"Fidelio" is opera's never-ending fixer-upper. Beethoven's only opera and the score the composer spent the most time on almost never works, yet it is all but indestructible.
Beethoven attempts to appropriate and transform operatic methods of his day, comic and epic, into a screed of unrealistic political and conjugal idealism. Heroism triumphs over oppression, love conquers all and significance trumps insignificance with such Beethovenian spiritual conviction that, in the right hands, the opera needs no excuses.
Thursday night in the first of three concert performances with the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas supplied the hands.
This "Fidelio is the climax to a San Francisco Symphony three-week Beethoven immersion. The performance did little to address the significant issues of staging the opera or radicalizing concert presentation. Instead, with a top-drawer cast, an outstanding chorus and a splendidly polished orchestra, Tilson Thomas pretty much let Beethoven be.
There was slight and not always ideal staging. Some of the German dialogue between musical numbers was retained, despite its awkwardness on an American concert stage. Singers used both the lip of the stage and a platform behind it, creating acoustical issues. Ham-handed acting was allowed. But entrances and exits were well handled, as was the lighting.
More important, Tilson Thomas avoided the distractions of the elaborate concept for staging with video that he employed in a production of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis earlier this year with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. He repeated the production with his own orchestra to open the San Francisco Symphony's Beethoven festival.
This time Tilson Thomas solved the big dramatic and musical problems of "Fidelio" by simply accepting them in a stunning performance of beatific maturity. Rather than find solutions where there are none, he revealed Beethoven's genius as rising out of the composer's foibles. The humanity on parade, then, was not so much the characters of the opera, but Beethoven's.
Thus the ill-timed comic opening of the political prison drama, in which a jailer's daughter brushes off the advances of a young suitor because she fancies her father's new assistant, Fidelio, was allowed to be clumsily and unfunnily adamant. There was no attempt to make Rocco, the genial jailer, as likable as Beethoven might have liked.
Best of all, there was no attempt to rein in the political prisoner Florestan or Fidelio (Leonore, Florestan's wife in male disguise). Best of all, that is, because Nina Stemme and Brandon Jovanovich are larger-than-life singers who are at their best when at their glorious loudest.
I have encountered more nuanced dramatic interpretations from both the Swedish soprano and the American tenor. But if Stemme was slightly unsteady this night when trying to hold back, when valor was wanted, she unleashed sterling high notes with thrilling power.
Beethoven might have meant Florestan to be an emaciated prisoner half-dead in a dark dungeon, but from his startlingly commanding first utterance, Jovanovich might well have been a burly Midwesterner belting "Oklahoma!" He was not silly, though, but magnificent from his first moment to last.
Moreover, this was a magnificence that gave room for Alan Held to be as nasty a Don Pizarro, the governor intent on taking revenge on Florestan, as he liked. As if knowing what was about to come, Nicholas Phan and Joélle Harvey could then play the opening duet between Jaquino and Marzelline not for lighthearted laughs but for ardor.
As Rocco, Kevin Langan left room for ambiguity, a jailer for whom good and duty were not always in admirable duality. The chorus added nothing but glory to the evening.
But the true character of the performance came from the orchestra. Tilson Thomas brought sometimes startling life to small points of Beethovenian expression, by letting an oboe line provide better narrative content than any stage dialogue might. With suavity, the strings conveyed Beethoven's conviction that spiritual wonder underlies everything in life. The brass were golden, whether proclaiming menace or triumph.
As a result, the orchestra's example of democracy became the unexpected glue to hold together a messy opera while still conveying the opera's message of democracy. And in doing so, Tilson Thomas reminded us that what makes "Fidelio" a radical and important political opera is that, like it, democracy is a never-ending fixer-upper.