio ... not be forbidden in the Germany of the last twelve years? ... what utter stupidity was required to be able to listen to Fidelio in Himmler's Germany without covering one's face and rushing out of the hall!
Fidelio was also a symbol of defiance. In December 1944 Toscanini led the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera soloists in a historic live radio broadcast of Fidelio. As Kenneth A. Christensen noted, That Toscanini, who was quite openly opposed to Fascism and Nazism ... dared to conduct a German language opera in a New York broadcasting studio, during this darkest period of history, says a great deal about the importance which Maestro attached to ... the music and its message of freedom from oppression and tyranny.
That message has been proclaimed repeatedly, in a variety of settings.
In October 1989, the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany was marked by demonstrations in the streets of Dresden and the première of Christine Mielitz's provocatively contemporary Fidelio, which displayed all the apparatus of the Stasi state: walls, watchtowers, wire fencing, grimness, greyness, neon searchlights; the chorus in the final scene wore street clothes, looking no different than the protesters outside. A month later, the Berlin Wall fell.
The Semper Opera in Dresden at night. Venue for the October 1989 première of Christine Mielitz's historic production of Fidelio
Other productions have set the opera in concentration camps and a Latin American banana republic (with U.S. soldiers as the liberators). In 2010 Perm Opera staged a site-specific production in the former Perm 36 Gulag. A 2004 South Africa - Norway collaboration staged Fidelio in the former Robben Island Prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. New York's Heartbeat Opera set the opera in the US prison system, with Florestan as a Black Lives Matter activist and the recorded voices of over 100 incarcerated singers from six prison choirs singing the Prisoners' Chorus.
More than perhaps any opera, Fidelio reflects its Zeitgeist. It resonates, like a tuning fork, picking up the peculiar disharmonies of its age. Although states and tyrants try to co-opt its message, in the words of William Kinderman, no other opera so powerfully critiques every regime that denies human freedom.
And perhaps no other opera leaves us with such an uneasy sense that the jubilation at the end is transient. Fidelio remains too timely, too relevant. How distant the day when the final triumphant chorus really will be the end of the story!
Thirty years ago Pacific Opera Victoria staged a landmark Fidelio, in English, in the McPherson Playhouse.
It was directed by Robert Carsen – now a world-famous opera director, then just launching his career (POV's 1986 Il trovatore had been Carsen's Canadian mainstage opera debut).
That 1988 Fidelio also marked the professional debut of Michael Schade, who played Jaquino and later graduated to the role of Florestan at Theater an der Wien.
Also in the cast were Gaynor Jones as Leonore, Frederick Donaldson as Florestan, Bernard Turgeon as Pizarro, Don Garrard as Rocco, and Susan Sereda as Marzelline.
This POV production is fondly remembered as the one with the horse. In the final heroic scene, Don Fernando (John Dodington) made his grand entrance on a white stallion named Blue. Timothy Vernon recalls, The horse seemed to like the music – he got all prancy on stage.
That 1988 Fidelio was also recorded and televised on PBS as part of a documentary film on Pacific Opera Victoria.
The finale of Pacific Opera Victoria's 1988 Fidelio with John Dodington as Don Fernando and Blue, the White Stallion, as himself. Lech Janaszek photograph
With this production of Fidelio, Director Wim Trompert pays tribute to the other voices and other lives that hover round the opera and the many Fidelios who toil anonymously in the struggle for human rights.
The production is a kind of memorial within which the opera plays out, a monument to resistance fighters through time and place – the dreamers, the heroes, the devastated. Set, props, and video projections work together to evoke a host of stories, past and present, that echo what is happening on stage, that gather like shadows round the opera.
There are flashes of the distant past – Goya's revolutionary painting, The Third of May 1808, the horrors it depicts nearly contemporaneous with the première of the opera.
The more recent past looms as well – Auschwitz, the Berlin Wall – along with images of today – the mothers of Soacha holding photos of their vanished children.
The video design is by Monica Hernandez, whose youth in Colombia in the violent 80's and 90's made her approach and explore art as a powerful tool to expose issues of social justice.
