Having repeatedly poked fun at the ongoing “Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna” festival at the Kennedy Center — since its title would seem to describe business as usual for many of that institution’s classical music concerts — I feel I should recant to a certain degree in public.
Certainly the two concert operas I’ve heard the National Symphony Orchestra play in the festival so far — Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” last week and Beethoven’s “Fidelio” Thursday night — felt really festive, something a little above and beyond the norm.
Both those operas also are among the favorite things I’ve heard from Christoph Eschenbach during his tenure as the NSO’s music director. Because if I enjoyed this “Fidelio,” it was largely because of how he led it, with a truly terrific performance from the Choral Arts Society to top off the evening in the finale.
“Fidelio” is about a political prisoner unjustly locked up and sentenced to die. His wife, Leonore, having searched for him for two years, disguises herself as a man (the titular Fidelio), insinuates herself into the jailer’s home and ultimately saves him. Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio” became an unofficial anthem for liberation after tyranny during and after the Third Reich; it was, for instance, the first work to play at the Vienna State Opera when the war-torn opera house, restored, was reopened in 1955. It’s still a common presence on opera stages in the German-speaking world, though it is less frequently encountered in this country.
It became clear Thursday that it certainly helps to have native Germans performing it. Eschenbach understands the resonances of this music, and he made moving things happen with a sense of absolute simplicity: the aching swell of the prisoners’ chorus extolling freedom, or the chorus’s outbursts in the finale, sounding almost hysterical with giddy relief.
Sure, there were occasional problems of coordination between orchestra and singers, and certainly of balance: Whenever singers are standing in front of a full orchestra, it’s a challenge not to drown them out. To some extent, those technical issues are standard at NSO concerts. But the flaws stood out less than the emotional benefits. Eschenbach made room for some moving things to happen, clearing away the mounting hysteria of the finale to make space for a ravishing passage for solo winds as Leonore, having cast off her disguise as Fidelio, frees husband Florestan from his shackles.
Melanie Diener, a native German speaker, initially seemed ideal in the title role, bringing a lot of feeling to the spoken dialogue. She turned out, however, to be better at portraying an eager young man than a passionate woman; the callow intensity that she brought to Fidelio persisted almost unvaried through the showpiece aria “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” which has at least two distinct emotional moods. She didn’t sing it particularly well, either.
Simon O’Neill, as Florestan, offered a penetrating but rather squeezed tenor, and Tomasz Konieczny, as the villainous Don Pizarro, presented a similar kind of pushing with a slightly more rounded sound in a lower register. Eric Halfvarson was a reliable, amiable, gruff-with-a-heart-of-gold Rocco, the jailer. And Kyle Ketelsen sounded beautiful and mellifluous in the deus ex machina role of Don Fernando, who comes in at the end, finds his friend Florestan and punishes Pizarro.
The Washington National Opera’s young artists might get extra opportunities because of the company’s merging with the Kennedy Center. Two current singers from the program and one from the past got onstage here. Jeffrey Gwaltney and Alexey Bogdanov had cameos as prisoners; the former was especially good. And Jegyung Yang, who seems to be a consistently striking singer, was appealing as Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter, who falls in love with Fidelio only, of course, to founder on the realization that “he” is really a she. Yang doesn’t have a particularly large voice, but she has a notable onstage spark.
Easily the vocal standout of the evening, though, was the Choral Arts Society, which in the finale showed a kind of precision that isn’t always a hallmark of NSO concerts. Norman Scribner, the group’s founder and director for more than four decades, is conducting his last concert with them April 22. If this is a foretaste of what that Brahms Requiem is going to be like, everyone should try to see it.
“Fidelio” repeats Saturday evening at 8. “The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna” continues through March 29.