Monday, 20 February 2012

SSO Gala: BEETHOVEN'S Fidelio / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (18 February 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 February 2012 with the title "Glorious sounds for Fidelio".

It was an opportune time in history for only the second production of Beethoven’s Fidelio in Singapore since the early 1980s. The popular uprisings of Arab Spring, liberalisation in Myanmar, justice for Khmer Rouge victims, and the call for the abolition of the Internal Security Act all found a resonant chord with this ageless opera about freedom from tyranny and oppression.

A solitary candle, symbol of hope and amnesty, was lit centre-stage as the overture played, providing the only illumination in a hall plunged into darkness. This dichotomy between liberty and captivity, good and evil, went down even to the white and black costumes of the chorus. In Beethoven’s world, there were only heroes and villains, it seems. If only it were that simple.

Never in doubt was the direction of this semi-staged concert production. Freed from distractions of costumes, sets and limitations of a cramped pit, the full-sized Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Shui Lan performed on stage, just behind the cast of soloists. Music would always come first, and the playing, especially from the brass, was glorious from first to last.

German dialogue was replaced by Director David Edwards’s pithily scripted narration, making the story and action easy to follow, even for ten-year-olds. Particularly distinguished were the soloists, led by Sinead Mulhern’s Fidelio/Leonora in the famous trousers role and Stuart Skelton’s Florestan. The former did little to conceal her gender other than tying up her hair and wearing long pants. Although the latter appeared far too chunky to be a starving political prisoner near death, it was his every steady ringing tenor and sympathetic portrayal that did not need convincing.

The couple’s happy duet O namenlose Freude (O Joy Inexpressible), later boosted by a healthily robust chorus trained by Lim Yau, was to seal the feel good factor that was in doubt for much of the early proceedings. Light had emerged from darkness, as the lighting gradually morphed from dark moody blue to bright sunshine.

The excellent supporting cast of Diogenes Randes (Rocco), Camille Butcher (Marzelline) and Michael Heim (Jacquino) provided some of the lighter moments, as in the quartet Mir ist so wunderbar (What A Wonderful Emotion) with Fidelio. Carsten Wittmoser (Don Pizarro) and Johannes Schmidt (Don Fernando), representing malevolence and benevolence, were also totally believable.

Given the limited budget afforded by the Singapore Lyric Opera (which manages two staged productions a year including next week’s Mozart Don Giovanni), and the quality of recent SSO opera productions, is it too much to hope for at least one new opera production a year from the national orchestra?

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