The set design is by Wim Trompert and by Nancy Bryant (also the costume designer), who was last at POV for Das Rheingoldj. Lighting is by Kevin Lamotte, the lighting designer for last season's La Bohème.
The cast is led by Canadian soprano Aviva Fortunata, who is singing Leonore/Fidelio for the first time. Her recent title roles include Tosca for Opera on the Avalon and a star-making turn when she stepped in on short notice to perform Norma at Dallas Opera.
An alumna of the Canadian Opera Company's Ensemble Studio, Aviva has performed several mainstage roles for the COC, including First Lady in The Magic Flute and Gutrune in Götterdämmerung. Next May she sings Elsa in a concert presentation of Act 3 of Lohengrin with the Victoria Symphony.
Making his Canadian debut is American tenor Brent Reilly Turner as Florestan. Earlier this year he performed the role with West Bay Opera The Almanac noting,
The only disappointing aspect of his performance ... is that he isn't on stage until the second act. But that's Beethoven's fault.
An old friend of the company, Peter McGillivrary takes on the role of the evil Pizarro. He was far more likable in his previous POV appearances, most recently as Stárek in Jenůfa and Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville (in fact Peter specializes in playing that good doctor, in both Rossini's Barber and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro) .
Valerian Ruminski (Rocco) wears many hats: he has sung all over the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, Seattle Opera, Opera Ireland, and opera companies across Canada.
Valerian has also just published a book, Starting to Sing, for the parents of child singers; and he's the founder and artistic director of Nickel City Opera in Buffalo.
We also welcome back Owen McCausland to perform the role of Jaquino. Owen was previously seen at POV as Arturo in our 2015 Lucia di Lammermoor.
Neil Craighead, whose previous engagements with Pacific Opera include Pietro in Simon Boccanegra and Truffaldino in Ariadne auf Naxos, will take on the role of Don Fernando.
Miriam Khalil, who was Susanna in our 2014 The Marriage of Figaro, will be staying on after her performance as Marzelline to wow audiences with Golijov's Ayre.
The Pacific Opera Chorus, directed by Giuseppe Pietraroia will perform some of the most inspiring choral music in opera, and the Victoria Symphony, conducted by Timothy Vernon, will do full justice to Beethoven's magnificent score.
A musical whirlwind awaits as Pacific Opera Victoria presents Ayre, by Argentinian Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov. This 21st c. song cycle will be performed by soprano Miriam Khalil and Aventa Ensemble, acclaimed for their performances of new music across Canada and internationally.
Ayre (meaning "melody" and "air" in medieval Spanish) draws its 11 songs from the three cultures – Jewish, Christian, Muslim – that intermingled in 15th century Spain. It is a celebration and a lament for a time when Christian, Arab and Jew could live in harmony.
The songs – in Arabic, Hebrew, Ladino (the language of 15th-century Spanish Jews), Sardinian, and Spanish – tell stories of revolution, war, murder, love, and seduction.
The music is a heady mix of styles – classical, klezmer, folk, and opera – with a soundscape that includes harp and electric accordion, clarinet and laptop computer. Original music is juxtaposed with arrangements of traditional songs and a haunting spoken word piece – Be a String, Water, to my Guitar – a cry of loss and exile by the 20th c Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Composed in 2004 for the great American soprano Dawn Upshaw, Ayre has an eloquent new exponent in Lebanese-Canadian soprano Miriam Khalil, who has performed the work in Banff, Ottawa, Toronto, Buenos Aires, and at the Rockport Music Festival.
Miriam was born in Syria, moved to Ottawa as a child, and grew up with Arabic church music, Middle Eastern folk song, and Western classical music. Golijov has said of her rapport with Ayre,
No one singer ... "owns" this piece in the way that Miriam Khalil does – I cannot even begin to express the emotion I feel when she sings Ayre: it is as if she was born to sing it ... Hearing and seeing her is a wild journey that leaves one exhausted and exhilarated at end.
Ayre is a gorgeous collision of cultures, chameleonic in its mix of savagery and beauty. Don't miss it. It's like nothing you've ever heard!
AYRE: At the Baumann Centre, 925 Balmoral Rd.
October 25, 26, 28, 7pm
$35 adults/$15 students