Act II of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” opens in a subterranean prison cell, where the enchained Florestan lies languishing and close to death. “Gott! welch' Dunkel hier!” — “God, what darkness here!” — he cries with a bone-chilling desperation that, over the centuries, has sent shivers down untold numbers of spines. Yet while the aria begins as a grim report on his surroundings and a description of how he ended up in this dungeon, it evolves into a stirring fantasy of rescue, an anticipatory dream of freedom that holds a mirror to the composer’s own bold vision of the emancipatory power of art.
That journey from darkness to light permeates every level of “Fidelio,” Beethoven’s sole opera, right down to its compositional origins. “Fidelio” cost its creator dearly, requiring multiple revisions before the light arrived. Yet arrive it did, with the score’s third iteration in 1814. Nowadays, thanks to the opera’s blend of high-drama and high-idealism, it’s music of extraordinary uplift, the work has of course become a staple of most modern opera houses and a piece brought out to mark grand ceremonial occasions such as the reopening of the Vienna State Opera after the Second World War.
In Boston, however, staged productions of “Fidelio” have not been plentiful, so Boston Baroque’s semi-staged performance on Friday night in Jordan Hall was keenly anticipated. It also marked the city’s first period-instrument traversal of the complete score.
With “Fidelio’s” all-too-familiar themes of political corruption, state-sponsored repression, and the human yearning for liberation, opera directors have found license to ground their productions in just about any historical era. In this case, director Mark Streshinsky’s elegantly fluid staging favors timelessness over topicality, though the costumes do lend the proceedings an early 20th century feel. A set of imposing prison doors stands behind the orchestra, and frames the moving Act I scene of stunned inmates emerging from their cells into the prison courtyard, blinking into the daylight, and then singing the tenderly poignant chorus “O welche Lust!”
Friday’s performance had some roughness around the edges, but ultimately found its way to the joyful, pulsing heart of this iconic opera. The cast was led by Wendy Bryn Harmer in her Boston Baroque debut. She made a moving and persuasively heroic Leonore, even if her powerful soprano sometimes took on a slightly pressed quality at the top of her dynamic range. The tenor William Burden was a winning Florestan, vividly projecting his character through singing of sweet-toned plangency. Nathan Stark was a sympathetic Rocco, the prison warden; Anna Christy was a bright-voiced Marzelline, the warden’s daughter; and Andrew Stenson sang well as Jaquino, her persistent suitor. Mark Walters, cloaked in a cliched yet effective black leather trench coat, made a fearsome Don Pizarro, armed both with a knife and a stentorian baritone. And Brian Kontes ably projected the benevolent grandeur required of every Don Fernando, the nobleman who oversees the plot’s final joyous resolution.
It was overall a pleasure to hear the score rendered so characterfully on period instruments under Martin Pearlman’s direction, though the orchestra’s playing was atypically uneven in matters of tuning and ensemble. The chorus sang with distinction, and Act II as a whole built to a blazing conclusion that brought a crowded Jordan Hall swiftly to its feet. A second performance takes place on April 15.
Presented by Boston Baroque
Martin Pearlman, conductor
At: Jordan Hall, Friday night (repeats April 15)Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.