Extending The Embrace Of Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’ By Attuning To The Deaf


The singers all wore white, to distinguish them from their silent doubles, in the La Phil’s concert staging of ‘Fidelio.’ Photos by Timothy Norris

LOS ANGELES — One of the more unusual projects during Gustavo Dudamel’s tenure as music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was a collaboration with the city’s Deaf West Theatre in April 2022. You may wonder why a symphony orchestra would bother. Isn’t the central point of giving a concert to make music for people who can hear it?

But Dudamel had a more inclusive notion in mind — to expand the LA Phil’s reach to absolutely everyone. That’s been a feature of his idea of being a music director all along, from his avid participation in non-classical concerts to a degree not attempted by any of his predecessors in the job to this project. And if people are unfortunately unable to hear the music, they might be able to feel it physically through the floorboards and, with the help of sign language, emotionally.

So the obvious genre in which to set forth would be opera — and the most obvious work to perform would have to be Fidelio, the sole opera of history’s most famous deaf composer, Ludwig van Beethoven. The original LA Phil production, while not the first attempt by such a collaboration (Victory Hall Opera in Charlottesville, Va., tried one in 2020 with a workshop rendering of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites), was certainly the highest-profile one. The LA Phil will be taking it on its upcoming European tour in late May and June, stopping in Barcelona, Paris and London. In the meantime, Dudamel, the LA Phil, and Deaf West Theatre reprised their Fidelio on May 16 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, with a mostly different cast from 2022, as a tune-up for the tour in front of the home crowd.

The first time through in 2022, the novelty factor was at work, and the symbolism of the production was linked powerfully with Fidelio’s idealistic anti-tyranny message, what with the Russian invasion of Ukraine still fresh in the news. In the somewhat cooler light of 2024, though, the production felt tedious to me up until the moment that Leonora threw off her Fidelio disguise in Act II.

Director Alberto Arvelo double-cast each of the characters with a hearing singer and a deaf actor, with the former making the music and the latter conveying the emotions through a complex combination of gestures and sign language. Actually, doubling the characters is nothing unusual these days. Doppelgängers are so common in opera productions that they threaten to become a directorial cliché. For the most part, the staging for the vocalists was strictly stand-and-sing, and they were clad in nondescript white outfits to separate them from the more diversely costumed deaf performers. They rarely interacted with their doppelgängers; one time they did was when the singing Leonora (Tamara Wilson) hugged the acting Leonora (Amelia Hensley) as if to offer her comfort in the face of anxiety in Act I.

With the singers clad in white, their darkly attired doubles signed and gestured the opera’s dialogue and musical emotions.

The oddest thing about this performance were the stretches of silence when the music stops and it was left to the deaf actors to convey the missing spoken dialogue in sign language, with projected English supertitles so as not to leave hearing members of the audience in the dark, as it were. The first time around in 2022, one could appreciate the innovative, if strange, novelty of it all. But on a second pass, the freshness of the idea waned. I have to be honest: Once for this type of theater was enough to satisfy curiosity.

Dudamel was on his high-energy game, as was the LA Phil, taking a brisk, dynamic, even at times violent measure of the score in tune with Beethoven’s Dionysian, freedom-fighter side while maintaining Mozartian crispness touched with grace in the operetta-like goings-on in Act I. As in 2022, Dudamel really turned on the juice in the final Presto molto pages of the score, pulling off the coda just short of a sonic melee. The orchestra was in fine late-season shape, ready for the road.

However, the 2024 singing cast wasn’t at the same level as that of 2022. Tamara Wilson’s fluttery soprano turned a bit harsh when pushed at higher volume levels and pitches while the returning (from 2022) Marzelline, soprano Gabriella Reyes, developed a bit of a wobble. James Rutherford sang Rocco’s “gold” aria well with a rolling bass-baritone, though not as authoritatively as Ryan Speedo Green in 2022. Tenor Andrew Staples’ Florestan did have plenty of heroic amplitude when called for; his character also gets Beethoven’s most inspired music.

Gustavo Dudamel conducted the reprise of the LA Phil’s ‘Fidelio’ produced for accessibility to deal audience members.

Bass-baritone Shenyang repeated his rightly small-voiced portrayal of the sadistic Don Pizarro, although his silent double, Giovanni Maucere, cut a more formidable figure than the actor who portrayed Pizarro in 2022 as an unimpressive little tyrant (reminds me of Shostakovich’s comment that Stalin was “like a frog puffing himself up to the size of an ox”). Tenor David Portillo was OK as Jaquino; same with bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell’s Don Fernando. Members of El Sistema’s Coro de Manos Blancas (White Hands Choir) and Cor de Cambra del Palau de la Música Catalana (Chamber Choir of the Palace of Catalan Music) made up the choral forces.

One big advantage of Arvelo’s spartan staging is that it should travel well to distant concert halls. Basically, it takes place on a simple raised platform behind the orchestra with no major props to lug around. As the Fidelio Overture was played (none of the three Leonore Overtures are used as interludes), silent actors paraded down the aisles of the seating areas bearing lanterns which when arriving onstage were waved around, creating an effect like fireflies.

The opera’s sparse setting will facilitate taking this special production of ‘Fidelio’ on tour.

I can’t say what it will sound like in other halls, but at Disney Hall, the voices were often overwhelmed by the orchestra in Act I, improving somewhat in balance in Act II. Any number of factors could have been responsible — the placement of the orchestra, the conductor’s control over balances, the capacities of the singers, the live acoustics of the hall.

What could be next for Deaf West Theatre as it aims to go beyond Fidelio to other opera productions? Perhaps a pertinent choice would be the operas of another noted comrade-in-arms who lost his hearing, Bedřich Smetana.