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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Cappellazzo

COC's Fidelio - Humanity in Corruption's Cracks & The Sisyphean Task of Reform

I feel that I owe Beethoven’s Fidelio an apology. For quite some time I despised this opera, found it lugubrious, plodding and ultimately not truly an inspiring piece of art. I now know that it must have been that particular staging I saw that brought me to that opinion, because the COC’s Fidelio had me in that beautiful spot where one can both engage on a wholly emotional and intellectual level.

Is this a review? Is this a reflection? Either way, its mine and I'll share it with you.
(Spoilers - The Whole Production.)
Promo Image from the COC Website
Beethoven’s only opera (singspiel) deals with the incarceration of a political prisoner, a man (Don Florestan) who spoke out against the corruption of his peer (Don Pizzaro). His wife Leonore is determined to free him, disguising herself as a man named Fidelio to infiltrate the prison he is confined in by posing to be a prison guard. That is where the opera begins.

Director Matthew Ozawa places the story in a contemporary prison setting; rife with clues about the state of the facility. Stacks of old banker’s boxes under staircases and desks belie what lies behind the shiny bars, one-way mirrors and state of the art weaponry; an inefficient, outdated and inhuman bureaucratic system. These mountains of obsolete personal data take a horrific tone in Act 2, where the prison’s basement is revealed to hold hundreds more of these boxes. How many people’s lives, transmuted into raw data lies in these boxes? All that is left of these humans now in a musty cardboard box forgotten in a basement; Florestan lies even further beneath that mountain of boxes, chained in a Clockwork Orange-esque containment cell bombarded with disgusting rapid images of prison cells. He is literally buried and concealed by the inefficiencies of the prison’s bureaucracy.
Marceline (Anna-Sophie Neher) & Rocco (Dimitry Ivashchenko), (Photo: Michael Cooper)
How humorous is the first scene! I bet that must be jarring to read after what I just wrote, but the opera starts with a fun little comic duet between the jailer Jacquino and Marceline (Rocco’s daughter, also employed at this prison). Josh Lovell and Anna-Sophie Neher sing these roles with youthful vigor. The visual dissonance between the cutesy office romance & the musical dissonance between the light-hearted orchestration give a sense of how easy it is to compartmentalize one’s empathy when one is ‘only doing their job’. Rocco’s aria hits the nail on the head, as he states in his own words that love alone doesn’t pay the bills. Dimitry Ivashchenko as Rocco has such wonderfully present stage declamation and a pleasantness about him that makes you question how well he can handle a Beretta 1911 pistol. How much of one’s humanity can one suppress when you are offered health benefits, a steady salary and a pension?

None of them seem like bad guys, yet the stage rotates and we are greeted with armed guards forcing children into cages, yellow jumpsuits with ‘Detainee’ labeled on their backs, small cells shared by 10+ people. Autocracy, empire, and fascism are upheld by people who do not seem like ‘bad guys’. I do not believe that anyone truly considers themselves the villain in the story of their lives; we find a way to justify our cruelties, we justify our self-absolution.
Don Pizaro (Martin Kränzle), (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Don Pizaro is such a great character. He knows he is the villain, Beethoven knows he is the villain as well, and so does the bass Johannes Martin Kränzle. He delightfully glees in the cruelty and corruption that stems from him in a most exaggerated, hammy way. It is perfect. Pizaro represents more than just one human, but the spirit of institutional corruption manifested in human form, so I like that he is played in a most Brechtian manner. I was able to regain my sympathy for the prison workers, as it was apparent that they too were prisoners to a system that punishes its criticism.

I have not yet spoken of Leonore because we must know what she is up against to know just how courageous her actions are. Miina-Liisa Värelä plays an wonderfully strong stoic Leonore. She is up against a massive repressive system, but she navigates it by appealing to those cracks of humanity shining out of those who unwillingly uphold it.

It is her that convinces Rocco to let the prisoners out to see the sun, resulting in the hauntingly beautiful Prisoner’s Chorus, sung in a most moving manner by the COC Chorus as they hope for freedom in that light. That line, ‘Sprecht leise! Haltet euch zurück! Wir sind belauscht mit Ohr und Blick.’ (Speak softly! Be on your guard! We are watched with eye and ear.) is so dark. Even in their joy, the panopticon's ever watchful eye is upon them. Their joy is ultimately a sad experience.

