Opera / Theater Review: FIDELIO (LA Phil, Deaf West Theatre, and LA Master Chorale)

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by Jordon Julien on April 27, 2022

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Fidelio is the sole opera written by Ludwig Van Beethoven. Inspired by an apocryphal story from the French revolution, it concerns Leonore, whose husband Florestan has been secretly imprisoned by an evil politician named Don Pizzarro. In order to rescue him, Leonore dresses up in male garb and gets a job in the prison where he is held. She befriends the jailer Rocco but becomes the love interest of his daughter Marzelline who doesn’t know the true gender of her crush. At the end of the opera, Florestan is freed, Leonore and Florestan are reunited, Pizzarro gets arrested. We never find out if Marzelline ever found true love again.

It’s an opera that celebrates the human quest for freedom and justice. It has been banned in several autocratic regimes and it was not allowed to be performed in China until 2008.

Fidelio is considered a flawed opera because it includes interludes of spoken text as well as ridiculously implausible plot twists and unclear plot development. In the Los Angeles Philharmonic/Deaf West Theatre collaboration at Disney Hall, each role is doubled by an opera singer and a deaf actor each acting the part. While this has worked magic in Deaf West shows such as Spring Awakening, it proved to be a challenge to reconcile the doubling of the parts. It would have clarified the action had singers been in the background while the deaf performers act. The spoken text scenes were replaced by actors signing the text, while surtitles explained the text. Despite the entire opera being surtitled, the plot proved to be a bit confusing (must we read the synopsis to understand what is happening on stage?).

Of the singers, Bass-Baritone Ryan Speedo Green stood out as Rocco the jailer. His powerful vocals, charismatic stage presence and total conviction made a strong case for Green’s opera star status. As Leonora, Christiane Libor gave a full-voiced interpretation. Ian Koziara, as her husband Florestan, had a strong heldentenor voice, producing beautiful tones at booming volumes while offering well-articulated German.

The deaf actors gave committed performances with Gabriel Silva as Don Pizarro stealing each one of his scenes as cross between a Disney villain and a silent film bad guy. His acting was matched by Chinese Bass-Baritone Shenyang whose booming voice was well-suited for a villain role. Even though I don’t understand sign, his acting and aggressive signing did not need surtitles to be understood. The hearing-impaired Venezuelan choir “The White Glove Chorus” used choreography and signing to both convey mood and crowd scenes.

The orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel played beautifully, producing a creamy and delicate sound, avoiding the bombast that often is associated with Beethoven’s music. LA Master Chorale provided superb choral work, once again proving themselves to be the best choir in America.

While the doubling of the roles proved to be distracting rather than enriching, I’m glad that deaf audiences got to see their first opera. I’m not sure, however, whether opera and its stretched lyrical lines are really a good match for fluid and rapid sign language interpretation.

LA Phil/Deaf West’s production did not manage to repair the opera’s storytelling issues. It was, however, both a musically successful evening and an evening that deaf audiences won’t soon forget.

performance April 16, 2022

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