Matthew Ozawa’s new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, the second offering of the San Francisco Opera’s 99th season, proved to be a memorable experience. Beethoven’s opera is an indictment of the practice of imprisoning political critics of a sovereignty.
Ozawa, assisted by Alexander V. Nichols’ arresting set design, brilliantly achieved the underlying premise of his production – to create the image of a contemporary state prison that would have the same emotional impact on current audiences as the prison that Beethoven conceived for “Fidelio” would have had on his audiences of 1814.
[Below: the prisoners are allowed outside of their cells in San Francisco Opera’s 2021 Matthew Ozawa production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Nichols’ set not only resonated with Beethoven’s original purpose in writing the opera, it facilitated the exposition of Beethoven’s music. Five of the seven principal characters and both of the two comprimario cast members (the two prisoners) have an aria. Each of the opera’s arias and ensembles – duets, trios and the famous quartet – are masterpieces of Beethoven’s melodic construction, each signifying strong emotional exchanges between characters.
Elza van den Heever’s Leonore/Fidelio
“Fidelio” provided the vehicle for South African soprano Elza van den Heever to return to the War Memorial Opera House after an absence of 14 seasons. Dressed as a security guard, she proved to be dramatically persuasive, impressively portraying a person of opposite gender. Importantly, she demonstrated that her widely regarded vocal skills included a mastery of Beethoven’s carefully designed musical form.
Her aria Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? is a Beethoven masterpiece. The aria invokes both the joy that Leonore feels to confirm that her husband is indeed still alive in the prison and the terror knowing that he is in grave danger because of the emnity of the prison warden Don Pizarro. Van den Heever’s performance conveyed the dramatic power of Beethoven’s formidable music.
[Below: Elza van den Heever as the Security Guard Fidelio; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
San Francisco Opera was an important part of van den Heever’s preparation for her successful operatic career. She was one of the company’s Adler Fellows, performing onstage in both the 2006-7 and 2007-8 seasons, including taking on the role of Donna Anna (to the Don Giovanni of Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) after the final dress rehearsal(!) for the entire run of performances [Review: Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, June 2, 2007].
Although much of her career during the intervening years has been based in Europe, van den Heever has appeared elsewhere in the United States during her 14 year absence from San Francisco. I reviewed another of her performances as Donna Anna (to the Don Giovanni of another former Adler Fellow, Lucas Meachem) [Review: The Man Who Loved Women, Lucas Meachem’s Empathetic Don Giovanni – Santa Fe, July 31, 2009]. I also reviewed her Armida [Review: Handel’s “Rinaldo” in Chicago – Francisco Negrin’s Finely Sung, Fun-filled Fantasy – Lyric Opera, March 16, 2012] and her performances of the title roles of Bellini’s “Norma” [Review: The Dallas Opera’s “Norma” – Vocally Outstanding, Dramatically Persuasive, April 21, 2017] and Handel’s “Alcina” [Review – Santa Fe Opera’s “Alcina”: Beautifully Sung Enchantment – July 29, 2017]. Her Leonore/Fidelio is another triumph for this gifted artist.
See my interviews with van den Heever at Rising Stars: An Interview with Elza van den Heever, Part 1 and Rising Stars: an Interview with Elza van den Heever, Part 2.
Russell Thomas’ Florestan
Florida tenor Russell Thomas performed the role of Leonore’s imprisoned husband, Florestan. Although the character does not appear in the first half of the opera, he is a powerful presence in the opera’s climactic scenes, including performing the dramatic aria Gott! Welch dunkel hier!. Thomas demonstrated both vocal power and expressiveness in performing the glorious music Beethoven composed for this heroic character.
[Photo: Russell Thomas as Florestan in the 2021 San Francisco Opera production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I have reviewed Thomas’ performances of operas by Mozart (Review: Ovations for L. A. Opera’s “Clemency of Titus”: Impressive Singing, Stylish New Production, March 2, 2019), Bellini (Review: Meade, Barton, Thomas, Robinson Sing Beautifully in “Norma” – Los Angeles Opera, November 21, 2015), Donizetti (Review: World’s Best Ever “Roberto Devereux” Performance: Radvanovsky, Thomas, Barton, Frizza – San Francisco Opera, September 8, 2018) and Verdi (Review: “Don Carlo” – Washington National Opera’s World Class Verdi Singing, March 14, 2018).
