And then there was Opera Boston's new production of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, a fully staged version of which hasn't been seen in Boston since Sarah Caldwell's in 1976. At first blush, stage director Thaddeus Strassberger's idea of setting this opera about political repression, heroic rescue, and the meaning of freedom in the context of the Spanish Inquisition didn't seem like such a bad idea (though you might think that Monty Python had had the last word on the subject). But the production muddled the distinction between political and religious oppression, and Strassberger's gratuitous dollops of sadism turned Beethoven's idealism into something utterly repellent. We got an invented torture scene in which a young woman is branded with a red-hot poker on the villain's dining-room table — I'm not making this up — and then waterboarded. We got lust: the villain — a priest — grabs the ingénue and pulls her onto his lap, in what's more like a scene out of Tosca, Puccini's "shabby little shocker," than from the noble Fidelio. We got violence, the villain "roasting in agony over a pile of heat lamps," as a friend put it, during Beethoven's joyous final chorus.
Strassberger seems to be one of those stage directors who can't let a good thing alone. Why couldn't he trust the composer? Almost every important musical moment was muddied by extraneous, irrelevant, distracting business. In "Abscheulicher!" ("Monster!"), the heroine's great prayer for hope, Leonore, disguised as a boy in order to find her political-prisoner husband, has reached a dead end. It's one of opera's loneliest moments. But during the aria, Strassberger had her surrounded by monks carrying a string of electric lightbulbs (in the 16th century!) focused first on their own faces, then on the audience. In this middle of his aria of despair, Florestan (clean shaven and with hair remarkably well trimmed given that he's been in a dungeon for two years) started swinging a lamp dangling from the ceiling. Who could concentrate on the music?
Instead of attempting to unite Beethoven's problematic combination of high drama and a comic subplot (the young girl falls in love with a boy who's really a woman in disguise), Strassberger played this element of operetta as a coarser style of sit-com. Although he wisely used English for the spoken dialogue, the uncredited translation was filled with phrases like "God damn it!" He clearly didn't trust the libretto, either. "I must not linger over my work," Marzelline, the jailer's daughter, sings. The libretto tells us that she's in the prison courtyard, ironing. Strassberger had her looking into a mirror and admiring herself. In one of the most moving moments in opera, Rocco, the good-hearted jailer, releases the prisoners into the "open air" of the prison yard, but Strassberger had them moved to a dark room in the villain's palace — and the First Prisoner's hopeful solo was sung by a priest. I understand both those in the audience who left during the intermission and those who stayed to boo the director.