Opening its 2021-2022 season, the North Carolina Opera chose quite the heavy-hitter: Beethoven’s Fidelio. A work that is increasingly used to signify rebirth and joy, this was an excellent choice as the grand re-opening work that welcomed back audiences after a year of closures and postponements. Fidelio was notably the first opera performed in 1945 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in 1955 to present the rebuilt Vienna State Opera. While this production was done in concert form, with the vocalists simply arrayed in front of (and in the case of the chorus, behind) the large orchestral ensemble, it was no less joyous of an occasion.

The audience’s excitement was palpable before even entering Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh; long lines waited in the chilly sun to present proof of COVID-19 vaccinations and/or boosters before then enduring a bag search and metal detector. The lobby was packed to the gills with obediently masked audience members, who chatted excitedly before and after the cheerful pre-show chamber music provided by the United Strings of Color, under the direction of Margaret Partridge. NCO’s general director Eric Mitchko was met with thunderous applause after his simple, grateful address before the show: “Welcome back.” After a brief introduction of the upcoming season, Mitchko turned it over to conductor Arthur Fagen and the orchestra.

The rousing overture was layered, but generally cheerful, full of rich interplay between sections, and underpinned by the sheer joy of performing live. While the louder and more impassioned moments were perfectly clear, the vocalists were drowned out by the orchestra much of the time – at least from about halfway back in the auditorium. The notes and vowels were audible, but the balance was generally just off enough such that the enunciation and consonants of the vocalists couldn’t be made out. This made it a little frustrating to keep up with the minimal supertitles, which did not repeat translations when lyrics were repeated, and generally just gave the gist of what was being sung. Not the worst problem to have, as Jonathan Dean’s captions were brief, to the point, and overall minimized the inherent distraction posed by supertitles, but those who wanted to keep track line by line faced a challenge.

Fidelio is full of contrasts and conflicting ideas, while remaining generally pretty straightforward: Florestan has been imprisoned as a political dissident, and his wife Leonore (disguised as a man by the name of Fidelio) has gotten a job in the prison in the hopes of freeing him. Interlacing conflicts include the moral struggle faced by Fidelio’s employer, Rocco, while trying to negotiate more lenient terms for Florestan with the prison warden, Don Pizarro. Meanwhile, Rocco’s daughter Marzelline has fallen hopelessly in love with Fidelio and spurns the attentions of Jacquino, who in turn has fallen for Marzelline. For a more details, I can recommend the Met Opera’s more in-depth synopsis.

The staging of this production actually worked really well translated into a concert piece. The focus was absolutely on the music itself, venerating the grandiosity of Beethoven’s writing. The vocalists, not costumed, would enter the stage and take places according to the context of the scene: they faced each other and utilized facial expressions when directly interacting, and used their bodies to convey the most basic of motions and contexts, but there was no pantomiming or blocking out of the scenes. The interplay between Erika Baikoff as Marzelline and Jason Karn as Jacquino was comical but beautifully expressed, setting the stage for a refined performance overall. Kenneth Kellogg introduced a more reflective, introspective character in Rocco, evolving from his lighthearted aria about how money is necessary to help love flourish, to his more impassioned entreaties to Don Pizarro about the harsh treatment of Florestan later. His bass was resonant and powerful, the voice of reason to Don Pizarro’s aggressive bass-baritone, which was sung by Joseph Barron. Barron commanded attention every time he entered the stage, a convincing and compelling villain.

Alexandra LoBianco, who made the complicated vocal lines sound (almost) easy with her strong and gorgeous soprano, voiced Fidelio, otherwise known as Leonore. She gave a multi-layered performance, conveying at once the character’s sorrow, fear, bravery, and eventual triumph through an impossible situation. Carl Tanner as Florestan, similarly, had an incredible power behind his voice – it was just a shame that he didn’t get to sing until Act II! Their duet towards the end was so, passionately happy, yet packaged in a subtle, reverent tone that gave me goosebumps. And I cannot close without commenting on the sheer power and resonance of Takaoki Onishi as Don Fernando – again, saving an excellent performer for a small, late-appearing role! Fernando appears as the voice of justice, eventually granting all of the prisoners their freedom and signaling the release of Florestan, as Leonore herself gets to remove his chains. The full cast (except, unfortunately, Barron, as Pizarro has been arrested by this point) delivered a triumphant group number, fleshed out by the full chorus, that finally resolved into the quintessential power and scale expected from Beethoven.

The choral numbers, directed by Scott MacLeod, while few and far between, served to contextualize the story, providing atmospheric moments of sorrowing prisoners and then a joyous public towards the ends of each act. While the choice to house the chorus behind the orchestra, far upstage, did cause the softer moments to lose a bit of clarity, the effect was ethereal. Voices and instruments blended together to form one united voice in this story of love and justice. It was really an uplifting and beautiful choice to program at the opening of such a long-awaited performing season, and an outstanding effort coordinated by everyone involved.

The North Carolina Opera will return to fully-staged live opera in its next production and one of the great favorites in the opera world, La Boheme, in January of 2022.