On the day that West Bay Opera's production of "Fidelio" opened in Palo Alto last week, three journalists were sentenced to life in prison by a Turkish court, the president of Brazil gave the military sweeping authority when he placed it in charge of security in Rio de Janeiro, and Italian police in Bologna turned water cannons on anti-fascist demonstrators who were protesting the scheduled speech of a neo-fascist leader in the city.
Such is life in the world of 2018. But how is it different from the political turmoil and tyrannies of 1805, when "Fidelio," Beethoven's only opera, premiered in Vienna? The simple answer: It's not. And that's what makes "Fidelio," the tale of a dying political prisoner and his rescue by his fearless wife, a timeless statement about humankind's tendency to crave and abuse power, as well as its resilience in the face of oppression.
That message was powerfully conveyed on opening night, Feb. 16, with the updating of the original 18th century Spanish prison setting to that of a contemporary for-profit U.S. prison.
But the message, urgent as it may be for our times, is only a fraction of what makes this production a soaring success. West Bay has put together a cast of magnificent singers in all key roles, a chorus of fine and sturdy voices, and an orchestra of polished musicians, dishing up a famously challenging operatic feast with vigor and elan.
The role of Leonora, who took the name Fidelio when she dressed as a man to find her imprisoned husband, was sung by the outstanding dramatic soprano Meredith Mecum, a Merola alumna now based in New York City. Her brilliant singing and sensitive portrayal of a woman aching with the uncertainty of her husband's fate make it easy to suspend disbelief in the implausible plot line: a woman binding her bosom, fooling those around her into believing she's a man, and being hired as an assistant guard in a men's prison.
The only disappointing aspect of Brent Reilly Turner's performance as Florestan, Leonora's imprisoned husband, is that he isn't on stage until the second act. But that's Beethoven's fault. Mr. Turner's performance was completely without fault; it was stunning. A New York City-based heldentenor making his West Bay Opera debut, he possesses amazing vocal strength, color and depth that convince from the first note out of his mouth.
Palo Alto native Kate Fruchterman was excellent as Marzelline, who falls in love with Fidelio. An outstanding soprano who is also making her West Bay debut, she offered a flawless vocal performance in a highly demanding role.
Bass-baritone Ben Brady as Rocco, baritone Krassen Karagiozov as the villainous Pizarro, baritone Kiril Havezov as Fernando and tenor Carmello Tringali as Jaquino round out the cast with an abundance of talent that makes this production a feast of marvelous singing.
West Bay's general director, Jose Luis Moscovich, ably conducts an expanded orchestra for "Fidelio," placing many of the players onstage. The production is further enhanced by the stage direction of Ragnar Conde and the set design of Peter Crompton.
Beethoven's "Fidelio" shines a light on humankind's eternal struggle for freedom in the face of tyranny and injustice. The soaring end of this opera, exploding with defiant exuberance and hope, anticipates the "Ode to Joy" final movement of his Ninth Symphony. It's a moving conclusion to a profound work.
General Director Moscovich has demonstrated a deep commitment to staging meaningful opera for our time, and courage in his choice of works that are challenging even to large major companies. His courage is a gift to local music lovers.
Final performances of "Fidelio" are Saturday, Feb. 24, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 25, 2 p.m. At the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. Tickets: $35-$85; group discounts available. Tickets: 650-424.9999 or WBOpera.org.