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Fidelio is a tough opera to get right. Like Wagner’s Siegfried, Strauss’ Salome, and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Beethoven’s masterwork features a title character who’s nearly impossible to cast. Written for a voice of considerable heft and range, the role of Leonore—Fidelio is the name she assumes when in disguise—also demands a singer who must be physically convincing as both the wife of a freedom-fighting political prisoner and as the boy she impersonates to get work at the prison in which her husband languishes on trumped-up charges. Throw in the world-class acting chops required to make Leonore’s journey from hausfrau to gun-toting vigilante hero even remotely convincing, and you have a part that’s sure to elude credible casting in perpetuity.

American soprano Susan B. Anthony (yeah, for real) makes a valiant stab at the role in the Washington Opera’s new production, and she doesn’t come off too badly. What’s needed is someone akin to Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, and blessed with the voice of a young Birgit Nilsson. With her womanly figure ill-concealed in designer Anita Yavitch’s khaki cadet uniform, Anthony is more of a Kaye Ballard visually. But her acting is grounded, and she captures Leonore’s disorientation and perpetual fear of discovery quite well. And though a surprising number of sopranos fail to meet the vocal challenges of this role, Anthony rises to the occasion. She approaches the highest notes with a degree of caution, but otherwise her voice is bright, well-balanced, and expressive—and it even hints at Nilsson’s sound in the gleam and forward placement of the middle register.

In the WashOp’s Fidelio, however, Leonore is hardly the story’s sole focus, even if she remains its emotional center. This is a production that, more than most, seeks to create a political context for the action, continually turning our attention back to the victims of the system. Director Francesca Zambello has shifted the action to an unspecified Cold War-era country in the Eastern bloc. The prison of Peter Davison’s terrific set is omnipresent, composed of a monolithic poured-cement wall, a rusting multistory stairwell, a flatbed train car filled with earth, and two banks of TV screens displaying black-and-white surveillance shots of the prisoners in their cells.

Zambello stages the overture to give us an imagined backstory to the events in the opera. A crowd gathers in a public square to hear some soapbox oratory from Leonore and her husband, Florestan. Secret police carrying riot shields surround and trample the crowd, and their commandant, Don Pizarro (the story was originally set in Seville), strong-arms Florestan before having him arrested. As families pick through the bodies to find their loved ones, Leonore fashions an escape by cutting her hair and donning a discarded police uniform. Indeed, there’s so much going on that stage noise distracts a bit from what is, after all, one of Beethoven’s most famous overtures. (Given Heinz Fricke’s sluggish conducting of this piece, however, it isn’t a tremendous loss.)

Once established, the sense of police-state paranoia hangs oppressively over the rest of the production, altering the work’s dynamic in a fascinating way. This lone opera of Beethoven’s, which underwent a slew of revisions and a title change before reaching its final form, remains something of a hybrid, albeit a glorious one. Starting off as quasi-Mozartean romantic comedy, it spins into high melodrama (with Pizarro as its mustache-twirling villain), evolves into a rescue adventure, and ends as exultantly as Beethoven’s Ninth.

In Zambello’s hands, all these narrative roads lead to the gulag. So in Scene 1, when the jailer’s daughter, Marzelline (played with charming befuddlement by silver-toned soprano Korliss Uecker), scampers away from the bumbling flirtations of the assistant jailer, Jacquino (the bland and underpowered tenor Ferdinand von Bothmer), she does so under the vacant stares of prisoners on those dozens of security monitors. And when Pizarro reveals his evil agenda in his big Act 1 aria, music that could easily devolve into an excuse for bad-guy mugging becomes the soundtrack for a scene in which two prisoners are humiliated, tortured, and beaten. Tom Fox turns Pizarro into a Hollywood-worthy sadist—sour, bald-pated, and pissed off at the world—and he uses his slightly weathered, powerhouse baritone to fine effect, both here and in the climactic rescue scene of Act 2.

If this Fidelio falters at all, it’s in that rescue scene. This is due partly to tenor Christopher Ventris, whose bright and brassy voice encompasses the strenuous part of Florestan without too much huffing and puffing, but whose acting seems built from generalized emotions rather than moment-to-moment engagement with the drama. Anthony is at her least effective here as well, playing too heavily into Leonore’s anxiety and confusion just at the moment when we must believe she’ll pull out a pistol to stop Pizarro from executing her husband.

And it’s at this point that Zambello makes a few choices that seem odd, if not downright counterproductive to the drama. For instance, given that the director goes out of her way to paint a sympathetic picture of the jailer, Rocco—a worker cowed into submission by his boss, but a feeling man (given hale and hearty voice and an affable bluffness by bass Eric Halfvarson) who empathizes with his prisoners—it’s probably not a great idea to stage Leonore raising a pick-ax to kill him just because he won’t say no to Pizarro.

More serious is the decision to have Rocco hand a panicking Leonore the pistol she’ll wield against the big baddie. In one stroke, one of the strongest, most resourceful, and most self-empowered women in all of opera is reduced to a timid little girl who has to have a man hand her the means to her own transformative act. Strange, too, that Pizarro’s own police would arrest him without any clear directive from their superiors. And, after the rescue, what’s with the idea of blocking Leonore and Florestan 20 feet apart and facing away from each other to begin their ecstatic love duet?

No matter: This single wayward scene can detract only so much from such a perceptive and riveting interpretive vision. And crowning that vision, the opera’s final scene positively glows with utopian joy, with the stage awash in flowers and children reuniting with their long-imprisoned fathers. Even Fricke, whose conducting warmed up throughout Act 2 on opening night, surpasses himself in the finale, lingering exquisitely over the melody that accompanies Leonore as she unlocks Florestan’s chains and supporting Alan Held’s handsomely sung Don Fernando with orchestral playing of a breadth and nobility befitting this benevolent deus ex machina.

Yet even in this most radiant of Beethoven finales, with Stephen Gathman’s WashOp Chorus singing at its very peak, Zambello manages to clear the stage to reveal a handful of weeping widows. Peace and amnesty may offer an open invitation to all, Zambello seems to be telling us, but there are those who won’t be joining the party.

Like any fine production of a classic, the WashOp Fidelio opens a direct line of communication from its creator’s inspiration to the lives we live now. Zambello has managed to give us an insight into the work that’s both timely and timeless, and she reminds us that opera at its best is also great theater. That she’s done so with such a challenging work makes her achievement all the more remarkable. CP