“Fidelio is ultimately about freedom,” writes Opera Omaha‘s Director Michael Shell. According to the production on Friday evening at the Orpheum Theatre in Omaha, NE, it would seem that Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio is more about priorities than anything else. While it is true that this opera most often lends itself to politicized productions, there are more subtle notions of righteousness and virtue which emerged in Mr. Shell’s vision. The fantastical set design from Omaha-based Jun Kaneko was allowed to be the celebrity of the entire production — at times to the detriment of the exquisite singing offered by Bryan Register (Florestan), Kevin Short (Rocco), Sara Gartland (Marzelline), and most notably so Wendy Bryn Harmer (Leonore/Fidelio.)
Wendy Bryn Harmer effused a radiant sound as the devoted wife Leonore who disguises herself as a young boy, Fidelio, in the hope of releasing her imprisoned husband Florestan. While steadily acted, her stunning vocalism was a true highlight of this performance. She delivered a dignified, free of overwrought sentimentality, “Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern” which she mirrored in the final act with “Tödte erst sein Weib!… Ja, sieh hier Leonoren.” As the wrongly imprisoned Florestan, Bryan Register also offered many moments of intelligent, robust, and ardent singing. The Act II “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!” is a primary example. Register proudly displayed the upper extensions of his voice without hint of strain. There was a wish, at times, that the chains were not quite so noisy as to not be additional percussion against the vocal line. Together Harmer and Register created some tender stage moments after their reunion — particularly when kneeling in front of each other against the backdrop of a grim prison dungeon they slowly touched foreheads for a brief but moving instance.
The voices were not the only strong influence on stage. Jun Kaneko’s set and costume design for this production was practically an additional character in each and every scene. The exploration of contrasts: light and dark, rigid and flexible, vivid and leaden, multi-dimensional and two-dimensional were exceptional, eccentric, and added an element of the surreal to what is conventionally a stark production. Kaneko writes, “The biggest and most difficult issue is to have a total understanding of this opera as a whole object. Seamless coordination of the stage sets, lighting, and movements of the singers gives maximum visual support to the music.” While this design allowed for unique take-aways it also proved distracting during important musical moments and hindered the audience from developing connections to the characters.
Still, Beethoven’s superior vocal trio and quartet writing prevailed. Kevin Short, Sara Gartland, and Wendy Bryn Harmer impressed in the Act I trio “Gut, Söhnchen, gut!” Short’s bass-baritone was resonant and authoritative throughout the evening allowing for both strength in his dealings with Mark Walter‘s villainous Don Pizarro and contrition after Florestan is released. Gartland displayed agility and exemplary diction with her gleaming vocalism. Tenor Chad Johnson made a very earnest and sweet Jacquino and Bradley Smoak‘s benevolent authority as Don Fernando did not go unnoticed.
If this particular production was about priorities rather than freedom, there were often too many vying for the attention of the audience. However, individually, the elements were all very strong. The singing, lead by Wendy Bryn Harmer and Bryan Register, was enchanting while the set design and stage direction delighted the visual sense. Although it did not always come together seamlessly, the production is moving both musically and theatrically.
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