Sunday, June 14, 2015

Operas: Fidelio and Zauberflöte

 On Tuesday, Rob and I saw Beethoven's Fidelio at the Staatsoper. I was excited to see this one because, though I've toured the building, the only thing I've seen performed here was an atonal opera about a Czech giant, which was a litany of the abuses he suffered. It was truly painful to watch and listen to.
I read up on Fidelio that morning (which I need to do every time. I don't know why I haven't), and it was super helpful to have the synopsis in mind and all the characters straight before I went. This was Beethoven's only opera, and I learned that it premiered here in Vienna a month after Napoleon took over the city in November of 1805. The house was only about half full and it was a failure.
Beethoven tinkered with the overture and his librettists (3 of them) worked on the words, and it was shown again in 1806, 1807, and finally in 1814. It finally had some success with a great singer in the title role. Before his death, Beethoven told his biographer and friend of Fidelio: "Of all my children, this is the one that cost me the worst birth-pang and brought me the most sorrow; and for that reason it is the one most dear to me."
 Rob and I during the pause. Yeah, it's upside down.
Among the things Beethoven worked and reworked was the overture. There are four versions extant. The one that finally worked was the shortest, lightest one, called "the Fidelio Overture". But the other earlier ones are referred to as Leonore 1, 2, and 3. They are supposed to be masterful, but some critics claim that he works the musical motifs out so well that he doesn't leave much for the opera to do (I think having singers would be enough, but what do I know?). Our performance had the Fidelo overture at the beginning, and then the orchestra played the Leonore 3 in between scenes during Act II. My reading called that a traditional but "inartistic" choice. Rob and I thought it was great for two reasons: 1. it gives everyone on stage a chance for 13 minutes to change costumes and scenery, run to the bathroom, or get an eis; 2. our orchestra was the Vienna Philharmonic down in the pit, and they were just the people to play this piece. Rob claims they blew the roof off the place.
I feel for poor Beethoven. I can just see him scratching his bewigged head, not understanding why this wasn't a smash hit. It has hidden identites and intrigue. There are soldiers and prisoners aplenty. It is full of Grand Ideals in both the music and the libretto. But he overestimates the audience. There aren't any tittering ladies' maids. There are no female chorus members until the last scene. Not enough skirt chasing duets. And in our performance, both the costuming and scenery were pretty drab.
And yet this opera really has potential. It is unabashedly a girl power story. This Spanish guy, Florestan, is imprisoned, and his wife, Leonore, goes looking for him. She can't find him anywhere, but suspects that he might be in this prison in Sevilla. She dresses up like a man, calls herself Fidelio, and ingratiates herself with the jailer. She saves her husband singlehandedly and causes both prison reform and the downfall of her husband's enemy. She's kind of the bomb. The libretto was pretty radically feminist, which I assume (given how traditional the production was) is original.
When I compare that to the Magic Flute we just saw at the Volksoper, I understand why Mozart was more of an opera buffa savant. He was tackling Grand Ideals and lots of Things In Initial Capitals. But he lightened up the music in other places. He stuck in Papageno and Papagena who are not just for contrasting with Tamino and Pamina, but they're also for comic and musical relief. There are chances for all kinds of singers to strut their stuff.
The libretto is problematic in a 21st century gendered lens, but it still says something when you have many women on the stage, as opposed to Fidelio, which has only two female parts.
I counted last night, and this is at least the fourth interpretation of the Magic Flute I've seen. I think it was the best. The staging and costuming were creative and believable (and I'm plenty picky about Zarastro). The queen of the night was excellent. Tamino was marvelous. Maddie was very taken with the three boys.
I thought, watching Will try to fold his knees up without enough room, that the kids would all want to leave at the intermission. Not one of them even brought it up. We've turned some kind of corner here. Joss sat down with Rob in front where he kept him entertained with translations, explanations, and a gummy bear after each song. I sent Will over to an aisle seat where he could stretch out, and that helped. I did buy two Almdudlers, which helped, because we were up in the highest gallery this time, and it was hot (note to self, that it is worth it having Rob get the tickets and be choosy). But everyone lasted through three hours of opera and dropped in to bed by 11:00pm.

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