Another Jailbreak for Madison Opera

Another Jailbreak for Madison Opera

In advance of Madison Opera’s season-opening production of Beethoven’s Fidelio Friday night at the Overture Center, a colleague slyly noted that the company seems to have a thing for prisons: last year’s opener, Tosca, ends in prison, and of course the season closed with the devastating death row milieu of . Now we have Fidelio, famously set against the backdrop of unjustly incarcerated political prisoners. Could there be a pattern emerging?

The question was undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek, but the answer, in a larger sense, is “yes.” General director Kathryn Smith and artistic director John DeMain continue their big-picture approach of mixing standard repertory, the new and unquestionably worthy, and in the case of Fidelio, the overlooked work that sports a reputation far outweighing its relative lack of performances.

There’s a reason that Fidelio is Beethoven’s only opera; for all his genuine lifelong passion for the righteous fight against injustice and the ultimate brotherhood of man, the composer lacked the degree of unerring theatrical instinct that Verdi, Mozart, et al, bring to the theater. And, as anyone who has strained their way through the “Ode to Joy” finale of his Symphony No. 9 can tell you, the man also lacked a gift (or at least sympathy!) in writing for the voice.

Fidelio is therefore, more of a sturdy work than a sweeping one. Fortunately, there are a handful of stretches that will lift you out of your seat emotionally and musically—if you have the forces to pull it off. Happily that is the case with production on display this weekend (the opera will be given again Sunday at 2:30 p.m.).

No one thinks of mounting Fidelio without four vocal pillars available, and while Madison Opera consistently provides a stimulating mix of returning artists with promising newcomers making local debuts, this cast features a quartet of singers who have proven their chops in Overture Hall (or Opera in the Park) before. Alexandra LoBianco is Leonore, the wife of Florestan, who disguises herself as “Fidelio” to get into the prison in a desperate attempt to rescue her husband. Clay Hilley is that spouse, with Kelly Markgraf as the evil Don Pizarro, and Matt Boehler as Rocco, the warden, as it were.

Ultimately the success of a staging of Fidelio rests on a Leonore, who has a big, dramatic voice and uses it to poignantly color the character of the wife prepared to sacrifice her life for her beloved. LoBianco was here in Verdi’s A Masked Ball, and she continue to reveal a powerful instrument that is maturing both physically and expressively.

Markgraf is already a local favorite in roles of the villains we love to hate, and has an imposing physical presence to match his dark and stirring vocalism. Rocco can be a tricky role, but Boehler balances the early hints of humor with a growing sense of the true magnitude of evil of his boss, Pizarro.

Florestan doesn’t even appear until the opening of Act II, but what a critical moment it is. DeMain led the Madison Symphony in an eerie and ominous opening, and Hilley’s first sound was like an echo of a wail that groped its way through the blackness of the dungeon before evolving into a desperate ray of sound. For all the great contributions of the principals, that ten-minute stretch remains at the front of one’s memory.

The most important debut was that of director Tara Faircloth; once again Smith and DeMain consistently tap worthy directors who work through the heart of a work. With sets from Michigan Opera Theater (dominated by two receding stone arches on either side of the stage) and costumes from Utah Opera, Faircloth manages to deftly move the principals about effectively. The famous “Prisoners Chorus” at the end of Act I, in which the men see the light of day for the first time in what seems like an eternity, revealed Faircloth’s willingness to let the music unfold the action.

Among those subsidiary roles with folks making their Madison Opera debuts, mention must be made of David Blalock as Jaquino and Alisa Jordheim as Marzelline. Their opening of his ardent advances versus her gentle but persistent efforts to keep him at arm’s length made us forget for a while how dark the story that was about to unfold. Lighting designer Christopher Maravich was also in his debut, and did a great job with the changing sky colors in LoBianco’s big first act aria, and the dark but subtly lit dungeon at the opening of Act II.

And for the record, this was the first Fidelio yours truly has seen live on stage; it is wonderful to report that Madison Opera gives us an experience that far exceeds a mere “better late than never” response. See you in February for Sweeney Todd; I’m pretty sure he is not a barber for a jail—although come to think of it, Sweeney has spent some time in the clink himself!