On April 30, 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and the National Immigrant Justice Center, released a joint report entitled, Justice Free Zones, detailing the operation of federally administered primary detention centres throughout the U.S. during the first three years of the Trump administration. The findings, widely reported, were beyond alarming.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confined over 56,000 people per day — the vast majority asylum-seekers from Mexico and Central America — in an ominous network of 220 heavily secured locations nationwide, the majority operated for profit by private contractors.
Living conditions were typically horrific with up to 100 individuals, children and infants included, often penned together in single 30 x 30 ft. cages. Hygienic protocols were essentially non-existent, sanitation inadequate.
Physical intimidation in the form of tear gas and pepper spray was often employed by understaffed, minimally trained officers.
Launching an ambitious 2023/24 season on a darkly dire note, the Canadian Opera Company casts a keen eye on the rise of the 21st century prison state, unlocking all the brutality and suffering of the here and now with a bold, gripping production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio — graphic, impassioned, disquieting. First presented by San Francisco Opera in 2021, director Matthew Ozawa’s depiction of life stripped of all regard echoes as loud and shocking as a front-page exposé.
Stagecraft is central here, set and projection designer Alexander Nichols’ grim two-storey prison utterly consuming the length and depth of the Four Seasons Centre’s ample playing area, all cold steel bars and pitiless fluorescent lighting. Mounted on a massive turntable, the entire monolithic monument to industrial brutalism revolves with disturbing clockwork precision, one scene relentlessly pivoting into the next. An austere, coldly efficient administrative wing segues into a bank of looming cell blocks. Cells rotate to reveal a vast storeroom piled with prisoner records, bankers box on box. Characters disappear down shadowy passageways only to re-emerge on the opposite side of the threatening structure that is Fidelio’s sole reference point. Ozawa literally turns the venerable 200-year old rescue piece into a spinning cycle of menacingly familiar tableaux.
Opera, particularly one reliant, at least in part, on singspiel, was not a particularly comfortable fit for Beethoven. Three attempts to mould the overture into a personally satisfying composition, plus the need to radically reduce the dimensions of his original 1805 score following a less than stellar premiere, plus the overarching dictates of theatrical collaboration left him vowing never to tackle opera again. A solemn promise duly kept.
Story, a feverish account of derring-do by librettists Joseph Sonnleithner and Georg Friedrich Treitschke after an earlier Revolutionary opéra comique, is utterly drenched in Napoleonic values. Florestan, an unrepentant whistle-blower exposes the corrupt Don Pizzaro, governor of the prison, resulting in Florestan’s egregious arrest and confinement. Leonore, tirelessly devoted wife, disguised as a man (Fidelio), undertakes to free him. Liberty unleashed. Vive la République!
History, much to Beethoven’s eternal regret, was not wholeheartedly in agreement. Following his self-coronation as Emperor, Napoleon quickly revealed himself to be a monomaniacal tyrant, invading Beethoven’s adopted homeland of Austria in 1809. The composer, a determined supporter of Revolutionary ideals, was bitterly disillusioned.
If text and setting are given fresh impetus in director Ozawa’s taut, insistent staging of Beethoven’s overtly Romantic sensation, music continues to be framed in timeless, classic terms. Marshalling a charged COC Orchestra, conductor Johannes Debus leads with immense deftness and assurance, splashing Fidelio’s otherwise unadorned linear narrative arc with vivid swatches of symphonic colour. Harmonies soar. Crescendi thunder. The sonic experience is as profound as it is energizing.
Having overheard Don Pizarro, treacherous prison governor, vowing to murder her husband — Abscheulicher! (“Monster!”) — Leonore turns from blistering recit to plaintive aria — Komm Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern (“Let hope be my bright star”) — in a mere handful of tumbled, carefully crafted measures.
A surge of detainees, temporarily released from captivity by Rocco, chief jailer and Fidelio’s second centre of good, exalt in their all too brief taste of freedom in the celebrated Prisoners’ Chorus — O welche Lust! (“Oh, what joy!”) — their voices soon descending into anxious diminuendo — Sprecht leise! Haltet! (“Hush! Make no noise!”) — as they realize surveillance cameras are everywhere.
Beethoven: master of vibrancy. Ensembles form and reform, duets growing into trios, trios blossoming into quartets, at times approaching the exalted status of fugue. Debus and players tirelessly cultivate every layer of the composer’s richly fertile score.
Appearing in the taxing role of Leonore/Fidelio, Finnish dramatic soprano Miina-Liisa Värelä delivers a fine, theatrically poised performance — indomitable, resolute, supremely focused — her voice lustrous and silvery with a bright, gleaming top and a wealth of burnished low notes.
Clay Hilley is an extraordinary Florestan, singing with heart-pounding fortissimo tempered by deep humanity — the weary survivor, the abused Everyman who refuses to break. Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! (“God, what darkness!”) he rages, chained and helpless in an all but forgotten subterranean cell. The aria that follows, In des Lebens Frühlingstagen (“In the spring days of life”) as sung by the gifted American heldentenor — heartfelt, poignant, ringing with pain — is a moment of enormous beauty.
Bass Dimitry Ivashchenko sings a particularly appealing Rocco, warm-toned, superbly balanced, deeply sympathetic. Baritone Johannes Martin Kränzie contributes an appropriately contemptible Don Pizarro, splendidly embodying the character’s aforementioned penchant for violence, his voice disarmingly mellow and honeyed.
Soprano Anna-Sophie Neher is Marzelline, Rocco’s irresistibly flighty daughter — bubbly, chirpy, delightfully capricious. Tenor Josh Lovell sings Jaquino, Marzelline’s hopelessly hapless suitor, to great effect. Bass Sava Vemić is Don Fernando, visiting government minister, friend to Florestan, forceful righter of wrongs.
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus under the perennially mindful direction of Sandra Horst fills the FSC to overflowing with an outpouring of resounding emotion, concluding the evening on sustained notes of sheer unrestrained joy. Heil sey dem Tag! (“Hail to the day!”) All ends happily, Pizarro’s continued mocking presence in the background notwithstanding. Florestan is released. He and Leonore face the future side by side.
The question of relevancy here is surely self-evident. Dark impulses. Urgent realities.
This towering, unsettlingly contemporary Fidelio lives!