Cincinnati Opera took on a fascinating focus this season with their choices of repertoire: "Die Fledermaus," "Fidelio," "Fellow Travelers," and "Tosca." Fred Plotkin points out in his excellent article about the season that everyone of these operas deal with a dimension of freedom/bondage and that three of the 4 actually have at least one act set in a prison, whereas in the the 4th ("Fellow Travelers") the prison is a prison of the mind, a prison of hate and fear and suspicion. I missed Fledermaus and Tosca, but I was able to attend Fidelio and Fellow Travelers. Both performances were outstanding, both stagings were provocative and though-provoking.
I'll start with Fidelio, Beethoven's only opera. This work comes out of Beethoven's own enlightenment commitment to the principals of self-determination, justice and freedom. These ideals run through the corpus of his work. Of course we live in different times and the face of the struggle for freedom and the struggle against injustice and prejudice, hate and fear has a different face in our times. But even so the work is amazingly timely and its message speaks powerfully to the 21st century American context which is so incredibly divided by racial strife and violence and who have politicians who are decidedly not enlightened and committed to these ideals like Don Fernando but who rather use every opportunity to throw gas on the fire of fear, hate and division. Frankly there are no characters in Fidelio who even come close to the underhanded deceitfulness of some of our most powerful and divisive public figures. Don Pizzaro is selfish and singleminded, seeking revenge and seeking to hide unknown crimes from the public but he is more up front about his priorities than what we are used to from our leaders, in my view at least.
The singing and musical performance was top notch all the way through. The orchestra was terrific and the conducting of Jun Märkl was also excellent. Special mention to the horns, principal oboe and the contrabassoon player for extraordinary playing. I am always so thrilled to hear the contra in the grave digging scene. Sometimes, for reasons I do not understand, the conductor will shush the contra and make it hard to hear, but not here. This contra player beautifully shaped her phrases which gave me chills and added a dimension of horror to the proceedings on stage. Similarly the amazing oboe hallucination during the final section of Florestan's opening act 2 aria, where he sees in the darkness of his prison cell a vision of his angel wife Leonore, was incredibly well played. What inspired Beethoven to include this hallucination in this manner? I don't know, but it is a moment of pure genius and another one of the most chilling and thrilling moments in the opera. I similarly loved the heroic horns in Leonore's aria, but I also need to say that the strings were also terrific. Beethoven is never a walk in the park for the strings and the Cincinnati Symphony string section were outstanding. I only have one little quibble, and it is that I was sorry that the march in act 1 was not performed by the pit but rather performed by a recording of the orchestra through poor speakers. Nevertheless, I got the point. Happy march music played as new prisoners are marched in, stripped of their clothes and humanity as they become yet another prisoner. It was another chilling moment in this great production. And I understand why they chose to use a recording in this way and it was effective.
That brings me to the cast which was led by Christine Goerke as Leonore (Fidelio) and Russell Thomas as Florestan. Both have terrific powerful voices. I love Christine Goerke and have heard her in other performances and she is always terrific, and a great actress too. But I had never heard Russell Thomas before and he is terrific. Fred Plotkin makes a point of pointing out that the chemistry between this white soprano and black tenor was amazing and there is a lesson in that for all of us. For my part I want to hear more of Russell Thomas! The supporting cast were also excellent. Nathan Stark was appropriately likable as the kind-hearted jailer Rocco. If only all those who have authority over others would treat those others as Rocco does his charges: with respect and dignity and kindness. Alas, I fear he is an anomaly. Thomas Bondelle was a fine Jacquino and Laura Tatulescu did a lovely job as Marzelline, though at times she was covered by the orchestra. Together they brought a little welcome humor to this otherwise very serious reading of this opera. Nmon Ford similarly had trouble projecting over the orchestra and I felt he lacked the vocal gravitas needed for the role, but still he has a beautiful baritone voice and is a fine actor. The chorus was simply amazing. The famous Prisoner's Chorus which comes near the end of act 1 was beautifully performed, and the final chorus and ensemble was really outstanding.
The updated production worked perfectly in my view. Everything from the various gates that the cast had to open and move through with their key cards, to backstage crew members dressed as guards operating several spot lights which swept over the stage regularly to the control room guard monitoring a bunch of camera feeds to the dark terror of the solitary cell of Florestan were all chillingly effective. But what really hit me was the ending. The opera ends with an almost "everyone lives happily every after since justice and truth have prevailed" kind of way. But not here. At the beginning of the scene the chorus emerged, women and children and male prisoners for a reunion scene. Many of these women carried signs with photos of their missing or "disappeared" husbands, fathers and sons. This reminded me powerfully of the movement of the mothers and grandmothers in Chilé back in the 80's who formed a group to find the disappeared and call for justice. The chorus and ensemble that follows is all very thrilling and was performed beautifully and then everyone runs off stage at the end, towards a new life I suppose. But - not everyone. Left on stage is still one family - a mother and two small children with a sign. Their husband and father was not among those who had been released. Their husband and father was still disappeared. The work of justice is not done. It continues. And it continues for us as we all take a stand against indiscriminate violence, racism, hate in any form and the scapegoating of other human beings. This was a terrific production.
Fellow Travelers deals with the homophobia which ran (and continues to run in some quarters today) rampant through American society and especially in the halls of power during the McCarthy era. The opera is based on a novel by Thomas Mallon which tells the fictional story of two young men who meet and fall in love and then are caught up in the "Lavender Scare" of the 50's. So many Americans look back to the 1950's as if it were some kind of ideal and perfect time in American history, but this is a story of the dark underside of all of that happy perfection. The scene when Hawkins Fuller is questioned about his "tendencies" is simply chilling. In fact it is so pathetic that it would be almost funny if it were not actually based on what really happened to so many young men and women. And to think there are some among us who want to return to these fearful and live destroying ways now! Perhaps most poignant was the final tableau where actual photos of men and women whose lives were really destroyed during this period was revealed. It brought me to tears.
The cast was led by two outstanding singer/actors - baritone Joseph Lattanzi was Hawk Fuller and brought an effective, seductive confident swagger to the role. The young intern Timothy Laughlin who eventually ends up in a relationship with Hawk is played by tenor Aaron Blake. This young man is torn by his deep religious faith and his conservative ideals which stand at odds with his homosexuality. The remaining ensemble were also terrific. Most of them performed more than one role each. Devon Guthrie deserves a notice for her beautiful portrayal of Mary Johnson, an administrative assistant in the State Department who has not only an open mind but a caring heart. She sees and understands, unlike just about everyone else.
I will say that I had one of the worst seats in the house. I didn't call for a ticket until the last minute and by then there was nothing left and in fact by the performance the house was completely sold out! This is fantastic! Well done. Even so, the box seats in this small chamber space made viewing the stage next to impossible, but I at least could see better than the woman next to me. Still the production was effective. The acting superb. And the orchestra of 17 players (strings, flute, oboe, clarinet, 2 trombones and percussion) were terrific. Bravo to conductor Mark Gibson.
I hope that this opera is picked up and performed a lot. It deserves it. I said the same about OTSL's "Shalimar the Clown" and I feel the same about that work. But Fellow Travelers is a chamber opera - Shalimar is a much bigger piece and they both deal with timely and very different issues.
Finally I want to say I loved the score. The influences of minimalism, medieval music and even jazz are so apparent but yet this composer has a distinctive voice. I hope to see this opera again and I hope that all of my opera friends will have a chance to see it as well.
2 years ago