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Clay Hilley as Florestan and Miina-Liisa Värelä as Leonore in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Fidelio.Michael Cooper, Michael Cooper 2022

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  • Title: Fidelio
  • Written by: Beethoven
  • Director: Matthew Ozawa
  • Conductor: Johannes Debus
  • Company: Canadian Opera Company
  • Venue: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To October 20, 2023

Fidelio is an affecting opera for troubled times. Themes of love, justice and freedom resonate through every bar, well past the trials of the Napoleonic Wars era in which it was created. The current presentation from the Canadian Opera Company underlines these themes, although its concept occasionally distracts from Beethoven’s stirring score.

Written and edited over a decade with its third and final version presented in Vienna in 1814, the opera (originally titled Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love) is based on an allegedly true story of a woman who disguised herself as a man during wartime to rescue her imprisoned husband. Leonore (Miina-Liisa Varela), disguised as “Fidelio,” works under chief jailer Rocco (Dimitry Ivashchenko) and his assistant Jaquino (Josh Lovell), who both answer to the villainous Don Pizarro (Johannes Martin Kränzle), the jail’s governor. Fidelio is allowed to engage with all of the prisoners but for one, Florestan (Clay Hilley), who is kept chained in a dungeon.

The production, by director Matthew Ozawa, made its debut in San Francisco in 2021. A rotating, two-tier cube by Alexander Nichols, the set and projections designer, comprises the entire set; its bars, fences, metal stairs and steely rails effectively imply the claustrophobic nature of the setting while highlighting the hierarchies within the opera’s dramaturgy.

With clear visual references to life (Guantanamo Bay) and fiction (Oz, Dead Man Walking) this modern-dress Fidelio has an immediacy that is underlined from the opening scene, in which Jaquino tries to woo his beloved, Marzelline (Anna-Sophie Neher), Rocco’s daughter, even though she is in love with Fidelio, unaware of his true identity.

Costume designer Jessica Jahn’s smart suits are seen on employees who work benignly at keyboards and glance at monitors as the Kevlar-vest-wearing Fidelio chats with Rocco and becomes saucer-eyed when it’s revealed her position as a son-in-law is imminent. The seeming normalcy of the opening brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s famous line about the banality of evil (from a 1963 book on the trial of the former Nazi official Adolf Eichmann), rendering previous and upcoming scenes with the desperate orange-suited prisoners all the more affecting.

Yet the method of presentation often takes on more significance than individual scenes. The cube moves to end scenes; it moves in the middle of scenes; it makes an audible hum when in use. Attention becomes diffused, with needed tension lost in the rotation. Compounding this is the addition of children and female prisoners, augmentations which complicate the dramaturgy rather than complementing it.

One senses a concept at odds with certain parts of the score. The famous Act 1 Prisoners’ Chorus, O welche Lust (O what a joy), written for a group of all-male prisoners, is a powerful and highly symbolic marriage of art and politics. Leonore (and by extension, the audience) is meant to observe a moment no one, especially a woman, was ever meant to see; here the poignancy is lost as the male voices are largely masked by the sheer volume of bodies jammed into a small space. Yuki Nakase Link’s shift in lighting, from the starkness of prison to the warmth of sun, is clever but ultimately limited by the staging.

Open this photo in gallery:

A rotating, two-tier cube by Alexander Nichols, the set and projections designer, comprises the entire set; its bars, fences, metal stairs and steely rails effectively imply the claustrophobic nature of the setting while highlighting the hierarchies within the opera’s dramaturgy.Michael Cooper/Handout

More effective is Florestan’s Act 2 aria Gott! Welch Dunkel hier (God! What darkness here), staged in a storage room in which the chained prisoner is seated and being tortured by a bright wall of looping video footage. The decision might go against the actual words (the set does go dark eventually) but the reference to contemporary reports of torture is unmissable, and the effect deeply memorable.

Attractive performances elevate the production as well. Tenor Hilley demonstrates fine control and colour, while Varela exudes a likeable warmth, her vocal flexibility conveying a portrait of a woman at once authoritative and maternal. As Jaquino, Canadian tenor Josh Lovell has a particularly engaging stage presence, his creamy tones climbing easily through Beethoven’s high-flying vocal writing. Kränzle is compulsively watchable as the corrupt Pizarro, here presented as less a moustache-twizzling baddie than a corporate-suited smooth talker barely concealing psychotic fury. The opera closes with him standing on the top tier, a spotlight revealing a terrible smirk.

It is a nuanced ending for an opera often accused of stilted dramatism, but what Fidelio lacks in theatrical shading it makes up for in musical richness. The COC orchestra lovingly captures this vibrancy, with music director Johannes Debus balancing big percussive effects with thoughtful lyricism, and bringing special attention to the strings and woodwinds sections. One rather wishes the production had featured the famous Leonore Overture No. 3, sometimes played between the scenes of the second act, if only to hear the orchestra show off its talent with the material. Evil may be banal but love is not, and music, as Beethoven’s only opera implies, is possibly the very best method of delivery.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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