Princeton Festival to perform Fidelio

The Princeton Festival 2017 offers two performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, this June. OperaMetro (OM) had the great privilege of again discussing this opera, the production, his artists, and life in general first with Richard Tang Yuk (RTY), who will conduct both performances, I’d say probably the busiest man on the planet right now. We’re doing the brief walk and talk here on the beautiful Princeton University campus. Stage rehearsal in ten minutes. But then later, as he hurries off, I finally meet up with Marcy Stonikas, who sings the title role of Fidelio (aka Leonore) in this production. 

OM: Richard, a pleasure meeting you last year after that wonderful Peter Grimes.

RTY: Indeed a pleasure!

  Richard Tang Yuk at Princeton Festival

Richard Tang Yuk at Princeton Festival

OM: Okay, so why Fidelio this year? It was done last summer at Caramoor, just this spring at the Met. Is this a happy coincidence?

RTY: Happy? Yes. Coincidence? To a certain extent, yes. As with other companies, we have to plan ahead. The plan for Princeton Festival to do Fidelio this season was approved long before we knew that other regional companies were doing it.

OM: Fidelio is not done frequently as operas go, yet I imagine it's not particularly expensive to stage, scenically speaking, cast and orchestra size. It's got a smaller cast and fewer scenic demands than, say, Don Giovanni or Zauberflöte, to name two. So why, do you think, it’s not done more frequently?

RTY: A very good question.

OM: Are there any particular musical or dramatic challenges you face, as part of the team preparing Fidelio for the stage?

RTY: Musically, no problem: the score is so marvelous! But I think most stage directors have to be concerned about the dramatic flow of the work, which has often been described as ‘static.’ Plus the libretto is not the strongest. Believe me, it took me three years of discussion with Steven LaCosse, our Director, to see if we could produce a convincing production of the work.

OM: Which means to me that you did a little tinkering, ja?

RTY: We made substantive cuts in the spoken dialogue. Some of it is unnecessary because the gist of it often gets repeated in the arias. We also 'stage' the overture to give the audience an insight as to why Florestan is imprisoned before the opera begins. Steven has created something engaging in every scene. I can assure you: the audience will not be bored!

  Marcy Stonikas as Leonore in  Fidelio

Marcy Stonikas as Leonore in Fidelio

OM: I plan to talk to some of the principal singers, asking them similar questions for their takes on the opera. But from a conductor's standpoint, tell me about Beethoven's writing for the voice? Is Fidelio written better or worse than Beethoven's other vocal writing? 

RTY: I think Fidelio is quite well written for the voices, much more manageable vocally than, say, the Missa Solemnis, which is so challenging both from a stamina perspective and the tessitura required. All members of our Fidelio cast have said that the vocal writing sits well for them. Leonore's part, of course, is challenging because she is onstage most of the opera. So it's more a question of pacing than the vocal writing for her. What's remarkable about Fidelio is that every principal character has a featured solo aria.

  Noah Baetge as Florestan

Noah Baetge as Florestan

OM: I walk away from a good Fidelio feeling uplifted, inspired, as I do from a great performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, as, actually, I did from the Met’s Guillaume Tell this past fall. It must be a deeply moving experience conducting Fidelio.

RTY: It certainly is. The finale of Fidelio is perhaps one of the most inspiring scenes in all of opera.

OM: Are there political characteristics of the time we live in today which beg for a Fidelio?

RTY: Fidelio contains many timely themes relevant to today’s world: political injustice, suppression of the outspoken views of the opposition. Of course. But the opera also celebrates the positive power of love, it’s about the determination and action of the individual for the good of others and it ends with a communal celebration of Leonore’s bravery and strength of character. I feel that underlying this and Beethoven’s Ninth is a universal belief in the triumph of the human spirit. These, I think, come through in the music as well as in the drama. Fidelio is a very special opera!

OM: Best wishes, Richard, on Fidelio this month. And my best wishes to Steven, to the cast and production crew. Have a productive rehearsal too!

RTY: Thank you.

OM: Marcy Stonikas, welcome!

MS: Hi!

OM: Got a minute? So is this your first complete Leonore, whether staged or in concert?

MS: Technically this is my fourth time singing Leonore, all of ‘em staged. I say ‘technically’ because the last two times were with the Wiener Volksoper, same production.

OM: As a singer, what are the biggest challenges one faces with Leonore?

MS: Has to be the sheer length of the role. It’s BIG! I’m on stage in all but the very first numbers in Act I and Florestan’s solo scene in Act II.

OM: Vocally big too?

MS: Well yes, that too, but not all of the singing is full out.

OM: At least three sopranos, one from the Met in the 1990s, one currently at the Met, whom I interviewed in March of this year, and one whom I got to know pretty well on the local summer opera circuit in Maryland several years ago told me that Leonore was a role that opened the door to a new room of the soprano library, namely more dramatic soprano roles. Is this so, in your experience as a singer?

MS: Hmmmm. That's really interesting. I'm not sure that I think of things in those terms, personally. I would say that Leonore is actually a helpful and good stepping stone to sing the soprano repertory in a more bel canto fashion. For example, I would LOVE to sing Norma someday soon. I think that the way one needs to sing Leonore is similar that. I can also see how it would be helpful for approaching almost any of the Verdi soprano roles, particularly the earlier, more florid bel canto ones. I have not had the good fortune to perform a Verdi role in its entirety, but the pieces I know I approach in a really similar manner to the way I approach Leonore.

