Review: Beethoven’s ‘Leonore’ at Washington Concert Opera

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Washington Concert Opera (WCO) concluded its 30th anniversary season with a rare performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Leonore on stage at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium (“Lisner”). Artistic Director & Conductor Antony Walker selected this original version of the 1805 opera. The overarching dark and somber tone of the work reflects Beethoven’s own failure to experience the sacred bond between husband and wife and the principle of an ordinary citizen’s ability to triumph over political corruption.

Sung entirely in German with English surtitles projected above the stage, this was a night of classic opera. The performers, decked out in black tie and ball gowns, stood in front of the 50-piece orchestra with their scores propped on music stands. Imagine having a bedtime story sung to you. There is no stage blocking, no set design, no lighting or sound effect to divert your imagination.

The singers. Photo courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

All of the pathos, joy, confusion, hope, trepidation, and love form entirely from what you hear. It is truly the power of music which creates, sustains, and changes one’s emotions throughout the evening. The story is relatively simple: Celena Shafer plays Marzelline whose father Rocco played by Eric Halfvarson runs the local jail. Simon O’Neill plays Florestan who was imprisoned after he tried to destroy the political career of Governor Don Pizarro played by Alan Held. Marjorie Owens plays Florestan’s wife Leonore who has been trying to find her husband disguised as a man called Fidelio. Marzelline is infatuated with the disguised Fidelio which frustrates the prison gate keeper Jaquino played by Jonas Hacker. Jaquino loves and hopes to marry Marzelline.

Marzelline opens the evening with her clear and powerful love song to Fidelio. This aria is a beautiful, but frivolous lament about her expectations for a love which we in the audience know will never be consummated. Jaquino arrives to coerce Marzelline into committing to a wedding date (Duet: “Jetzt, Schӓtzchen, jetzt sind wir allein,” Now my love, we are alone) until Dad (Rocco) arrives. Rocco’s magnificent bass voice counsels them both on the attributes of a good marriage during a wonderful trio where isolating your favorite character is like finding a strand of hair in a beautiful braid. Things reach an almost slap-stick vocal climax when Leonore, who works for Rocco disguised as Fidelio, arrives to lament of her fading hope in finding her husband singing the “Canon Quartet”. Marzelline is gushing over Fidelio. Rocco is admonishing young lovers, and Jaquino is seeing the love of his life drawn to another “man”.

Things darken considerably as we meet Pizarro whose desire to kill his prisoner Florestan may be thwarted by the arrival of the government minister Don Fernando played by Nicholas Masters. Pizarro’s deep bass register conveys the evil and sinister nature of his intentions singing (“Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!” Ha! What a moment!). Pizaro forces Rocco and Fidelio to dig a grave for Florestan.

Florestan is despondent and alone in his confinement as he sings (“Gott! welch’Dunkel heir!” God! What darkness here… “In des Lebens Frühlingstagen”, In the spring days of life).

Eventually Rocco leads Fidelio (Leonore) to Florestan’s hidden prison cell. Pizarro discovers she and Rocco haven’t carried out his orders to kill the prisoner and just before he attempts to kill all three, Don Fernando arrives to save the day (and their lives) and imprison Pizarro forever under the triumphant voices of the entire cast, forty member chorus and full orchestra (”Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,” He who is blessed with a good wife).

Given the extraordinary effort and delivery of this challenging work I hope the entire assembly enjoyed the cast party which was scheduled immediately afterward. Congratulations to WCO for a magnificent season and continued success.

Running time Two hours and 30 minutes, including a 30- minute intermission.

Washington Concert Opera performed Leonore for only one night, March 5, 2017 at Lisner Auditorium – 730 21st Street, in Washington, DC 20052. For information on upcoming GWU shows, call (202) 994-6800, or go online.

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