We at Pasatiempo try to go the extra mile for our readers, or even, on occasion, an extra 5,000 miles. Among the more intriguing offerings at Santa Fe Opera this summer is the company’s first production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, which is set to open on July 12 with the American tenor Paul Groves in the role of Florestan. Groves is no stranger to Santa Fe audiences, having made his debut here in 2009 in Gluck’s Alceste and returning in the two succeeding years in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann and Vivaldi’s Griselda. He established his career in the 1990s, winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1991 and the Richard Tucker Award in 1995, and staked his place as a lyric tenor particularly appreciated in Mozart. Since then he has moved gradually into roles associated with greater vocal heft, even to the point of appearing as Wagner’s Parsifal at Chicago Lyric Opera this past November — quite a distance from the Belmontes and Don Ottavios of his early years. Florestan would qualify as one of those heavier roles. When the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels announced that it would present Groves in that part on June 11 and 12, it struck me as a performance we should cover since it promised to reveal this artist’s approach to the role in a significantly different context from what we will encounter in Santa Fe. The Brussels performance was to be a concert version with a period-instrument orchestra, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, which might allow a somewhat lighter vocal treatment than will be required in our staged production with modern instruments. Then, too, this was to be his first performance of the role of Florestan. (His official program bio says with absolute honesty that he has performed in Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera, but the Met’s archives reveal that it was in the minuscule part of First Prisoner for five performances in 1993.) The Brussels concert would therefore provide a logical platform from which to proceed to a full staging a month later.
I settled into my seat on June 12 not at La Monnaie but at the Victor Horta-designed Palais des Beaux-Arts (popularly known as “Bozar”), which was now co-producing the event, and opened my program to discover that the tenor was not Groves but Joseph Kaiser. Inquiries to the press desks of both co-presenters were met with unflappable sangfroid and blasé assurances that Groves had never been announced for the event, notwithstanding the considerable correspondence with La Monnaie I presented as evidence to the contrary. (Doubting my sanity, I was consoled to find later that numerous online opera calendars shared my delusion. Petitions to Groves’ manager elicited the response, “I have no insight into, nor do I have any comment on, the casting of Le Cercle de l’Harmonie.”) Oh, well. There was nothing to do but to sit back and enjoy the performances, and this proved easy to do. Kaiser, a Canadian who has earned considerable acclaim in international circles, was a very pleasing Florestan, tending toward the stentorian though without sacrificing a forthright, well-focused tone and touches of interpretative elegance. (He began his career as a baritone, and you can still hear how that would have been possible.) In the main, his colleagues were well cast. Soprano Malin Byström delivered thrilling moments as Leonore, her plush but controlled voice providing ample resources for vocal drama, and Sophie Karthäuser was a near-ideal Marzelline, her instrument proving more ample than suggested by recent recordings, which present her as something of a songbird. A new name to me was that of Robert Gleadow, a Canadian bass near the outset of what should be a fine career. His menacing portrayal of Rocco the jailer was a good vehicle for a voice of vivid possibilities, one that will have no trouble filling large opera houses. An endearing interpretation of Jaquino, the lovesick prison assistant, came by way of fresh-voiced, sweet-timbred Michael Colvin, whose credits include the tenor solos in a 2011 performance of Haydn’s Creation with the late New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. What set the evening apart, however, was the orchestral work. Jérémie Rhorer, formerly an assistant to early-music superstars William Christie and Marc Minkowski, co-founded his orchestra in 2005 and in the years since has molded it into a well-coordinated group with a distinctive sound. The playing was not perfect; horns in particular were given to uneasy attacks, but on the other hand they enriched Leonore’s “Abscheulicher!” with stunning sound, their earthy bite contrasting dramatically with the velvet richness of the strings (which section never conveyed the pinched or whining quality often encountered in period-instrument circles). Rhorer took a somewhat “instrumental” approach, asking his singers to fit in with his orchestral conception rather than vice versa. It was, in fact, a concert — a point reinforced by the deletion of much of the spoken dialogue, which turned Fidelio into a surprisingly short opera.