A brilliant new voice gleams in Seattle Opera's 'Fidelio'

Asher Fisch
Seattle Times

By Melinda Bargreen

A review of Seattle Opera's "Fidelio," which introduces McCaw Hall audiences to a brilliant new talent, German soprano Christiane Libor.

Opera fans love their art form for many reasons, but perhaps chief among these is the thrill of discovery. Hearing a great new voice for the first time, and watching an opera character leap to life, is the kind of experience fans cherish. That's what awaited Seattle Opera audiences on Saturday night, when the massively talented German soprano Christiane Libor sang her American opera debut in the title role of Beethoven's only opera, "Fidelio."

What a voice! Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins, who discovered the German-based Libor in Berlin on an audition tour, still has a keen ear for talent. Libor's gleaming, mighty soprano and passionate, no-holds-barred performance style made for a gripping evening, particularly since she was surrounded by a cast of considerable firepower.

Clifton Forbis, who has previously appeared here as Tristan (and earlier as Cavaradossi in "Tosca"), was well matched with Libor, offering a heroic but very human portrayal of the unfairly jailed political prisoner. Anya Matanovic was a charming, big-voiced Marzelline, well partnered by John Tessier as her frustrated suitor Jaquino. Arthur Woodley gave a complex, compassionate performance as the jailer Rocco, who deplores the orders he must follow. Positively chewing up the scenery as the villainous Pizarro was Greer Grimsley (better known to Seattle "Ring" audiences as Wotan), who threw himself into the role with a wicked zest.

The evening's hero was less visible than the singing actors on the stage, but a vital force in the orchestra pit. Asher Fisch's powerful and detailed conducting gave the production both propulsive excitement and detailed artistry — from the vivid overture to the joyous finale, which packs the punch of Beethoven's Ninth.

The production, designed by Robert Dahlstrom and directed by Chris Alexander, was originally unveiled in 2003 (the season before McCaw Hall's grand opening), and it is every bit as timely and effective now as it was then. This show, with its TV cameras capturing the overthrow of a political tyrant and the long-awaited release of unjustly jailed prisoners, could be taking place in any number of regimes today.

Alexander directs all this action with a masterly hand and a keen sense of timing. The finale packs the chorus and supernumeraries onto the stage like anchovies in a can, as searching families are reunited with prisoners in a scene that bristles with hope, loss and joy.