There’s just one more performance remaining of Beethoven’s version of Wonder Woman, now playing at the annual Princeton Festival. I’m writing, of course, about Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio (libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner, later revised by Stephan von Breuning and Georg Friedrich Treitschke), which combines three of the composer's favorite themes: victory over fascist oppression, the power of the eternal feminine, and the marriage of two equal partners united in high ideals and passionate love.
Step aside, Gal
This opera contains a wunderfrau who makes Gal Gadot’s Diana pale by comparison. Marcy Stonikas’s Leonore has no superpowers except an undying love for her husband, Florestan (Noah Baetge), and a commitment to social justice. Florestan languishes in a dungeon, near death, when Leonore disguises herself as the boy Fidelio in one of the most celebrated “trouser roles” in opera literature. She becomes assistant to head jailer Rocco (Gustav Andreassen) to gain access to her husband. The backstory to this drama, a protest rally that could take place today, is conveyed in pantomime behind a sheer curtain as the Fidelio overture plays.
The dark sense of urgency tearing through the opera, buoyed by Beethoven’s driving rhythms, is leavened by a charming subplot in which Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline (Danielle Talamantes), falls in love with Fidelio. This production, led by company artistic director Richard Tang Yuk, allows this subplot plenty of room to engage and delight. In a pert sexy dress and high heels with attitude to spare, Talamantes looks like one of the sassy stars of the TV series Devious Maids. Her soprano voice is youthful but full of intense feeling, expressing both great longing and frustration regarding her thwarted advances. Her duets with Stonikas are a marvel to hear, as are Andreasson’s bass-baritone and Joseph Barron’s bass (as Rocco and prison governor Don Pizarro, respectively), conveying starkly different personalities within such a close vocal range.
Yet the horror of prison and the scourge of fascist oppression return as dominant themes, and in the second and final act there is little to smile about. Beethoven keeps asking us, “How can this be? How can one person in power deny and oppress so many?”
Tyranny vs. love
The villain in this case is Don Pizarro, and a worse fiend can scarcely be imagined. Barron portrays the prison governor—a rival nobleman to jailed protest leader Florestan—with a pallor of evil usually reserved for depictions of Satan. Seldom has evil been conveyed musically with such restrained relish.
The two leads, Stonikas and Baetge, excel. In addition to her commanding voice, Stonikas lends a presence of dignity and conviction to her role, especially evident in the final scene in which she no longer must hide her identity. As for Baetge, it is impossible to imagine a better fit for this unusually challenging role. Florestan’s tenor voice must project some of the most stunning phrases in German opera while conveying that he is dying of starvation.
I will not soon forget his recitative in the opening scene of Act Two, where he is alone, near death on his cot, and his voice rises slowly on the word Gott! (God), from less than a whisper to a fortississimo of hall-shaking intensity. I don’t see specific instructions for this in the score, but somewhere Beethoven must be nodding his approval. This is a case where art inspires art and permits us to take a masterpiece one step further. Baetge provides the physical appearance of weakness while expressing his character with a vigorous, nuanced voice.
The opera ends with the disarming of Pizarro, the arrival of the good-hearted prime minister, and the words of Florestan as he embraces his wife: “She has defeated tyranny with love!”
A stellar performances is also given by Michael Kuhn's Jaquino, the doorman who seeks to win Marzelline away from Fidelio. It’s a small role, to be sure, but one Kuhn sings with clarity, insight, and verve, while providing a much-needed light touch. In addition, Cameron Jackson's Prime Minister Don Fernando adds gravitas and warmth to the final liberation scene.
The Princeton Festival Chorus, under Gregory Geehern’s brilliant leadership, fully meets the challenge of material that requires impeccable musicianship, nimble movement, and the kind of presence that conveys the authors' and composer’s highest ideals. Beethoven was an accomplished composer of choral music from his late teens on, so this work represents a high midpoint in a genius that led to the Ninth Symphony.
The Festival Orchestra is composed of seasoned musicians from our area. Philadelphia-area musicians who provide masterful leadership as principals in their sections include: Kim Reighley, flute; Rie Huebner, clarinet; Michelle Rosen, bassoon; Brian Kuszyk, trumpet; Glenn Fischbach, cello; and Bill Wozniak, timpani.
In keeping with custom, Tang Yuk includes the "Leonore #3 Overture" as an interlude in Act II: a lively, well balanced performance, almost like a bonus (you go to an opera, you get a second overture for free).