THE TORONTO STAR – John Terauds – Mr Opera and Fidelio

By John Terauds


How fitting: The composer who set the “Ode to Joy” gives us an uplifting political opera that gets a Toronto production just as the world celebrates President Obama.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s one and only opera, Fidelio, has a happy ending for both hero Florestan and heroine Leonore. More importantly, it celebrates justice and freedom.

The lead role in the Canadian Opera Company version opening on Saturday goes to Adrianne Pieczonka, the Burlington-raised soprano who is the toast of the international opera world.

“I can never leave a Fidelio without standing with my spine straighter, smiling at policemen, feeling that, no matter how bad things are, there is truth and beauty in this world,” says Iain Scott, known in Toronto as “Mr. Opera.”

The former corporate exec-turned-opera guru makes for a fascinating lunch host as he shifts from affable conversation into a discussion of what makes an opera great.

Scott’s opinions are backed up by nearly four decades of devoted listening and learning.

He usually gives introductory talks before performances by Opera in Concert and has been a frequent guest on the Saturday Afternoon at the Opera intermission quiz on CBC Radio. He also offers private and group lectures and acts as guide on travel tours to major opera destinations.

Fidelio’s core plot is straightforward: Leonore disguises herself as a man, Fidelio, to infiltrate the prison where her husband Florestan is captive. She succeeds in freeing him in a daring, last-minute move. The prison’s governor is arrested for brutality and the inmates rejoice.

More than a story about love and courage, the opera is about justice and freedom. These ideals were keenly appreciated as Napoleon’s army overtook Vienna just before Fidelio’s premiere in 1805. Nor are they far from our minds as we look forward to the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

Just as Beethoven uses the plot as a vehicle for political argument, he uses the singers differently than his Italian bel canto contemporaries brandishing florid, goosebump-raising arias.

In fact, Scott says, Beethoven’s opera heralds a new style of music-drama fusion that leads straight to the work of Wagner a few decades later. In this particularly German form, an ideal or idea carries as much — if not more — weight as a basic human emotion such as love.

Scott points out that Beethoven and his successors regarded the voice as “another instrument in the symphonic web,” rather than as a solo instrument.

You go see a German opera, and you appreciate “the orchestra and the meaning of the text,” Scott explains. With Italian opera, it’s “about voce, voce, voce … The purpose of Italian opera is to create the circumstances for the display of that wonderful instrument, the human voice.”

It’s not that one or the other is better. It’s that the approach is so different.

Scott says Fidelio makes his list of the 10 best operas of all time. There are three criteria in his judgment call, which he says was inspired by opera guru Father Owen Lee.

The first is the “profundity and universality of the artistic vision,” Scott says. The second is the craftsmanship or skill with which the work is put together. The third is “the levels or layers of pleasure that work of art can give. The more layers, the deeper you go, the better, the more profound the work is.”

As in Beethoven’s symphonies, you can hear fresh insights in every outing.

The Canadian Opera Company’s presentation is a co-production with L’Opéra national du Rhin and Staatstheater Nürnberg. The other cast highlights are the phenomenal Swedish bass Mats Almgren as jailer Rocco, South African bass-baritone Gidon Saks as prison governor Don Pizarro, and charismatic American tenor Jon Villars as Florestan. The conductor is 44-year-old German Gregor Buehl.