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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014

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Liz Faraglia (Dancer) and Erica Schuller (Marzelline) in Skylight Music Theatre's "Fidelio."
Liz Faraglia (Dancer) and Erica Schuller (Marzelline) in Skylight Music Theatre's "Fidelio." (Photo: Mark Frohna)

Subbaraman's reign gets a promising start with "Fidelio"

It may well be helpful to understand what "Fidelio," the opera that opened Friday night at Skylight, is not before we get to what it is.

It is not your father’s "The Music Man," nor your mother’s "The Sound of Music," nor even your friend’s sparkling "Avenue Q."

The reign of Viswa Subbaraman as the new artistic director at Skylight took wing Friday night as a giant and powerful eagle soaring majestically into the sky and inviting all of us to come along for the ride of a lifetime.

Subbaraman has arrived in a coach gilded with an incredibly high level of risk in the hope of an equally high level of reward. If "Fidelio" is going to set the pace, the rewards that await are huge.

"Fidelio," the only opera ever written by Ludwig van Beethoven, is over 200 years old. It tells the story of Leonore, whose husband, Florestan, has been imprisoned for two years because of his political views.

Leonore disguises herself as a man named Fidelio – a name which means "faithful" – and heads out to rescue him. Mixed identities, good guys and bad guys, and hope and struggle ensue on the way to a happy ending for all.

The men in this play are all fine singers but it is two women, Cassandra Black as Leonore/Fidelio and the beautiful and delicate Erica Schuller, who stand tallest.

Black is an absolute marvel given that we are in on the joke from the very beginning. Her longing to find her husband all the while playing an uncomfortable role are palpable emotions made even deeper because of her powerful voice.

Schuller, in the role of the damsel who falls for Fidelio, has a winsome seductiveness about her and a playful side given freedom to let her voice soar.

No review of this production would be complete without mention of the set design by noted artist Raghava KK. He has combined his creativity with technology and an interactive palette and his sets are breathtaking. They are in a show by themselves but never take anything away from the action on stage.

I will confess to having misgivings headed in to this production. It has been billed as Beethoven meets Bollywood, the center of cinema in Mumbai, India.

I am not a huge Bollywood fan, but this show fit the stylized dance and movement right into the operatic frame so there was no frenetic search for escape.

If I had to find some fault with the opera it is a minor one, at best. Translating it into English is often a difficult decision to make. And for my money singing an opera in its original language allows for the full breadth of passion and opera to be fully explored. While all the notes are there in English versions, some of the emotion seems to wane. And opera without passion and emotion is a recipe for a good night’s sleep.

Not tonight. This is a challenging show, for the singers and for the audience. Beethoven was known to write music that was a challenge for singers but was so well worth it when you got to the end.

Perhaps we can expect the same from Subbaraman. Give us productions that challenge us and make us feel both our hearts and minds. And at the end we will know that we have truly seen something well worth it.

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