When she overhears Pizaro say to Rocco that he will kill him that night, she draws her pistol ready to kill but stops herself and appeals to her own ideal of what humanity means to her. It is good she stopped; pragmatically speaking she’d be shot by the dozen armed guards outside the door, labeled a dissident, and unfeelingly turned to more musty data for a subterranean banker’s box by an intern down the hall. She was right to stop, because an individual cannot change a system; they either are discarded or subsumed. She descends to the sub-basement with Rocco to dig the grave for Florestan.
Florestan (Clay Hilley), (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The political prisoner Florestan, sung most powerfully by Clay Hilley, had a wonderful passion to his singing. Inner strength and outer weakness intertwined in the voice of a man locked up, starved and tortured. The reveal of the Act 2 basement was so chilling, so familiar in its set dressing; so horrifically ‘normal’. Two bored men play cards in the musty maintenance closet on the other side of the wall that separates Florestan’s cell; whether or not they know of the dark existence of that cell is never revealed.

Naturally the plot goes on with a confrontation between Pizaro and the others, but I’ll skip ahead because I'm feeling too wordy. It was good though!

Of particular note was the love duet between Leonore and Florestan. It is almost melodramatic in its scoring and bombastic nature; in fact there were a few laughs (including a chuckle from myself. There were some good audience laughs elsewhere in the show, which I love to see). I then tried to see it in their perspective, in the perspective of one locked away to rot by repressive regimes; something that occurs to this day both near and afar. I was awash with emotion and it brought me to tears. Of course this is bombastic; of course this is the height of emotional outburst. I would act the same if I were in that position, embracing my loved one in ecstatic joy knowing that this moment might never have come. Would you not act similarly?

The Minister (sung by a charismatic Sava Vemić) arrives with camera crews and soldiers. It is equal parts a photo op as it is an investigation of internal corruption. There’s something duplicitous about his photogenic nature; even when he does the right thing it feels as if it’s for the wrong reasons. The Minister knows Florestan, is shocked to know he is alive, promises punishment to Pizaro and lets Leonore unchain her husband. It then dawned on me; Florestan is part of the show’s ruling class. In some way he was on the same political level as Pizaro, the Minister and all the other unseen forces that comprise this world. Was Florestan a voice of reform or some sort of class traitor? Would the Minister’s investigation of Pizaro’s cruelty have ended differently if he did not see that one of their own was also the target of said cruelty?
Leonore (Miina-Liisa Värelä), (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The lovely triumphant chorus at the end is a massive wall of sound, wonderfully sung by the COC Chorus. It's like a hymn to freedom from tyranny, sung by those who suffered under it. It is beautiful both musically and ideologically; an exaltation of Enlightenment values, freedom and true democratic spirit; but perhaps Matthew Ozawa has more to say about this ending than Beethoven with his staging. In an initially puzzling moment, we see Don Pizaro ascend to the balcony during this final chorus. He is calm, less of a caricature than before.
Shouldn’t he not be here?
Isn’t he being punished?
Didn’t the good guys win?

To reform a corrupt system is a task worthy of Sisyphus. Pizaro most likely will get a slap on the wrist and will be transferred to another facility (or enter private sector real estate development where he can conspire with his folks to buy up swaths of the Greenbelt). Status Quo Ante Beethoven. A kinder, gentler, prison-industrial complex will be instituted under a Reformist ticket; perhaps they will be confined 5 to a cell instead of 10, and they’ll get sunroofs and windows to let in that 'frier Luft' they so enjoyed in Act 1. Is there no hope?

I think, in spite of that subversion there still is hope. Leonore uses her strongest power to achieve her goal; trusting in the humanity of others to shine through the layers of coercive compliance, bureaucratically compartmentalized in an effort to sleep at night. You can see the singers begin to sympathize more and more with their incarcerated peers as time passes; in a society where dissent is a punishable offense, even showing sympathy becomes a dangerous and rebellious act.

I imagine Beethoven would probably be on the front lines of liberation today. His sense of justice and distaste for autocracy is keen, as we can tell from the one opera he wrote. It's a show that asks you to find that light of common humanity, in yourself and in others. It asks you, "How will you use your humanity, your love? How will you build a future free from tyranny, oppression and alienation?". On a less societal but equally poignant individual level, it is the story of one woman's courage, willpower, and determination to save a loved one from wrongful imprisonment. I regret my former distaste for this opera; it is something beautiful, not lugubrious.

All in all, you should watch it; it’s a pretty good show. Really goes to show how staging and direction can make or break your perception of a production.

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