This is the first time I have seen him perform in German. Thomas had previously been announced for the title role of “Parsifal” at the Houston Grand Opera (subsequently canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic). He is preparing for the title role of “Tannhauser” for future performances. [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Russell Thomas.]
Greer Grimsley’s Don Pizarro
The role of Don Pizarro was played with chilling effectiveness by Louisiana baritone Greer Grimsley (earning him during curtain calls the friendly chorus of boos that American audiences routinely give those artists who portray villainous characters well). This was my second opportunity to hear Grimsley as Don Pizarro. Previously, he sang in a Santa Fe Opera Stephen Wadsworth production, set in a Nazi German prison [Review: A Finely Crafted “Fidelio” from Stephen Wadsworth – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2014.]
A highlight of the evening was Grimsley’s vocally powerful and darkly sinister performance of Pizarro’s aria Ha! welch’ ein Augenblick!, enunciating the sentiment that a political enemy like Florestan (a crusader against Pizarro’s corruption) must be destroyed. No age is free of tyrants who would subscribe to such an idea, and the 21st century offers too many examples of leaders who likely would not hesitate to put the idea into practice.
[Photo: Greer Grimsley as Don Pizarro, plotting the death of an enemy who is a political prisoner under his care; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Few artists have had so many of his roles and his performances reviewed on this website as Grimsley, including the role of Wotan in three separate cycles of Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” and such iconic bass-baritone roles as the Dutchman [Review: Grimsley, Lindstrom Launch a Sonically Lavish, Visually Dazzling “Flying Dutchman” – San Francisco Opera, October 22, 2013], Claggart [Review: Superbly Cast and Conducted, the Los Angeles Opera’s “Billy Budd” is a Theatrical Triumph – February 22, 2014] and Scarpia [Review: A Top Notch “Tosca” from Alexia Voulgaridou, Gwyn Hughes Jones and Greer Grimsley – San Diego Opera, February 13, 2016]
See also my interview with him: Ambassador for Opera: An Interview with Bass-Baritone Greer Grimsley.
James Creswell’s Rocco
The character of the jailer Rocco was performed by Washington bass James Creswell, with the sonorous voice and dramatic instincts one expects of this talented artist. Rocco sings one of Beethoven’s more light-hearted arias, Hat man night auch Gold beineben,which Creswell did masterfully. Intelligent staging accompanied Creswell’s singing, including Rocco’s moving between the set’s interior rooms, stairwells and exterior spaces during ensembles with the other characters.
[Below: Rocco (James Creswell, right) resists the entreaties of the prison warden Don Pizarro (Greer Grimsley, left) to murder a prisoner whom Pizarro considered to be a political enemy; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I have admired Creswell’s performances over the past decade, especially during recent years when he has become an indispensible artist for such important bass roles as Frère Laurent [Review: Pene Pati and Nadine Sierra Brilliant in Gounod’s “Roméo and Juliet” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2019], Mozart’s Doctor Bartolo [Review: Strong Cast, Arresting New Production for “Marriage of Figaro” – San Francisco Opera, October 13, 2019] and Prince Gremin [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s “Eugene Onegin”, Musically Appealing, Visually Striking – July 24, 2021]
Anne-Marie MacIntosh’s Marzelline and Christopher Oglebsby’s Jacquino
The only member of the cast that I had not seen perform previously was Canadian lyric soprano and current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter. Marzelline has become smitten by the new guy at work, not suspecting that Fidelio is (1) married and (2) a woman. I am quite willing to believe, based on the music that Beethoven wrote for this character (including the sprightly, if delusional, aria O wär ice schon mit dir vereint), that Beethoven seemed fond of her.
[Below: Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Marzelline; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Jacquino, Marzelline’s boyfriend prior to Fidelio’s arrival, although aria-less, still has ample opportunity to press his case for Marzelline’s affections, and whose patience is ultimately rewarded. The role, sung by Georgia lyric tenor and current Adler Fellow Christopher Oglesby, did effectively showcase Oglesby’s attractive voice and decent acting.
I had liked Oglesby in previous assignments as an Adler Fellow, but especially liked his appearance as Jacquino.
