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Breakout role

Anja Kampe impresses in L.A. Opera's prison-bound 'Fidelio.'

September 10, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Beethoven wrote only one opera, but he wrote it twice. He wrote four overtures for it. And he changed stylistic directions so drastically between the first and second acts in his stirring exposé of prison abuse and his fervent expression of the ideals of the French Revolution that "Fidelio" can seem like two operas in one.

Two in one it was Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where Los Angeles Opera opened its new season with this heroic work. In "Fidelio" (the earlier, more consistent "Leonore" is a rarity), Act 1 begins with light, near Mozartean comedy. In Act 2, Beethoven's political passions and his rapt utopianism soar.

In L.A. Opera's new production by Italian director and designer Pier'Alli -- a onetime avant-gardist who studied architecture and who goes by this single name (somewhere along the way, he dropped the Luigi) -- the prison looms large. Domestic life for jailer Rocco, his daughter, Marzelline, and her hapless suitor, Jacquino, means that quotidian chores are carried out amid instruments of torture. The opera opens with Marzelline cheerfully ironing on a rack.

Otherwise, the hulking set is drab, although probably expensive. Costumes are early 19th century, in muted, coordinated colors. Acting is inconsequential. A prompter's box is prominent in front of the steeply raked stage. Opera in provincial houses often looked like this in the 1950s.

Act 2 startlingly moves to the 21st century. Seemingly out of the blue, video projections on a scrim create a kind of living Imax effect of zooming down into the dungeon of the prisoner Florestan. The three-dimensional animated effects by Sergio Metalli are stunning, something like a combination of "Metropolis" and "The Matrix." But the imagery is mostly banal, gee-whiz for the sake of gee-whiz. When repeated on the way out of the dungeon during an interpolation of the "Leonore" Overture No. 3 before the final scene (a common practice), the effects are already tired.

Unless you are a special-effects junkie, the production offers little reason to attend this "Fidelio." But the company debut of Anja Kampe as Leonore -- Florestan's wife, who disguises herself as a jailer's assistant, Fidelio -- is more than reason enough. Like most of the cast, she is little known in this country. She made her American debut four years ago as Sieglinde in a Washington National Opera production of Wagner's "Die Walküre," and she is scheduled to appear in L.A. Opera's upcoming "Ring" cycle. The German soprano attracted a good deal of attention in "Fidelio" at Glyndebourne last summer.

Although she looks pretty much left to her own devices on the Chandler stage, she seems to have the makings of a fine, lively actress. But mainly, she is a marvelous singer. Her voice is distinctive, displaying a dark, rich, mellow, almost alto timbre. Yet her sound is so focused that it cuts through Beethoven's most boisterous orchestral outbursts and his biggest, most awe-inspiring ensembles with remarkable ease. Leonore is Beethoven's impossible archetype of the wife/hero he expected women to be (and the reason his relationships with women were such disasters). With calm authority, Kampe expresses the impossible.

Her performance is all the more impressive in that James Conlon, who began his second season as the company's music director Saturday, drives the score with propulsive enthusiasm that takes, so to speak, no prisoners. Kampe didn't sound bothered in the slightest. Neither did Klaus Florian Vogt, an unusually lyric Florestan. His lightweight tenor made him seem particularly vulnerable and lost in his magnificent cell with its cathedral ceiling and expensive square-footage. He blended well with Kampe. He kept up just fine with Conlon when Conlon wanted to press ahead excitingly. But in more ways than one, Kampe wore the pants in this performance.

The rest of the cast ranged from OK to not OK. Rebekah Camm was a hausfrau Marzelline with pleasing high notes. The great, if aging, Finnish bass Matti Salminen proved well suited to the jailer with a heart of gold (and a certain comic reverence for the precious metal). Greg Fedderly was amusing as Jacquino. But Eike Wilm Schulte turned the villainous Don Pizzaro into a wooden bad guy fixated on the prompter's box. Oleg Bryjak wasn't much peppier as good-guy governor Don Fernando, but his bass rang true.

Beethoven uses the chorus to give important voice to the downtrodden prisoners and to proclaim the glory of goodness at the end as only Beethoven can. Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, is the company's new chorus master and assistant conductor, and the results of his appointment were already thrillingly apparent. Conlon has the orchestra sounding firm and fine. The chorus achieved the same standards.

Oh, yes, there was also a choreographer, which is unusual for "Fidelio," given that the prisoners don't get much opportunity to dance. I imagined maybe some Abu Ghraib-like antics. But this is a determinedly un-updated production (which is also pretty unusual these days). Instead, Nicola Bowie entices her dancers into effective high-stepping while showing arms during Beethoven's marches.

And there was amplification for the spoken passages. It didn't go well. It never does in the Chandler and would be best done away with. If the dialogue can't be heard, so what? There are supertitles. And shouldn't the singing always be louder than speaking? That wasn't always the case Saturday.




Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sept. 23; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26 and 29 and Oct. 3; 2 p.m. Oct. 6.

Price: $20 to $238

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or

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