Sunday, January 02, 2005

Fidelio

This is one of my first posts on this blog, and I'm reposting it in honor of Beethoven's birthday.  Yes, I know.  One isn't supposed to write like this about classical music:

I’ve heard through the rumor mill that Karita Mattila is coming to San Francisco next season to sing Fidelio. I’m worrying. I saw the Met broadcast of her in this role and adored it. So I’m worrying.

For me Fidelio is a great opera. I think sometimes it’s necessary to understand the context first, before getting the idea of Fidelio, an opera which appears unexpectedly toward the end of the Neapolitan era. The only other still performed work from its genre is Mozart’s Zauberfloete, a sophisticated comedy in the otherwise unsophisticated Singspiel repertoire.

Beethoven is closer to the center of the genre, thinks himself to be writing an ordinary Singspiel with dramatic content. People everywhere sang in lighter voices then, were trying for flash on the Italian side, entertainment on the German side. There was nothing anything like Fidelio. Beethoven always shoots the moon, and in Fidelio he outdid even himself, inventing not merely a dramatic style but a whole style of singing as well. Beethoven invented the dramatic soprano and dramatic tenor which fill the opera repertoire through Wagner and beyond. He wanted an intensity that was unimagined until he imagined it. With Fidelio he's basically trying to stuff a 1000 lb gorilla into a Mini Cooper.

The opera existed for almost a decade before Wilhelmine Schroeder-Devrient took it on as a career builder. It made her, and she made it. Opera was never the same. Weber immediately took up the idea of heavier singing and was followed closely by the Italians. Rossini took the opportunity to retire. And the whole thing was Beethoven’s fault, as were most things in 19th century music. Wagner thought of himself as following Beethoven’s lead, of composing symphonic development in the opera genre.

But for Beethoven it’s supposed to be a Singspiel. So there is a soubrette and a comic bass like in any other Singspiel. The heroine is in disguise as a man, and this is where the whole thing falls apart for us. The woman who sings this sings the other heavy German parts, too, and can’t actually be disguised as a man. Normally. She looks like Jane Eaglen. In the current San Francisco production she is wrapped up in a bulky coat, so anyone at all could be inside. To think this is a man means you have to take her word for it.

So I am worrying. In the Met production Karita Mattila is wearing WWII army fatigues and swaggering around like an actual gent. She cleans guns and flirts seriously with Marzelina, her ostensible fiancé. Her singing is wonderful, but her flirting is even better. This is the first Fidelio I’ve seen where you believe everything. Marzelina is heart-broken, and you actually think about this when the heroine is being carried around on the crowd’s shoulders. How will they fit this swaggering, powerful interpretation into the San Francisco production? Will they try?

From 1/2/05

1 comment:

mamascarlatti said...

Quite agree that Mattila is the most convincing Fidelio out there. She's got the whole masculine way of moving and walking. I'm sure she'll still carry it off in SF. Report back!