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NSO's Uplifting 'Fidelio'

Soprano Melanie Diener
The successes of Christoph Eschenbach's Music of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna festival at the Kennedy Center have far outweighed the occasional failure. Of the three National Symphony Orchestra programs that are the crown jewels of this festival, one for each of the title cities, last week's performance of Duke Bluebeard's Castle, a grand achievement, has been outdone by this week's performance of Beethoven's opera Fidelio, heard on Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Once again, although this opera has been heard in Washington in the last decade -- directed by Francesca Zambello for Washington National Opera in 2003 -- Eschenbach brought out the scores with the NSO for the first time since 1970. The human rights issues at the work's heart -- imprisonment without the protection of due process, and inhumane treatment of the detained -- are certainly relevant today, no matter your political leanings.

The success of the evening came down, first and foremost, to the casting, led by a full-powered, dramatically inspired Leonore from German dramatic soprano Melanie Diener, who has made a name in the role, in Paris for example. At a few points, one could complain of a tendency toward the edge of flatness, but it was an incendiary performance, with only the highest notes -- up to high B in the big Act I aria, "Komm, Hoffnung" -- a little unsure. That would have been enough to enjoy the performance, but Diener was matched by the heroic tenor of Simon O'Neill as Florestan: when he made his entrance, in his prison monologue at the opening of Act II, he sailed a gleaming high G effortlessly through the hall, a dim acoustic under the best of circumstances. Veteran bass Eric Halfvarson, after a rough start in the opening ensemble, was a rock-solid Rocco, with the booming speaking voice to match, while baritone Tomasz Konieczny was an appropriately villainous Don Pizarro, but with an oddly nasal placement and some strange vowel colors in his German.

In roles filled out by younger singers, soprano Jegyung Yang sounded remarkably fresh as Marzelline, especially for someone coming off a series of performances as Despina in the Young Artists cast of Così fan tutte at Washington National Opera and having to take first soprano over a voice like Diener's in the ensembles. Young baritone Kyle Ketelsen, remembered at Washington National Opera a few years ago, was an elegant and authoritative Don Fernando, and tenor Paul Appleby put his bright, ringing tone to good use as Jaquino. Even the two cameo roles of prisoners were sung well by Jeffrey Gwaltney and Aleksey Bogdanov. The men of the Choral Arts Society of Washington sang the prisoners' chorus with affecting strength, and the entire group gave the needed ecstatic oomph to the final choral scene.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, A festive ‘Fidelio’ from National Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, March 16)

David Patrick Stearns, Moving on, Eschenbach has a vigorous Act 2 in D.C (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 16)
Fidelio is not improved that much by staging, and certainly not the way that some directors do it, but a few costuming choices, some quasi-staging, and a few lighting adjustments made this performance quite dramatically viable and absorbing. Eschenbach squeezed the score for every significant detail, warming the radiant lushness of his string section, sturdy playing from the four horn players, sinister contraforte in the grave-digging duet, exaggerating the contrasts of fast and slow in the overture. The only misstep was the insertion of Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, at a place where it is often performed to cover a change of scene: without any scene change to cover, it deflated the dramatic energy of the second act. Worse, by having the orchestra take a well-deserved bow at the end of it apparently was a cue to many in the audience to give the Kennedy Center standard standing ovation and hightail it to the parking garage -- before the most exciting music of the entire opera.

This performance will repeat only once, this evening (March 17, 8 pm) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. You do not want to miss it.

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