Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio”, is not a fixed text. He wrote several possible openings for it and significantly reworked the score over the course of a decade. But its meaning has never changed: the heroism found in devotion, love and freedom in the face of injustice.
In 2018, the bold and imaginative Heartbeat Opera – a company which, though small and still young, has already contributed more to the vitality of opera than most major American companies – pushed the malleable story of “Fidelio a step further, fitting the work as a moving indictment of mass incarceration.
That production has now been revised for a revival which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium last weekend, ahead of a tour that will continue until the end of the month. Already inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this “Fidelio” is now imbued with it, and the adaptation is even more impactful.
In Beethoven’s original singspiel – a form of musical theater in which sung numbers are set up by spoken scenes – a woman named Leonore disguises herself as a man, Fidelio, to infiltrate the prison where her husband, Florestan, is being held for political reasons. She aims to free him from execution while exposing the crimes of her captor, Pizarro.
Ethan Heard, one of the founders of Heartbeat, adapted “Fidelio” for the company and collaborated with playwright Marcus Scott on the new book. Their review tells the story of a Black Lives Matter activist named Stan – sung by Curtis Bannister, a tenor of impressive stamina – who was jailed for nearly a year and whose wife, Leah, received a lovingly anguished lower range by soprano Kelly Griffin, is at breaking point as she struggles to free him.
She gets a job as a guard at the prison; his strategy for reaching Stan in solitary confinement (much like in Beethoven’s original) is to ingratiate himself with a senior guard (here Roc, sung with charm and dramatic complexity by bass-baritone Derrell Acon) and woo his daughter (here Marcy, soft-spoken but strong as soprano Victoria Lawal). In this story, there is no need to cross-dress: Marcy and Leah are both homosexual. And, crucially, all of these characters are black, a fact that looms ahead to guide Marcy and her father’s awakenings as they come to terms with their complicity in a racist system that, Leah says, is designed to punish “the people whose only mistake was being poor and black.”
The spoken text is entirely in English, while the arias remain in their original German – a testament to Beethoven’s timelessness, although the production’s supertitles take some liberties with the translation. (As an excuse to briefly leave the prisoners in the sun, Roc sings that it’s King’s Name Day, but the titles say it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day.)
The score is also radically transformed, arranged by Daniel Schlosberg for two pianos, two horns, two cellos and percussion, with the multitasking (and almost scene-stealing) Schlosberg on stage, directing from the keyboard. Expressive cellos reveal the thoughts of the characters and the horns add an aura of muscle and honor. The most substantial interventions are on the percussion, with drum hits deployed for dramatic effect and a whip-like slap adding dread to Pizarro’s murderous “Ha, welch ‘ein Augenblick” plot.
Not all of 2018’s changes were necessary or sensible. Starting with the location: This production originated in a black box space at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, which matched the music’s chamber scale and underscored the cinderblock claustrophobia of Reid Thompson’s set. At the Met, the show floats across a vast stage and struggles with poor acoustics.
And the text has lost some of its grace, with flattering references to the January 6, 2021, uprising and President Donald J. Trump’s infamous plea to the Proud Boys to “stand back and be ready.” One victim of these mistakes is baritone Corey McKern’s Pizarro, who is something of a stand-in for Trump, a caricature among nuanced human characters.
One could almost forgive ‘O welche Lust’, the famous prisoners’ chorus, always the emotional highlight of the production and now a twist. For the moving number, Leah unlocks a chest – a metaphor for prison doors – to release a white screen, onto which is projected a video, featuring 100 incarcerated singers and 70 volunteers from six prison ensembles. The camera often lingers on individual faces, to an effect akin to Barry Jenkins’ cinema, the way his sustained close-ups invite intimacy and, above all, sympathy.
For curious members of the public, Heartbeat shared letters from some of the participants. They range from the endearing – “The German was tough!!” from Michael “Black” Powell II – to profound, like that of Douglass Elliott: “Most of us are victims of our circumstances who, in the face of adversity, have chosen the wrong direction with our actions. This choir makes us feel that “normal” feeling for a short time each week. We are accepted as human beings, not seen as numbers.
Beethoven’s triumphant finale could have been an insult to contemporary reality that the production of Heartbeat aims to ward off. So after Stan’s release and Pizarro’s defeat, Leah wakes up in the same office where, upon opening, she had a frustrating phone call with a lawyer. This twist, that it was all just a dream, is of course a tired trope, but what follows is not.
After a moment of desperation – her happiness seemed so real – she gets up, walks over to a spotlight at center stage and raises her phone, assuming the activism pose of her husband, with whom the production began. An ambivalent closing scene, it is an honest reflection of our times: the mixed successes of Black Lives Matter, yes, and the only way possible.
Performed at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Manhattan, and on tour through February 27; heartbeatopera.org.