The second half of next month will be devoted to six performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 72 Fidelio by the San Francisco Opera (SFO). This was the only opera that Beethoven composed, and its creation and production were probably the most frustrating that he experienced over the course of his entire life. One of his letters referred to the entire project as a “shipwreck.” However, if we are to understand how the opera came to be in the first place, it is worth beginning with one of its most successful predecessors.
When Beethoven was working on his Opus 55 (third) symphony in E-flat major, his intention had been to dedicate it to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he saw as a champion of democracy in France after the Revolution had overthrown the monarchy. However, by 1804 Beethoven had realized that Napoleon had imperialist designs. He withdrew his dedication and replaced it with the single word “Eroica.”
Nevertheless, his frustration with the tyranny of imperialism continued to nag at him, particularly when Napoleon began to steer his troops in the direction of Vienna. Ironically, Beethoven decided to work with a libretto based on the work of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, who experienced the French Revolution and was fortunate enough to survive the following Reign of Terror. HIs play Léonore; ou, L'amour conjugal dealt with the plight of a political prisoner and efforts to free him from the tyrannical authority responsible for his imprisonment. Ironically, by the time Beethoven had completed his opera, Vienna was under French military occupation; and most of the audience consisted of French military officers.
This is the context in which the libretto for Fidelio unfolds; and, in reviewing the narrative, we can also introduce the SFO vocalists that will take the roles in that libretto. The political prisoner is Florestan (tenor Russell Thomas). Leonore (soprano Elza van den Heever) is his wife. She disguises herself as a young man (Fidelio) in order to work as an assistant to the jailer Rocco (bass James Creswell). The prisoners themselves are apparently there due to an “enemies list” compiled by Don Pizarro (baritone Greer Grimsley). However, the King’s minister Don Fernando (bass Soloman Howard) opposes Pizarro and is instrumental in freeing all of the political prisoners, after which Leonore can shed her disguise and reunite with her husband. In the midst of all this drama, there is “comic relief” from Rocco’s daughter Marzelline (soprano Anne-Marie Macintosh), who is smitten with “Fidelio,” much to the frustration of Rocco’s assistant Jaquino (tenor Christopher Oglesby), who is madly in love with her.
Set design by Alexander V. Nichols for the prisoners’ chorus in the first act of Fidelio (courtesy of SFO)
SFO will present a new production of Fidelio staged by Matthew Ozawa. The eighteen-century prison has been replaced by a modern government “detention center,” endowing the opera with an ironic twist that elevates it above mere melodrama. Since one of the musical high points of Beethoven’s score is a chorus for the prisoners in the first act, it will be interesting to see how the music is reflected by a contemporary setting.
The conductor will be Music Director Eun Sun Kim. Those who saw her approach to Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca know that the first act of that opera provided the first opportunity to see her work with the SFO Chorus, prepared by Director Ian Robertson. Each of the two acts of Fidelio provides extensive sections for the Chorus, giving Kim even more opportunities to work with that ensemble.
Fidelio will be given six performances, five performances at 7:30 p.m. on October 14, 20, 22, 26, and 30 and one at 2 p.m. on October 17. The approximate running time will be two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. To provide a touchless experience, tickets will be electronic for either printing at home or display on a mobile device. Similarly, there will be no printed program books; and patrons will be provided with a hyperlink to a digital version that, again, may be printed or displayed on a mobile device.
Ticket prices range from $26 to $398. They may be purchased by calling (but not, as of this writing, visiting) the SFO Box Office at 415-864-3330. There is also a Web page with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets for all six of the performances. To ensure flexibility for patrons during this transitional season, no-fee exchanges and refunds will be provided up to two hours before performances. In particular, refunds will be available to patrons that must miss a performance due to COVID. In addition, the performances on October 14, 17, and 20 will be live-streamed. Virtual tickets will be available for $25 at the beginning of next month. SFO has created a Web page for information about its streamed offerings.