Beethoven spent decades searching for opera subjects. He thought about Bacchus, the mythological god of wine. He sketched a few musical ideas for Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” He even considered a saga called – believe it or not – “The Arrival of the Pennsylvanians in America.”
Only one subject took hold – the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man and rescues her husband from a tyrant’s dungeon. The tale of devotion and courage inspired the heartfelt, heroic “Fidelio,” which Opera Carolina stages Oct. 17 for the first time since 1982.
“Fidelio” is a hymn to the liberty and brotherhood that Beethoven could only dream about when he composed it in the early 1800s. The notorious jails of France’s Reign of Terror were fresh in Europeans’ minds, so audiences could connect with a political prisoner onstage.
“I spoke the truth, and chains are my reward,” the captive Florestan sings. When his wife, Leonore, confronts his nemesis, Beethoven unleashes the singers and orchestra in music as explosive as his “Eroica” or Fifth Symphony. After a freedom-loving official seizes the despot and opens the prison, the finale anticipates the blazing jubilation – and even the text – of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
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“People hear this music and they feel familiar with it, because they know the Beethoven style,” says Opera Carolina’s general director, James Meena.
“The vocal music is exciting. The story itself is exciting. It’s a very expressive piece – a very passionate piece.”
Yet opera companies stage “Fidelio” – which takes its name from the disguised Leonore’s pseudonym – only a fraction as often as they do “Carmen” or “Madama Butterfly.” Concert-style performances by the Charlotte Symphony in 2004 gave local listeners their only chance to hear “Fidelio” in person since Opera Carolina staged it in 1982. The long gap is typical for a U.S. company.
Why? Beethoven makes casting a challenge. His music for the heroine and her husband demands performers whose voices can encompass tenderness and full-throated heroics. The staging has to make the heroine’s disguise as a prison worker plausible, and it has to keep a lighthearted subplot – about a jailer’s daughter smitten with the youth Fidelio appears to be –from being jarring.
“It’s not like doing a Puccini opera, where you take a handful of good singers, add water and you’ve got a great show,” Meena says. “It’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of thought about how you’re going to approach it.”
He thinks Mexican soprano Maria Katzarava, who has portrayed the heroines of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” has the right balance of lyricism and heft. Same for tenor Andrew Richards, whose repertoire includes meaty roles by Verdi and Richard Wagner.
And to emphasize the story’s perennial relevance, Meena and stage director Tom Diamond are transplanting “Fidelio” to East Berlin in November 1989, on the eve of the Berlin Wall’s fall.
“You can pretty much set this opera anywhere,” Meena says. “Because unfortunately, oppression has always been with us and will probably always be with us.”
During the performances, period photographs of East Berlin, projected onto the backdrop, will help set the scene. Meena and Diamond are molding some of the dialogue and characterizations around actual events. They’re patterning Florestan after Kurt Wismach, an East German laborer who spoke out against the country’s regime in 1961. The performances will even rename some of the characters after Wismach and others who took part in the saga.
“What we’re trying to do is tell a really good story,” Diamond says. Adapting “Fidelio” to 1989 is “a fiction of our making. But it really lines up with historical events.”
What: Opera Carolina presents Beethoven’s story of a woman who disguises herself as a man to rescue her husband from prison. Performed in German with super titles in English.
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 17, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22, 2 p.m. Oct. 25.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.