OM: Leonore, the character, is practically a saint, the embodiment of the marriage vows, in sickness and in health and also in false imprisonment and impending death. Do you feel, as a performer, a mounting tension as the opera progresses?

MS: Absolutely! I think that despite the fact that this is Beethoven's sole opera and the fact that he claimed that writing it was the hardest thing he'd ever done, his music is genuinely written to evoke emotions from everyone involved in its experience: certainly the singers and instrumentalists, and hopefully the audience as well! I feel that if the people performing the music aren't fully, you know, inside it, they run the risk of losing the emotional connection with the audience, of course assuming they’ve established it initially.

OM: So there is something of an emotional release you, as Leonore, feel when the trumpet sounds, announcing the Minister’s arrival, that you’ve saved your husband Florestan. At the end, when everyone is singing praises for Leonore, for her devotion, bravery, etc., do you find yourself feeling the love?

MS: Yes, my yes! But though Leonore is basically the archetypal perfect woman/wife, a large part of her perfection is her modesty, her humility. Sure, she’s elated, as is everyone else around her in the ultimate finale, but she’s not seeking attention or fame.

OM: No selfies, in other words.

MS: Definitely not. But…

OM: Yes …?

MS: I personally feel the most affected emotionally by the discovery that the mystery prisoner is indeed my Florestan. Musically the trio with Leonore, Florestan and Rocco in Act II is epically beautiful and tugs at my heartstrings, for sure, but the text of that trio certainly contributes to the tug as well. Despite Florestan's dire situation and weakened condition, he is immediately thankful and genuine for the small kindnesses Rocco shows him, presumably moments before his death.

OM: The entire Dungeon Scene in Act II is one wild ride.

MS: Absolutely. But there are several other moments throughout the opera, of course, and that's the beauty of Fidelio. Think of it, Leonore is on this crazy emotional rollercoaster: she is trapped in an unexpected love triangle with Marzelline and Jaquino, but she has to play along to keep Rocco’s trust. Then she comes face to face with the man who most likely incarcerated her husband, but then and there she is not able to do what she has sworn to do, which is kill him for his evilness. In a dark dungeon she and Rocco dig a grave for an unnamed prisoner, only to find that her husband is that prisoner, as she suspected, he is, in fact, alive, but soon to be murdered. And then the release of all that pent-up tension. Wow!

OM: I asked Richard this before you arrived. Fidelio, the opera, and also Beethoven’s Ninth are members of the “what we perform” repertory when we wish to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, joy over despair. As a performer, do you find these emotions to be a consequence of participating in the experience of Fidelio or the Ninth?

MS: Well, I would hazard to say that part of the reason that I chose to become a professional musician/performer is because of how music affects me. As a performer who has also had the privilege to perform in the Ninth (as well as in Fidelio), the sheer number of people interpreting that beautiful score together is emotionally overwhelming, in the best possible way. It's an incredible feeling to be literally enveloped by those sounds and words.

  Marcy Stonikas out of uniform

Marcy Stonikas out of uniform

OM: May the joyful communal experience happen again for you and everyone present in the McCarter Theatre! Thank you, dear Marcy, for your words.

MS: All my best to you, and thanks again for reaching out!

And with that, Marcy smiled, turned, and walked toward the McCarter Theatre. 

Cast photos by Jessi Franko Designs LLC; photo of Richard Tang Yuk courtesy of Princeton Festival; second photo of Marcy Stonikas from another source.

The cast of Fidelio includes Marcy Stonikas as Leonore, Noah Baetge as Florestan, Danielle Talamantes as Marzelline, Gustav Andreassen as Rocco, Michael Kuhn as Jaquino, and Joseph Barron as Don Pizarro, and Cameron Jackson as Don Fernando. Maestro Richard Tang Yuk conducts the Princeton Festival Orchestra; Steven LaCosse is Director, Sets are designed by Jonathan Dahm Robertson, Lighting by Norman Coates; Costume Design by Marie Miller; Chorus Master is Gregory Geehern.

Fidelio is performed on two Sundays, June 18 and June 25 at 3 p.m. and sung in German with English supertitles. Tickets are available from the Princeton Festival website (www.princetonfestival.org) or by telephone (609) 258-2787. The McCarter Theatre is located at 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ, 08540; The Princeton Festival can be reached by mail: P.O. Box 2063, Princeton, NJ, 08543.

Program notes for Fidelio are intelligently written for the performance programs, available on the Festival website.

Note that several informative community outreach programs lead up to the performances. These are:

Leonore, A New Kind of Heroine, speaker Marianne Grey, June 1, 7:30 p.m. • Princeton Public Library…as in tonight!!...well, too late! (But see below: the program is to be repeated at a new location).

Season Preview Singers and Directors from the Opera, June 8, 7 p.m. • Princeton Public Library. The Princeton Festival is also performing The Man from La Mancha. This too will be discussed at the Season Preview.

On the Heroic in Beethoven’s Fidelio, speaker Scott Burnham, June 13, 7 p.m. • Princeton Public Library.

Leonore, A New Kind of Heroine, speaker again is Marianne Grey, June 14, 7 p.m. • Lawrence Library. See, told ya!

Rescued by Beethoven’s Fidelio, speaker Timothy Urban June 14, 7 p.m. • West Windsor Library. Rescued by Beethoven’s Fidelio, again with Timothy Urban, June 15, 7:30 p.m. • Princeton Public Library.

All sounds pretty cool to me. Support your local opera! Happy June! Take a stroll on the Princeton University campus while you're there. Enjoy it all.

JS