Beethoven’s solely opera, “Fidelio,” is hardly a set textual content. He wrote a number of doable overtures for it and reworked the rating considerably over the course of a decade. However its which means by no means modified: the heroism to be present in devotion, love and freedom within the face of injustice.
In 2018, the daring and imaginative Heartbeat Opera — an enterprise that, whereas small and nonetheless younger, has already contributed extra to opera’s vitality than most main American firms — took the malleable historical past of “Fidelio” one step additional, adapting the work as a moving indictment of mass incarceration.
That manufacturing has now been revised for a revival that opened on the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium on the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork final weekend, forward of a tour that continues through the end of the month. Already impressed by the Black Lives Matter motion, this “Fidelio” is now permeated with it, and the variation is much more highly effective.
In Beethoven’s unique singspiel — a music theater kind by which sung numbers are arrange by spoken scenes — a girl named Leonore disguises herself as a person, Fidelio, to infiltrate the jail the place her husband, Florestan, is being held for political causes. She goals to free him from execution whereas exposing the crimes of his captor, Pizarro.
Ethan Heard, a founding father of Heartbeat, tailored “Fidelio” for the corporate and collaborated with the playwright Marcus Scott on the brand new e book. Their revision tells the story of a Black Lives Matter activist named Stan — sung by Curtis Bannister, a tenor of spectacular stamina — who has been imprisoned for practically a 12 months, and whose spouse, Leah, given an affectingly agonized decrease vary by the soprano Kelly Griffin, is at a breaking level as she struggles to free him.
She will get a job as a guard on the jail; her technique to achieve Stan in solitary confinement (a lot as in Beethoven’s unique) is to ingratiate herself with a senior guard (right here Roc, sung with each allure and dramatic complexity by the bass-baritone Derrell Acon) and courtroom his daughter (right here Marcy, smooth-voiced but sturdy within the soprano Victoria Lawal’s portrayal). On this telling, there is no such thing as a want for the cross-dressing: Marcy and Leah are each queer. And, crucially, all of those characters are Black, a undeniable fact that looms earlier than guiding the awakenings of Marcy and her father as they face their complicity in a racist system that, Leah says, is designed to punish “folks whose solely mistake was being poor and Black.”
The spoken textual content is in English all through, whereas the arias stay of their unique German — a testomony to the timelessness of Beethoven, although the manufacturing’s surtitles take some liberties with the interpretation. (As an excuse for briefly letting the prisoners out into the solar, Roc sings that it’s the king’s identify day, however the titles say that it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day.)
Radically remodeled, too, is the rating, organized by Daniel Schlosberg for 2 pianos, two horns, two cellos and percussion, with the multitasking (and practically scene-stealing) Schlosberg onstage, conducting from the keyboard. Expressive cellos reveal the characters’ ideas, and the horns add an aura of muscularity and honor. Essentially the most substantial interventions are within the percussion, with drum hits deployed to dramatic impact and a whiplike slap including terror to Pizarro’s murder-plotting “Ha, welch’ ein Augenblick.”
Not all of the adjustments from 2018 had been essential, or smart. Beginning with the venue: This manufacturing originated in a black field area at Baruch Performing Arts Middle, which match the chamber scale of the music and emphasised the cinder-block claustrophobia of Reid Thompson’s set. On the Met, the present floats on an expansive stage and struggles with poor acoustics.
And the textual content has misplaced a few of its grace, with pandering references to the Jan. 6, 2021, rebel and President Donald J. Trump’s notorious name for the Proud Boys to “stand again and stand by.” A casualty of those lapses is the baritone Corey McKern’s Pizarro, who’s one thing of a Trump stand-in, a caricature amongst nuanced, human characters.
You possibly can virtually forgive that at “O welche Lust,” the well-known prisoners’ refrain, nonetheless the emotional excessive level of the manufacturing and now a coup de théâtre. For the stirring quantity, Leah unlocks a chest — a metaphor for the jail gates — to launch a white display screen, on which a video is projected, that includes 100 incarcerated singers and 70 volunteers from six jail ensembles. The digicam usually lingers on particular person faces, to an impact not in contrast to that of Barry Jenkins’s filmmaking, the way in which his sustained close-ups invite intimacy and, above all, sympathy.
For curious viewers members, Heartbeat has shared letters from a number of the contributors. They vary from endearing — Michael “Black” Powell II’s “German was laborious!!” — to profound, similar to this from Douglass Elliott: “Most of us are victims of our circumstances who when confronted with adversities selected the incorrect path with our actions. This choir makes us really feel that ‘regular’ feeling for a short while each week. We’re accepted as people, not checked out as numbers.”
Beethoven’s triumphant finale may have been an insult to the modern actuality Heartbeat’s manufacturing goals to conjure. So after Stan is freed and Pizarro defeated, Leah awakes on the identical desk the place, within the opening, she has had a irritating telephone name with a lawyer. This twist, that it was all a dream, is in fact a drained trope, however what follows isn’t.
After a second of despair — her happiness felt so actual — she stands, steps to a highlight at middle stage and holds up her telephone, assuming the pose of her husband’s activism, with which the manufacturing started. An ambivalent closing scene, it’s an trustworthy reflection of our time: of the blended successes of Black Lives Matter, sure, and of the one doable means ahead.
Carried out on the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Manhattan, and touring by means of Feb. 27; heartbeatopera.org.