MET OPERA REVIEW
MET OPERA REVIEW; A 20th-Century 'Fidelio' Has a Singing Political Prisoner
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Published: November 19, 2002
I was reluctant to attend the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Beethoven's ''Fidelio'' on Saturday night. I didn't want to muddle my memories of Jürgen Flimm's gripping production, introduced two years ago, which also offered James Levine's magnificent account of the score and a peerless cast headed by Karita Mattila, Ben Heppner and René Pape. How would things fare with a different conductor, Peter Schneider, and a cast that, at least on paper, seemed not as strong?
Though the revival lacks the focus and punch of the original, the production is still remarkable, and the cast, headed by the soprano Waltraud Meier as Leonore and the tenor Johan Botha as Florestan, did honorable work. Mr. Flimm spent nearly two weeks in rehearsal with the singers, and it shows.
Though this opera pulsates with inspired music, its dramaturgy is so vague that the characters can easily seem two-dimensional. Florestan, a Spanish nobleman, referred to once as ''the hero who dared to speak the truth,'' though what truth this is we never learn, is being held as a political prisoner in the secret dungeon of a jail near Seville. His all-sacrificing wife, Leonore, suspecting his whereabouts, has disguised herself as a young man, called Fidelio, and taken a job at the prison as assistant to Rocco, the jailer.
Mr. Flimm makes a virtue of the opera's vagueness, placing the story in some emblematic, mid-20th-century country where a repressive military is gaining control in the face of a feckless aristocracy. To make the brutality of the opera real, Mr. Flimm; the set designer, Robert Israel; and the costume designer, Florence von Gerkan, fill the stage with powerfully specific imagery: a prison courtyard encircled by massive gray walls; three tiers of cells through which we see prisoners clad in eerie white uniforms, and a dank subterranean cellar where Florestan is kept in clanking chains.
Mr. Flimm has a risk-taking colleague in Ms. Meier, who plausibly conveys the body language of an awkward young man. Though she is a great and involving artist, years of tackling the dramatic Wagnerian soprano repertory have left some rough patches and stridency in her voice. Still, Ms. Meier's singing was noble and compelling.
Though Mr. Botha boasts an enormous voice with clarion high notes, he can be a stodgy singer, which must be partly attributable to his size. This Florestan does not look like someone who has been kept on starvation rations for two years. But Mr. Flimm drew surprising intensity out of him. The bass Matti Salminen brought his booming voice and hearty stage presence to his portrayal of Rocco. The soprano Hei-Kyung Hong sang radiantly and looked girlish as Marzelline, who unwittingly falls for Fidelio. The baritone Richard Paul Fink, though a little nasal-toned, was an oily Don Pizarro, the corrupt prison governor. The robust baritone Alan Held looked aptly clueless as Don Fernando, the minister of state, who arrives in a tailored suit just in time, thanks to Leonore's heroism, to right the wrongs.
Two years ago Mr. Levine's achievement was enhanced by the general excitement (and extra rehearsal time) attending a new production. Mr. Schneider, an eminent opera conductor in Europe, led an effectively paced and insightful performance that should gain some needed technical solidity as the run continues through Dec. 7. And the jubilant final scene, when the released prisoners are reunited with their motley-clothed families as the chorus sings Beethoven's heady music, is truly something to see.
Photo: Waltraud Meier, left, and Johan Botha in the Metropolitan's production of ''Fidelio.'' (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)