‘Fidelio’ Streaming This Week From Vienna Source

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Nicole Chevalier in the title role in Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’ at the Theater an der Wien. (Photos by Monika Rittershaus)

DIGITAL REVIEW — When Beethoven’s Fidelio first took the stage, in March of 1805, the Theater an der Wien could not count on full attendance. Napoleon had stormed the city a week previously, causing Vienna’s nobility to flee.

Last month, as the coronavirus brought rehearsals for a new staging by the Hollywood star Christoph Waltz to a standstill, the theater decided that a virtual audience was better than no audience, pulling together a production team and performing for the camera six days before the planned premiere. First shown on Austrian national television, the broadcast hit the web platforms medici.tv and Arte Concert.

As part of celebrations for Beethoven’s 250th anniversary this year, Vienna had plans to present Fidelio in all three versions, either at the State Opera or the Theater an der Wien, a smaller house that is the destination for more experimental stagings. The conductor Manfred Honeck opts for the 1806 edition of the score in which Beethoven rearranged numbers so that the main characters would appear more quickly and expanded the overture.

The prisoners celebrate their temporary freedom in Act 1 of the Theater an der Wien production of ‘Fidelio.’

Waltz, in his third opera production, creates life-like characters whose longings are at once contemporary and Romantic, an aesthetic which lends itself ideally to film. A monumental set of winding staircases by the German-American architecture firm Barkow Leibinger — evoking the cold, bureaucratic buildings of a perhaps fascist regime — is similarly well suited to the medium of video streaming, which was ultimately the fate of this staging.

But a broadcast is of course no replacement for being in the theater. From the pounding footsteps that the microphones pick up before the overture begins to the recurrent freezes that are unavoidable on streaming platforms, it is impossible to experience the opera in all its power.

It is a particular shame given the high musical standards. In the overture (Leonore No. 3), Honeck leads the Wiener Symphoniker in a vibrant, finely sculpted performance, ensuring that Beethoven’s at-times labored revisions are never tedious.

Throughout the evening, the conductor galvanizes orchestra and singers into a unified, gripping reading of the score. The evening also flows at a steady pace thanks to Waltz’s clever dialogue cuts between numbers.

Fidelio, right, saves her husband, Florestan, left, in Act 2 of ‘Fidelio’ at the Theater an der Wien.

Confining the action to the architectural set, however, is by turns inspiring and monochromatic. At what should be one of the climatic moments of the opera when Leonore (disguised as the prison worker Fidelio) temporarily succeeds at letting the prisoners out into the open (“O welche Lust!”), the dependably first-rate Arnold Schoenberg Choir meanders onstage.

Waltz exploits the raked structure with more skill in the second act, now distancing Leonore and her husband, Florestan, during the intimate aria “O namenlose Freude!,” now dispersing the choral singers across all levels of the steps in the finale. Lighting by Henry Braham is also most effective in the second act, plunging the viewer into the shadows that surround Florestan in his cell.

The theater has assembled a worthy cast for the occasion. The American soprano Nicole Chevalier, once a star ensemble member of the Komische Oper Berlin and now forging an even more high-profile career, performs the title role with the emotional extremes and technical assurance that are her trademarks.

She renders the first-act aria “Ach, brich noch nicht” with a soaring tone but also fine shadings, maintaining heroic power for the final scene in which she liberates Florestan. Another American artist, Eric Cutler, is an ideal partner, investing the role of the downtrodden prisoner with a solid Heldentenor but also emotional vulnerability.

The finale in the Theater an der Wien production of ‘Fidelio’ being streamed through April 12.

Mélissa Petit brings a silvery, plush soprano to the role of Marzelline, who is in love with Fidelio. Her protective father, Rocco, is ideally cast with Christof Fischesser, whose sharp diction and deep bass anchor ensemble numbers.

As Jaquino, who is determined to win Marzelline’s hand, Benjamin Hulett is appropriately awkward and boyish, while Gábor Bretz is a smooth-voiced, sadistic prison governor as Don Pizarro. All in all, the production does justice to the Theater an der Wien’s historic connection with Beethoven’s only opera.

Fidelio is available for viewing on medici.tv through April 9 and ARTE Concert through April 12.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.