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Fidelio at the Michigan Opera Theater

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Beethoven's symphonies are iconic and timeless. It is with some wonder, then, that the great one only penned one opera, Fidelio. It's as if he wanted to check the box and prove he could do it. And he can.

The Michigan Opera Theater is printing the 1805 opera this week for the first time in its history. Remaining performances are Friday, April 19, Saturday, April 20 and Sunday, April 21.

The title role, Fidelio, is presented in the story as a male prison guard, but is actually the character of Leonora, who has tricked her way into the job as a means of searching for her husband, Florestan. Florestan was imprisoned two years before the play starts because of his campaign to expose corruption crimes of nobleman Pizarro, who is also the Governor of the region. Leonora is played by American soprano Christine Goerke, who exhibits superior range and control over the rolling arias as she battles Pizzaro who wants to kill her beloved, not just keep him in jail.

The role of Leonora is double-cast, with Canadian soprano Ileana Montalbetti playing alternate performances.

It has been very much in vogue to set 19th century operas in 20th century contexts as was the case last Fall when the MOT presented Julius Caesar. But Fidelio stays true to its period, which, frankly, is refreshing.

Beethoven wrote extremely challenging arias for his leads, and they require a fair amount of vocal gymnastics for Leonora and husband Florestan, who is played by John Mac Master and tenor Jason Wickson. All four actors in the two principal roles rise to the occasion, which is to the credit of director John Pascoe for casting and handling.

Carsten Wittmoser as Pizarro delights with a deep, emotionally charged bass vocal.

It's worth noting that perhaps Beethoven only wrote one opera because this one gave him so much trouble, compared with his symphonic work. Vienna, at the time of his writing, was occupied by French military. So, the creation of a victim, Florestan, as a political prisoner, was not met with much approval from the constabulary. The great composer also had trouble with the overture and is said to have rewritten it four times over the first ten years or so it was performed.

The end result is one of the truly classic operas performed for the last two centuries. It's about time it made its way to Detroit.