Beethoven’s “Fidelio” is a courageous liberation opera. It can also be a dramatically flawed opera, and Beethoven agonized longer than any of his other great works. But liberation itself is an imperfect, fluid process that, as current events love to remind us, we have never managed to pull off.
The inimitable value of an imperfect “Fidelio” is that it does not allow an infinity of interpretations. It has become a politically provocative opera that engages with the human spirit in a way that shocks as well as inspires. Last month, for example, a Heartbeat Opera production emotionally remade “Fidelio” to reflect contemporary American prison life in the era of Black Lives Matter.
Now, however, we have something quite new and radical in the annals of opera. In an extraordinary production last week at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, along with Deaf West Theater, not only liberated “Fidelio,” but transformed the act of listening. Liberation on the operatic stage has never looked like this.
Describing the project might make it look incredibly overloaded. Each role is divided in two, between an actor from the famous company LA Deaf West, who signs their role, and a singer. For the choir, the singers remain seated on both sides of the stage, while members of the White Hands Choir – the young, hearing-impaired Venezuelan ensemble that is part of the country’s El Sistema – march majestically across the stage carrying candles.
There are video screens with signatories to indicate the actors. The sign language had to be translated from the German original. The English titles are screened above for the audience. The action takes place on a platform behind the orchestra. The actors wear sturdy costumes in dark earth tones or black; the singers are draped in more classic whites; members of the White Hands wear white robes (but without their trademark white gloves). Effective costumes by Solange Mendoza and superb lighting by James F. Ingalls help keep it all on stage.
Among the many irons in the “Fidelio” fire are Venezuelan director Alberto Arvelo (director), Deaf West’s DJ Kurs (producer) and Gabriela Camejo (art director). Musicians and singers communicated by signs and lip reading with actors. With no direct travel between the United States and Venezuela, the White Hands had to cross over and quarantine themselves in Bogotá, Colombia. Up to five different sign languages are used.
Audiences, too, bring their own different needs. About a quarter at Disney on Thursday night appeared to be deaf, waving their hands briskly in applause at the end. All of this had been created for only three performances. Still, it became an outright breakthrough for opera.
Usually the first thing said about the performance was about the exhilaration that Dudamel, the orchestra and a mostly top-notch cast brought to Beethoven’s score. “Fidelio” has often been treated as a conductor’s opera, and it only took Dudamel those first four bars of the Overture that command attention, like the famous Fifth Overture. Beethoven’s Symphony, to make sense of it.
Yet it wasn’t until the comic opening duo that the real news reached us that this “Fidelio” would be much different from the others. I can’t read sign language, but I can read body language, facial language, sign language, and surtitles. Deaf actors were all over the drama. Whether specifically understood by hearing viewers or not, they conveyed character and drama in ways that singers could not.
A problem with opera has always been that Beethoven relied on dialogue between musical numbers rather than recitative. In the musical it is one thing, but “Fidelio” does not remain funny for long, and the spoken parts, often a little cropped, are rarely less awkward.
In this production, they are not spoken but signed silently. Theatrically, this means that the dialogue is full of life and the silences are pregnant, making the arrival of each musical number ideally dramatic. Funny in this “Fidelio” means full of laughter, and serious means heartbreaking, visceral emotion. What’s particularly touching is that even though the singers aren’t trying to act all out, they do interact with their lookalikes. The effect is to see and hear more than one side of each character.
In almost all cases, the pairing of a singer with an actor, often very different, proved convincing. The warm but steely heroism of soprano Christiane Libor’s full-voiced Leonore developed an added shine with the shrewdly vulnerable Amelia Hensley as her alter ego. Brilliant-sounding Gabriella Reyes had a dynamic Indi Robinson by her side who helped fend off the dopey Jaquino, played by equally lively tenor José Simerilla-Romero and actor Gregor Lopes.
Ryan Speedo Green’s mighty jailer Rocco was matched by the clever Russell Harvard, while Shenyang’s equally powerful bass-baritone villain Don Pizzaro was vivaciously impersonated by the mute, villainous scene-stealer Gabriel Silva. Tenor Ian Koziara, who looked like he was battling a cold or something, was lucky to have the emotional fervent Joshua Castille as his onstage companion.
The chorus of White Glove, as prisoners miserably incarcerated and then thrillingly released, moved to music with near precision. The members may not have heard the beautiful Los Angeles Master Chorale, but they gave a heartwarming impression of understanding the message, which surely held hopeful meaning for these young Venezuelans.
A liberating opera, bringing hope from another era, “Fidelio” easily falls victim to the pessimism of modern times. But unlike the grim realism of many contemporary “Fidelio” productions, this resilient one – with the dynamic help of a Venezuelan conductor, director and choir, as well as a theater company deaf from Los Angeles – prefers triumph to tears.