Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: A Finely Crafted “Fidelio” from Stephen Wadsworth – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2014

August 1st, 2014

Director Stephen Wadsworth, whose production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” at the Seattle Opera I have suggested be internationally recognized as a world treaure [see World Treasure: Seattle Opera’s Gripping and Glorious “Götterdämmerung” – August 9, 2013], has created a new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” for the Santa Fe Opera.

Currently in repertory at the Santa Fe Opera’s 2014 Sumer Festival, Wadsworth’s production of Beethoven’s masterpiece captures the essence of this iconic work.

[Director Stephen Wadsworth; edited image of a publicity photograph.]


Beethoven intended it as an indictment of an authoritarian state that uses solitary imprisonment and murder of dissidents to silence ideas that it perceives as threatening its power.

Living in the repressive Austrian empire that controlled much of Europe during his lifetime, Beethoven was an ardent supporter of freedom and human rights. Heroic action in opposition to tyranny is the essence of his opera.

Wadsworth chooses a later authoritarian regime, Nazi Germany, whose reputation for evil makes Beethoven’s points manifestly evident for contemporary audiences.

[Below: Guards salute as Don Pizarro (Greer Grimsley, front center, lower level) enters the prison, while Leonore/Fidelio (Alex Penda, lower left, wearing slip) sleeps in her room; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


However, this is more than the typical time-shift now so familiar to operatic audiences. Wadsworth moves the action to a regime at whose downfall a debate on moral responsibility ensued.

What is the responsibility of individuals who are functionaries of evil? An individual’s moral responsibility becomes a key element in this production.

Wadsworth’s Prison

Wadsworth sets the action in the homy living spaces of the jailer Rocco, his daughter Marzelline, and his assistant Jacquino. On the upper floor, to the audience’s left is Don Pizarro’s office.

On the floor beneath him, Leonore/Fidelio has a room to herself. French doors in the second floor center lead to a balcony that a sunlit courtyard where Rocco the warden, his daughter Marzelline, and his staff – Jacquino and Fidelio – have their meals and interact with one another.

In the center of the prison’s ground floor, between Fidelio’s room and a kitchen, is a passageway that leads to a grate covering a staircase down to the prisoners’ cells.

Wadsworth pointedly reminds us at opera’s end that all these prison functionaries will have to account for their actions after the prison falls to its liberators.

Alex Penda as Leonore/Fidelio

The uniformly excellent cast is led by Bulgarian soprano Alex Penda in the title role. Possessing the large and expressive voice required for her aria Abscheulicher! (Monster!), she was impressive in this heroic role, her voice blending beautifully in her ensembles with her colleagues.

Wadsworth, whose attention to detail is evident in all his work, assigned her pantomime scenes of intimate moments, including dressing and undressing in the privacy of her room – even a few moments of rest iwearing only her slip.

[Below: Alex Penda as Leonore, in disguise as Fidelio; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Paul Groves’ Florestan

Paul Groves was cast as the seemingly doomed prisoner, starved in solitary confinement for the crime of political dissidence.

Groves sings Florestan’s aria Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier! (God, what darkness here) during a chilling scene that takes place in a sector of the prison so dimly lit, as  to seem in virtual darkness. The aria’s impact was extraordinary.

Florestan is one of the weightier roles that Groves has assumed as  he moves out of the lyric tenor repertory for which he is justly famous (see Master of the Lyric Voice – An Interview with Paul Groves).

His Florestan was heartfelt, stylish, beautifully sung, and dramatically effective – a stunning testament to Groves’ vocal power.

[Below: Paul Groves as Florestan; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Greer Grimsley’s Don Pizarro

Baritone Greer Grimsley, whose Wotan was such a powerful force in the first three opera’s of the Wadsworth Seattle Opera “Ring”, was a sinister Pizarro.

In this production Pizarro has a second floor office in the prison, in which he keeps himself busy until both Wadsworth and Beethoven require his presence in the staged action.

Intense and singularly focused towards accelerating the demise of Florestan, Grimsley’s Pizarro, as Beethoven intended, reeked of evil. His Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick! (What a moment!) was chilling.

[Below: Don Pizarro (Greer Grimsley, right) explains to to Rocco (Manfred Hemm, left) what he must do to dispose of a prisoner whose existence in their prison might be an embarrassment; edited image, based of a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Devon Guthrie’s Marzelline, Joshua Dennis’ Jacquino and Manfred Hemm’s Rocco

In traditional productions of “Fidelio”, much attention is given to Jacuino’s dogged pursuit of Marzelline. (In 21st century terms, it’s as if Marzelline’s “no means no” is merely a statement on her part that Jacquino should be pressing his case harder.)

Wadsworth gives full credence to the idea that Marzelline, despite her infatuation with Fidelio, has always loved Jacquino.

During the joyful chorus of freed prisoners and their liberators ends the opera, Jacquino and Marzelline slowly move towards each other.

What Wadsworth doesn’t accept is the idea that Rocco, Marzelline and Jacqino – all operatives in a prison notrious for the immoral treatment of prisoners – are exempt from the scrutiny that all prison personnel must face when their prison falls into the hands of a foreign power.

At the moment Marzelline reaches Jacquino, revealing that she indeed does love him, each is seized by officers of the liberating forces.

(My own guess is that Leonore/Fidelio will use her influence to secure pardons for Rocco, Marzelline and Jacquino for their service to the forces of evil.)

[Below: Jacquino (Joshua Dennis, above) presses his marriage proposal to a reluctant Marzelline (Devon Guthrie, seated); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Hemm’s Rocco and Guthrie’s Marzelline each have an aria apiece, rounding out the five arias for operatic performance that Beethoven wrote. Each artist gave solid performances.

The Prisoners

One of Beethoven’s greatest choral passages was written for the prisoners who, Fidelio having convinced Rocco to defy Pizarro’s standing orders, have been released from their cells.

A highlight of the prisoners’ chorus are the solos of the First and Second Prisoners, sung respectively by Texas tenor Joseph Dennis and New York basso Patrick Guetti.

[Below: the prisoners have been released from their cells to enjoy the warmth of the sun; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Each soloist sang their inspiring music reverentially.

Of particular interest is the fact that Joseph Dennis, who the previous night had sung the title role of Huang Ruo’s “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen”, is the identical twin brother of the performance’s Jacquino, Joshua Dennis.

Other Credits

California bass-baritone Evan Hughes was the prison’s liberator, Don Fernando.

Harry Bicket, Santa Fe Opera’s music director, conducted with passion and style.

The lighting designer, Duane Schuler, brilliantly conjured both the sunny courtyard scenes and the spooky darkness of Florestan’s cells.


I enthusiastically recommend the Stephen Wadsworth production of “Fidelio” and this cast, both for the veteran opera goer and for persons new to opera.

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