Preview: Beethoven’s Fidelio is as relevant as ever

On stage

What: Fidelio
Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
When: Oct. 11, 13 and 19 at 8 p.m.; Oct. 17 at 7 p.m.; Oct. 21 at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets: $27-$144 in person at the Royal and McPherson box office, by phone at 250-386-6121, or online at rmts.bc.ca

Pacific Opera Victoria’s season-opening performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s lone opera, Fidelio, could not have been better timed.

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Fidelio features recurring themes of freedom and injustice, which have become eerily prescient in the centuries since it was created. That is good news for patrons. The timely nature of the production has given the cast of the production an added dose of reality heading into five performances, starting tonight.

“I think people have always found this to be really relevant and timely,” said soprano Aviva Fortunata, an upstart Toronto talent who plays Leonore, the wife of a political prisoner.

“It was the first opera performed in Berlin after World War II ended, and they did it again around the time when the Berlin Wall fell. The themes are so universal. And you can look at what is going on in the world today and see a lot of parallels.”

Fortunata has plenty to sing about in the role of Leonore, who disguises herself as a man (Fidelio) in an attempt to save from certain death her wrongfully imprisoned husband, Florestan (played by tenor Brent Reilly Turner).

The opera raises questions about liberty and justice, many of which are purposely left ambiguous. That was the genius of Beethoven’s opera, according to Pacific Opera Victoria’s music director, Timothy Vernon. When it premièred in 1805, the German composer — who was nearly 20 years away from creating his masterpiece, Symphony No. 9 — was on a quest for truth.

Beethoven was raised in Bonn, which was a hotbed of enlightenment in Germany at the time. That persistent sense of inquiry crept into Fidelio, which underwent several revisions at the behest of Beethoven’s peers.

“He and friends all sat around reading [German philosopher Immanuel] Kant and arguing,” Vernon said. “He grew up with this incredible take on humanity at large, and he has this very strong feeling about individual freedom and what the social order should be. Those ideas stuck with him throughout his life.”

Opera, in some cases, will see directors and conductors lead audiences directly to the composer’s original intent. That isn’t the case here. Beethoven clearly wanted audiences to come to their own conclusions about freedom, and what various characters should and should not have done over the course of the libretto.

“He’s a universal composer, and these themes that he deals with, his music touches us on a deeper level,” Fortunata said of Beethoven. “The music in this opera is transcendental. It lifts you up.”

Vernon saw a production of Fidelio in Winnipeg that welcomed refugee families onto the stage during the finale. Last year, during a New York production, inmates at six Midwest correctional facilities sang in a pre-recorded video that was shown on stage during the production. It’s clear the themes have a recurring appeal both in and out of the opera world with people who have suffered, people who have been suppressed and people who have resisted, Fortunata said.

“I feel a personal responsibility in this production. I have not been through this kind of systematic oppression, so I feel a deep responsibility to honour their sacrifices and hardships. There is an added level of responsibility to try and tell the story in a respectful and helpful way.”

Fortunata and Turner join an esteemed cast and crew that includes director Wim Trompert for what Vernon calls a large-scale production. “You need a big voice for this. Beethoven doesn’t write for namby-pambies.”

The opera is performed in German, with English surtitles, and will take Fortunata to the brink physically. “[Leonore and Fidelio] is kind of a strange role,” she said. “She sings a lot, especially towards the end of the opera, so for me it’s about building up my endurance and pacing. This opera is very new to me. I started looking at it four months ago and had never really studied it in school. It was an interesting learning experience starting at zero, because I had no preconceived notions. Usually, when you come to an opera, you’ve sung the arias and you’ve seen the opera, and you have whatever biases you have about it. This was a completely new experience for me.”

There is plenty of heavy lifting to be done, where the finale is concerned, according to Vernon.

“It’s a bigger scale than we usually have. It takes a big chorus — and a strong chorus — to make the case for Beethoven. The finale is a half-hour long, and it’s like his ninth symphony, it’s just glorious. It takes certain kind of singer, most of them big-voiced, to produce the sound for this. The style is big, but the music is so gripping.”

Vernon said Fortunata’s technical control is rare and will allow her to tackle roles of almost every kind. Victoria audiences are lucky to have a singer of her power in the roles of Leonore and Fidelio at this point in her career, he said.

“She is singing magnificently. That voice — she really is going to go somewhere, there’s absolutely no question in my mind. She opens her mouth and out pours this glorious music.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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