Saturday in San Diego: Beethoven versus the Bowl

Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Opera opens its seasons late in January, and that can mean a coincidence with the Super Bowl. Five years ago, when San Diego last hosted the NFL extravaganza, first-night opera goers and Green Bay's cheese heads amusingly confronted one another. The work on stage then was comic, "The Barber of Seville," and it was an amusing evening.

On Saturday night, the coincidence occurred again, this time with a more urban edge. Before the performance, in the nearby Gaslamp Quarter, black-tied opera-goers looked nervously out of place in the midst of black-clad Raiders' fans gearing up for Super Bowl Sunday.

Still, there were shared values: In a field of aggressively driven black SUVs and Mercedeses, Raiders emblems sometimes were the only way to distinguish the football crowd. But it gave pause to consider that a scalped seat at the Super Bowl could cost up to 50 times more than a good one at the opera.

The opera was Beethoven's "Fidelio," a hymn to freedom, an idealistic embracing of the masses. At its conclusion, when the political prisoner Florestan is freed, the benevolent governor, Don Fernando, sings what was one of Beethoven's favorite sentiments about the brotherhood. "One helps his fellow man as best he can," was how the company translated the line from the German on its illuminated titles.

Yet when a few "brothers" marched in front of the Civic Theatre to hand out leaflets urging the city to prevent the eviction of low-income tenants from a single-room occupancy residence hotel, opera security quickly hustled them to a distant corner of the plaza away from entering patrons.

On stage, there was an imposing brick prison. But the staging was not stirring.

The stage director, Michael Hampe, seemed satisfied with stock operatic gestures, a throwback to a time when charismatic singers and commandeering conductors were expected to carry the drama on their own. But the company did not compensate by finding modern facsimiles of such anachronistic performers.

Four singers featured in the company's "Lohengrin" three years ago returned. Most notable was Eva Johansson, resolute as the heroic Leonore, Florestan's wife who disguises herself as a man, Fidelio, to free her husband. The Danish soprano has a big voice and exciting high notes, but she makes you nervously wait for them with her uncertain phrasing and stalwart stage presence.

John Keyes, Florestan, is just the opposite -- a powerfully dramatic tenor who thins out disappointingly in upper registers.

In the black-and-white contrast of good and evil, Greer Grimsley's Don Pizarro, the prison official who tries to get Florestan out of the way, was darkly sung, while Reinhard Hagen's Rocco, the humane jailer, was warmly sung. But the stand-out was Ute Selbig, whose shinning, thrillingly strong and focused soprano brought an unusually moving strength to Marzelline, Rocco's clueless daughter who falls for Fidelio. Pavel Daniluk made a convincingly sympathetic Fernando and Martin Zysset a pleasantly ardent Jaquino, Rocco's helper.

Christof Perick was the conductor. Little seen in Southern California since his days as music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, he is now music director of the Charlotte Symphony.

An experienced Beethovenian and a sensitive musician, he got some lovely playing from the orchestra and competent singing from the chorus. But he rarely appeared engaged with the stage and provided little sense of theatrical authority. John Gunter's set had the advantage of projecting voices, and all singers sounded more commanding than the orchestra, muted in its deep pit.

"Fidelio" is a contrived opera; Beethoven wrote several versions of it and never solved all its dramatic problems. But fire burns in its politics, and it is hard to extinguish all that fire in its exhilarating finale.

But a little silliness needs to go -- the dainty marching of the captain of the prison guards inspired one woman seated near me into an understandable and nearly contagious fit of giggling.

Could it be that all the experienced drill teams were already employed for half-time ceremonies?



Where: Civic Theatre, 202 C St.,

San Diego

When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.

Price: $20-$120

Contact: (619) 570-1100

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