Chorale Enlivens Beethoven in Fidelio
By Lee Hyo-won
It's not often that quantity is on par with quality. In a rare performance in Seoul this weekend of ``Fidelio,'' MuAk Opera offered a novel experience complete with an impressive 100-plus-member chorus that showed what Beethoven is all about.
The German master's unique opera, despite its high musical merits, has been infrequently staged. The performances Thursday to Sunday at Seoul Arts Center marked its reappearance here after 17 years, and two were rendered for the first time in German. The opera received its South Korean premiere in 1970 but the underlying theme of freedom and justice prevailing over tyrannical power made it taboo under the militant regime of the '70s and '80s. Also, its preachy idealism of conjugal marriage and political austerity made it a less popular repertoire compared to Verdi's melodramas or Mozart's comedies.
Despite featuring a rather dark story set on a minimal stage set, MuAk Opera offered a production teeming with some brilliant musicality ― talented singers and, moreover, striking choristers, compensated more than enough for mistakes and even the opera's inherent flaws.
The political story can be described as a romantic ``Prison Break''-meets-Shakespeare's ``Twelfth Night.'' In 17th-century Seville, a nobleman Florestan is imprisoned for disclosing the evil Don Pizarro's scandal, and his brave wife Leonore disguises herself as a prison guard to rescue him. Supporting characters that propel the narrative are Marzelline, who falls in love with Leonore-cum-Fidelio, and her father, the jailor Rocco, as well as Don Fernando, a friend of Florestan who arrives just in time to save Florestan and Leonore's lives and condemn Pizarro.
In Friday's production, soprano Lee Ji-young, a graduate of Placido Domingo's young artist program, invited opera goers to plunge right into the story as the creamy Marzelline. Even in the supporting role, the lyric soprano made a vivid impression that commanded attention, as her voice bloomed beautifully in the girly role, with gleaming highs and radiant middle notes.
Kim Nam-su as Rocco also shined through as one of the noblest baritones this reporter has heard in Korea. He had a voice to match his dramatic presence, whose low range was marked by rich timbre and ample volume. Choi Joo-il, however, was not very imaginative in playing the figure of towering evil. While his buff physique suited the role of Pizarro, the orchestra constantly drowned out his thin voice. Moreover, the Korean Symphony Orchestra, led by Cheh Seung-hwan, often faltered in keeping the rhythm with the singers.
Another less-than-perfect performance was delivered by the lead, Susan Anthony, who demonstrated that the part of Leonore-cum-Fidelio, with its merciless runs and scales, is a burdensome challenge for any soprano, no matter how talented. The dramatic soprano compellingly portrayed a character that is more human than superwoman. Vocally, however, she achieved power by sacrificing tone, particularly in the cruelly exposed high B's of the ``Abscheulicher'' aria, and the aria her character sings after rescuing her husband, which, in terms of narrative feels already superfluous, was rather lackluster.
However, it was hard not to be impressed. ``Fidelio's'' ideological core is the ``Prisoners' Chorus,'' and the MuAk Opera made a commendable attempt to make sure it was memorable. Members of the MuAk Oper Chorus and Grande Opera Chorus dominated the stage not only with their sheer number but also with their perfect harmony. In the hopeful upward-reaching motif, the prisoners greeted the open air with a rapturous tribute to freedom, as if to say, ``this is Beethoven's chorale.''
The production peaked in the second half, with the long-awaited appearance of Steven Harrison ― the Florestan of the hour. The act opened in the dark prison dungeon, the stage bare and the tenor all alone. But the stage brimmed with his powerful and tonally beautiful voice: In the anguished cry of ``Gott!'' his instrument depicted pain most compellingly yet effortlessly, without the least bit of pain hitting his notes.
MuAk Opera's foundation was inspired by Yonsei University's 2005 production of ``The Magic Flute'' to fete its 120th anniversary. Most of cast and crew, naturally, share a common alma mater, which this reporter presumptuously assumes, may have been responsible for the miscasting of some of the roles. Nevertheless, the young opera group proved to be a breath of fresh air in the local opera scene, with its bold repertoire choice and determination to put artistry above financial concerns.