Soloman Howard’s Don Fernando
“Fidelio” ends with the arrival of a government official, Don Fernando, performed authoritatively by District of Columbia bass Soloman Howard. Howard’s Fernando arrests Pizarro and reunites Leonore and Florestan, to provide a happy ending to an intense opera.
[Below: Soloman Howard as Don Fernando; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Howard, whose company debut took place four seasons earlier in the principal role of Timur [Review: San Francisco Opera’s Treasured “Turandot” – Stemme, Crocetto, Howard Join Cast, November 18, 2017] has assumed principal roles in back to back San Francisco Opera productions, appearing last month as Angelotti [Review: Ailyn Pérez , Michael Fabiano, Alfred Walker, Soloman Howard Excel in a Memorable “Tosca” (with a Post-Finale Surprise) – San Francisco Opera, September 5, 2021], and making opera world headlines by proposing marriage to the Tosca (Ailyn Pérez) during final curtain calls.
Zhengyi Bai’s First Prisoner and Stefan Egerstrom’s Second Prisoner
Two Adler fellows, Chinese tenor Zhengyi Bai and Mnnesota bass Stefan Egertrom respectively sang the affecting arias of two prisoners, Bai from the prison staircase, Egerstrom emerging from the crowd on the mainstage.
I was delighted that Bai was chosen in the significant role of the First Prisoner, having previously enjoyed his performances as Carmen’s fellow outlaw El Remendado [Review: Francesca Zambello’s Theatrically Compelling “Carmen” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2019] and as the “Manon Lescaut” Music Master [Review: A Passionate “Manon Lescaut” Led by Luisotti, Haroutounian and Jagde – San Francisco Opera, November 8, 2019],
[Below: Zhengyi Bai as the First Prisoner; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Maestra Eun Sun Kim and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus Master Ian Robertson and the San Francisco Opera Chorus
The San Francisco Opera Orchestra performed magnificently under the leadership of Maestra Eun Sun Kim, in her first season as San Francisco Opera music director.
[Below: Maestra Eun Sun Kim; edited image, based on a publicity photograph from eunsunkim.com.]
Chorus Master Ian Robertson, in one of his last and most impressive assignments before his retirement at the end of 2021, presided over an extraordinary performance by the San Francisco Opera Chorus.
[Below: Chorus Master Ian Robertson; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Director Matthew Ozawa’s Staging, Alexander V. Nichols’ Set Design and Jessica Jahn’s costumes
The production’s creator, Matthew Ozawa (whose own father was born in a World Wat II Montana internment camp for Japanese-Americans), in developing the production, asked: “How could we create a structure that would depict the facility, the system, and the tiers of people who inhabit it? We were cognizant that the opera’s original setting of the late 18th century was close to the time period in which it was written and premiered. It would have felt very contemporary and relevant to those that saw it [in 1814]. Therefore, we set our production in a recent past or near future detention facility, somewhere in the world. This setting allows us to investigate contemporary structures that remove those that are deemed an ‘other’ and a threat and to give voice to those who have been powerless to speak.”
[Below: Director Matthew Ozawa; edited image, based on a publicity photograph from L2 Artists.]
Alexander V. Nichols’ two-level rotating set not only met Ozawa’s intent of invoking the idea of a contemporary prison facility, but also provided abundant opportunities for movement in perfect synchrony with Beethoven’s dramatic music.
[Set designer Alexander V. Nichols; edited image, based on San Francisco Opera youtube.com screen capture.]
Complementing Ozawa’s production concepts and Nichols’ evocative prison set are the vibrant costumes of designer Jessica Jahn.
[Below: Prisoners and townspeople (San Francisco Opera chorus and supernumeraries) surround Leonore (Elza van den Heever, first level, center, in security guard’s blue uniform) and her freed husband Florestan (Russell Thomas, first level, left center); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The co-lighting designers were JAX Messenger and Justin A. Partier.
Final Thoughts and Recommendation
The San Francisco Opera “Fidelio” production is an extraordinary experience, which I would recommend for both the veteran opera-goer and for persons new to opera.
For my accounts of historical San Francisco performances of “Fidelio” that I attended at the War Memorial Opera House, see:
Historical Performances: Brouwenstijn, Uhl, Schoeffler, Horne, in “Fidelio” at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, October 5, 1961 and
Historical Performances: Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, Geraint Evans in “Fidelio” – San Francisco Opera, October 17, 1964.