When Ludwig van Beethoven dipped his toe into the world of opera in the early 19th century, the composer may have had the concept of freedom on his mind.

There’s a fantastic moment in “Fidelio” when prisoners emerge from a dungeon and begin to sing. Their voices — which on May 20 were provided by the New National Theater Chorus at a Tokyo performance — reverberate through the air as they proclaim: “Oh, what joy, in the open air freely to breathe again! Up here alone is life! The dungeon is a grave.”

The show comes as the New National Theater, Tokyo (NNTT) commemorates its 20th anniversary and prepares to say goodbye to artistic director of opera Taijiro Iimori, who began planning this staging of Beethoven’s only opera two years ago as a way to cap his four-year tenure.

The opera tells the story of Leonore, the wife of a political prisoner who disguises herself as a man named Fidelio to free her husband from a secret dungeon.

“It’s a rare opera in that it honors conjugal love,” Iimori tells The Japan Times. “It’s different from typical operatic plots that comprise destructive relationships and jealousy.”

Instead, Beethoven took the occasion of his only opera to express his own ideas about freedom and justice.

“It’s a very special piece for me personally,” says Iimori, 77, adding that his first experience with “Fidelio” came in his 20s when he attended a performance of it by the Deutsche Oper Berlin at Tokyo’s Nissay Theater. That show, in 1963, marked the opening of the theater, was the first time the German opera company had visited Japan and featured musical giants such as conductor Karl Bohm and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Iimori looked to Germany for his production of “Fidelio” too, inviting Katharina Wagner to handle stage direction. Perhaps in keeping with the theme of freedom, it was reported that the 40-year-old, co-director of the Bayreuth Festival since 2008, was given the job “as an artist, free from any request from the theater’s administration.”

“I won’t direct an opera without being inspired by its music,” Wagner told a press conference on May 16, adding it was also her “pleasure to work with maestro Iimori.”

Wagner is the great-granddaughter of German opera genius Richard Wagner (1813-83) and the great-great-granddaughter of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-86). Her directorial debut at Bayreuth in 2007 was marked by an avant-garde production of “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg,” which was booed at its premiere but garnered fans in the years following. In 2015 she directed a critically praised production of “Tristan and Isolde.”

With regards to “Fidelio,” Wagner said: “Within it are universal elements such as power games and emotional conflicts that humans have had since long ago and will continue to have in the future. I want to create a stage that won’t make the audience feel a particular era.”

The audience at the May 20 performance, however, appeared to have mixed feelings about NNTT’s “Fidelio” — particularly about bold changes to the original story. Some booed and others cheered but, judging from the conversations among patrons afterward, it had everyone talking.

NNTT has brought in American heldentenor Stephen Gould in the role of Florestan, German soprano Ricarda Merbeth as Leonore and German baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky as Don Pizarro. Japanese singers round out the rest of the cast including bass Hidekazu Tsumaya, baritone Hiroshi Kuroda, soprano Emi Ishibashi and tenor Jun Suzuki.

Wagner’s stage is dark and layered, divided into different spaces that act as rooms and dungeons. This approach allows the audience to see things that, in other stagings of the opera, we normally just infer — Leonore’s transformation into Fidelio, for example, and the way Florestan struggles to keep hope alive. Both Merbeth and Gould are able to demonstrate their vocal talents in these scenes, but a more surprising highlight comes during the orchestral performance of “Leonore No. 3” overture by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.

The final choral piece, “Who Has Got a Good Wife,” praises the bravery Leonore shows in the face of tyranny when she frees her husband and his fellow prisoners, and demonstrates Beethoven’s commitment to freedom and the resilience of humanity. Wagner’s interpretation of it, however, infuses it with irony. Though she said she enjoys the chorus best among the opera’s musical elements, its splendid performance by the New National Theater Chorus only serves to further drive home a sense of manipulation on behalf of the characters. If you’re looking for catharsis, you may be disappointed. But Wagner has succeeded in raising thoroughly relevant questions of what freedom and truth mean today.

“Beethoven’s music has a power that can’t help but move those who hear it, even beyond what music by his predecessors, such as Haydn and Mozart, could do,” Iimori says. “Although we consider it classical today, it was considered sensational and revolutionary at the time Beethoven composed it.”

That was more than 200 years ago, though. Europe was in the middle of turbulent times — from the French Revolution through the Napoleonic wars. “Freedom” arguably meant something quite different to what it does now.

Are we on the verge of a seismic shift? It’s interesting to note that “Fidelio” has been staged at or prior to many pivotal moments in history: It was the first opera performed in Berlin on Sept. 4, 1945, after the end of World War II; it re-opened the Vienna State Opera on Nov. 5, 1955; and a 1989 performance in Dresden held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of East Germany was followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall four weeks later on Nov. 9.

The 20th anniversary of NNTT or Iimori’s departure may pale by comparison to such major events, but the spirit that “Fidelio” captures is always with us.

“In the present transition stage we face, I think it’s time for us to rethink humanity’s aspiration for freedom,” Iimori says. “We shouldn’t take our freedom for granted.”

“Fidelio” will be performed at the New National Theater, Tokyo, on May 24, 27, 30 and June 2 (2 p.m. starts, 7 p.m. on May 30; ¥1,620-¥27,000). For more information, call 03-5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.

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