Opera cliché says that when the curtain rises, a women should appear in a flowing gown and horns. But rather than the regular Viking-attired greeting, the audience at the Skylight Music Theatre’s premiere of “Fidelio” was greeted a woman decked in the bright sari and Indian style of Bollywood.
The costumes are the first of many changes Skylight brings to Ludwig van Beethoven’s classic and only opera, “Fidelio,” which will run through Oct. 6.
Under new artistic director, Viswa Subbaraman, the theatre company brings a lively Bollywood aesthetic to the beloved opera about the pursuit of freedom, love, and justice. The result is a harmonious combination of two cultures into one outstanding production.
In “Fidelio” a local governor, Don Pizzaro, casts the outspoken Florestan to prison for two years where he suffers starvation.
Florestan’s wife Leonore desperately looks for her husband, unaware he is in prison and refusing to believe he is dead. Disguised as a man named Fidelio, she shows up at the prison to work for Rocco, the warden. When a distinguished minister, Don Fernando, announces a surprise inspection of the prison, Don Pizzaro orders Florestan’s immediate death. All hope seems lost for Florestan, unless Leonore manages to conceal her identity long enough to save her love.
What makes “Fidelio” really shine is its visual and musical components, which work hand-in-hand to drive the narrative of the opera. The combination of Beethoven’s musical genius with Indian culture adds a unique intensity to the original opera and revels a new and refreshing perspective on the themes originally set in the tale. For those who have previously seen “Fidelio,” Skylight Theatre’s production will feel as if they are experiencing it for the first time.
Well-known Indian artist Raghava KK serves as set designer for “Fidelio.” He transformed the Skylight Theatre into a world that can only be described as Dr. Seuss illustration meets the fantastical and bizarre world of Wonderland .
In order to create this world and enhance the visual experience for audiences, KK used his knowledge of kinetic and brain-wave technology to enhance the visual experience for audiences. During set creation, director Subbaraman wore an EEG headset that measured his thoughts and emotions, which were then translated into color and projected onto the stage. KK’s employment of technology provides audiences with a world straight from his imagination, one that changes its color spectrum each show.
Along with the vibrant colors, the choreography was an essential plot device. Deepa Devasena acts as choreographer for “Fidelio” and uses Bollywood-inspired dance numbers to enhance the show. The movement translates what the actors are singing into dance, helping the audience better understand the lyrics and the story.
The plot-centric choreography is no more apparent than in the scene where Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter, is singing about her love for Fidelio. Behind her a group of female dancers begin to dance, using hand motions that look like they are whispering. They begin to giggle, like most teenage girls do when talking about their crushes. The spinning and twirling movement of their hands and bodies reflects a young girl giddy in love, aided by flower-like skirts that convey a sense of innocence and youth.
In order to truly distinguish this production of “Fidelio” as a Bollywood cousin to the original, costume designer Karen Brown-Larimore created garments to match the personalities of each character in a traditional Indian style. The traditional Indian dress, jewelry and heavy use of accessories really adds a sense of authenticity to the Skylight’s attempt to make this old European opera into a Bollywood celebration. The women in the play wear the sari, a traditional loosely draped garment, accompanied with dupatta, a long scarf. The men in the play wear the panache or lungi, loose fitting pants.
At one point in the opera, Don Pizzaro sings of his revenge on Florestan, and his clothing conveys the passion and anger that his character is experiencing as he sings. Don Pizzaro wears a blood colored red panache with a lavish turban on his head, complete with feathers and jewels. The color red symbolizes the characters anger, malice and evil, while the jewels symbolize his wealth.
As well as pleasing the eye, “Fidelio” also pleases the ear. From the first note Cassandra Black sang as Leonore and Fidelio to the last, her presence on stage sent chills across the theatre and set the tone for story. Her vocal range was flawless and captivating as she sang about her husband’s freedom. The want and need to see her husband again, and her deep love for him, spread out from the stage through her voice. This made a personal connection between her and the audience, one not lost throughout the opera’s entirety.
“Fidelio” is a must see for music lovers who appreciate the art and combination of song and dance to tell stories. Skylight’s production of “Fidelio” truly is one-of-a-kind, as it is not very often that a Germanic opera is combined with a Bollywood aesthetic to create such a powerful and moving opera about love, revenge, justice, and the drive toward freedom that all people desire.
Special to the Tribune