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Cheers, boos and chills at Opera’s “Fidelio” opening

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Chorus members gather for the trimphant closing number of Beethoven's "Fidelio" at the Santa Fe Opera. (Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera)

Chorus members gather for the trimphant closing number of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” at the Santa Fe Opera. (Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera)

It’s customary to give polite applause to the orchestra conductor when he steps back to the podium after an opera intermission. But the clapping for conductor Harry Bicket was enthusiastic and prolonged after the intermission for “Fidelio” Saturday night at the Santa Fe Opera, reflecting appreciation for the orchestra’s performance of the sole operatic work of master composer Ludwig van Beethoven.

It’s not customary to boo a performer. But Greer Grimsley got a chorus of boos — the good-natured type in line with the hisses given to the devil during the Plaza performances of Las Posadas in December. That’s because Grimsley was evil personified in his portrayal of Don Pizarro, the prison governor who calls for cruel treatment and even murder of its mostly innocent inhabitants. The singer mimed taking down names in response to the audience’s jeers (that were really cheers).

And the “cast of thousands” who performed the choral pieces also were given a rousing thanks for their sometimes spine-tingling singing.

Sure, it did seem a little weird to have an opera originally set in Spain transferred to Nazi Germany, with soldiers responding to Spanish surnames, but the setting created a frisson of recognition for an audience still familiar with all that such a historic moment represented.

And it did seem a little weird to have the statuesque Marzelline (Devon Guthrie) rejecting her tall, handsome suitor (Joshua Dennis) in favor of the slip of a boy — someone who looked like a 12-year-old being led by her hand across the stage — who was Leonore in the guise of Fidelio (Alex Penda).

But this is opera. You have to suspend your disbelief at certain points in return for the chance to revel in spirited singing.

This was a story of good triumphing over evil, a story that was hopeful while still exposing the cruelties of which humans are capable. And — word to the wise — this is the first time the Santa Fe Opera has ever staged it, so it may be quite a wait before you get a chance to see it here again.

Alex Penda (Leonore/Fidelio) is shown with Paul Groves (Florestan) in the Santa Fe Opera production of "Fidelio." (Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera)

Alex Penda (Leonore/Fidelio) is shown with Paul Groves (Florestan) in the Santa Fe Opera production of “Fidelio.” (Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera)

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