By Ludwig Van Beethoven
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Conducted by Donald Runnicles
Directed by Michael Hampe

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Ludwig Van Beethoven composed only one opera, Fidelio, but it's a masterpiece. Written in 1805 with a libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner and Georg Friedrich Treitschke, it's a tribute to the power of love and a still timely comment on the consequences of political repression. The San Francisco Opera is staging it in a production first seen in 1987 and revived in 1992.

Designed by John Gunter with lighting by Joan Arhelger and sound by Roger Gans, the production still works well visually. Towering gray brick walls represent the foreboding Spanish state prison where the action takes place in about 1800. However, Michael Hampe's direction lacks much of the urgency and energy that were present when the production premiered. The characters sometimes don't relate to each other, frequently just standing and singing. A notable exception occurs in the opening scene between Marzelline (American soprano Greta Feeney), the jailer's daughter, and her young suitor, Jacquino (American tenor Mathias Zachariassen) as Jacquino tries to woo Marzelline, who rejects him in no uncertain terms as she folds laundry.

The production fares better musically than it does dramatically. SFO Musical Director Donald Runnicles conducts a richly nuanced overture, using the Fidelio overture that Beethoven composed in 1814, following the Leonore overtures Nos. 1, 2 and 3. The singing is generally quite good, led by American soprano Christine Brewer as Leonore/Fidelio, the wife who disguises herself as a man to infiltrate the prison where her husband languishes as a political prisoner. Brewer has the Wagnerian power and range for the role, but she doesn't move well. American bass Arthur Woodley sings and acts well as Rocco, the chief jailer. Feeney and Zachariassen endow their characters with youthfulness. However, Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo, though he sings well, is too much the stock villain as Don Pizarro, who has imprisoned Leonore's husband, Florestan. The latter is portrayed by American tenor Thomas Moser, whose tone is pinched.

Ian Robertson's SFO Chorus is outstanding, particularly the men in the magnificent prisoners' chorus, "O welche Lust!" that ends Act 1 and the entire chorus in the celebration of freedom that concludes the opera.

Nevertheless, the production taken as a whole seems perfunctory, almost like paint by the numbers.

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