SFO - "Fidelio"
Elza van den Heever as Leonore and Russell Thomas as Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Locked away in solitary confinement, a political prisoner at the crux of the drama is silenced through the first act of Fidelio. When his voice finally breaks free, in the heart-wrenching aria that opens Act II of Beethoven’s only opera, it does so in a harrowing musical spasm of dark fate and faith’s distant glimmer.

As the seemingly doomed Florestan, in the San Francisco Opera production that opened Oct. 15 and runs through Oct. 30 at the War Memorial Opera House, tenor Russell Thomas turned agony and idealism into a gripping portrayal of the human spirit stretched to the limits. In a voice scoured by his character’s isolation and ordeal, Thomas ranged from fiercely raw lows to high notes flung heavenward in heedless abandon. Justice and democracy seemed precariously poised on the brink.

SFO - "Fidelio"
Russell Thomas as Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The moment needed nothing more than the orchestra’s sensitive and responsive support, which it received here and throughout the evening under music director Eun Sun Kim’s baton. In director Matthew Ozawa’s keen if sometimes overbearing modern-day production, staged on a behemoth rotating set by Alexander V. Nichols, Florestan’s dungeon cell lit up with an eye-blurring feed of what seemed to be security-camera footage followed by an enormous vision of the “angel” destined to rescue him, his wife and savior Leonore (a superb Elza van den Heever). The technology, at this crucial juncture, literalized rather than enhanced the drama inherent in the music and sung-and-spoken libretto, based on a text by Jean Nicholas Bouilly.

SFO - "Fidelio"
The San Francisco Opera Chorus performs the “Prisoners’ Chorus” in Beethoven's Fidelio | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Excessive as it could be, the stagecraft of this Fidelio was rooted in a strong conception. By placing the action in a contemporary prison-industrial complex of cage-like metal boxes and lattices, Ozawa and his design team gave the opera a bracing 21st-century resonance. Originally scheduled to open the 2021–2022 season, the production was more than worth the wait.

Injustice and oppression are systemic, as this version cunningly demonstrated. Yes there are outsized villains — bass baritone’s Greer Grimsley’s slickly ominous Don Pizzaro in this case, his necktie as narrow as a knife blade. But the politics of injustice are deeply imbedded in and abetted by lazy acquiescence and careless indifference to the suffering in plain sight.

Instead of a courtyard, the action opens here, fittingly enough, in a bland corporate office. The prisons and all the dark manipulations they embody may only be a turn away on the set, but to the blithe water cooler flirts, they might as well be half way around the world — in say, Afghanistan or Iran or for that matter right at home, in the U.S.’s own overstuffed and readily forgotten cells.

SFO - "Fidelio"
James Creswell as Rocco, Elza van den Heever as Leonore, and Greer Grimsley as Don Pizarro in Beethoven's Fidelio | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

With the orchestra consorting merrily along with them, Marzelline (Anne-Marie MacIntosh) rebuffed the hapless, would-be suitor Jaquino (Christopher Oglesby), preferring Fidelio (van den Heever’s Leonore in disguise). As Marzelline’s judicious-in-all-senses father, Rocco, bass James Creswell gave a firm and steadily expanding performance.

Her flak jacket emblazoned with a giant SECURITY logo on the back, van den Heever was endearingly klutzy and vocally self-effacing in her male disguise. But when she launched her vow to save her imprisoned husband’s life, her lustrous soprano rang out in gorgeously ascendant arches.

The first act closed with a movingly hushed chorus of briefly freed prisoners, awkwardly clumped as they were on the two-tiered set. Here and again, more triumphantly in the second act, the San Francisco Opera Chorus, under outgoing director Ian Robertson, sang with cohesion and conviction.

SFO - "Fidelio"
Soloman Howard as Don Fernando, James Creswell as Rocco, Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Marzelline, Elza van den Heever as Leonore, Russell Thomas as Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

As the singers and orchestra made their way through the numerous, transparently layered ensembles in the score, the momentum accelerated in the second act. With Leonore revealing herself as Florestan’s savior, the stakes and musical tension quickly ratcheted up. Armed with gun or dagger, she and Pizzaro faced off, just as a distant trumpet signaled the approach of a judicious state official (bass Soloman Howard as Don Fernando).

Even as the singers and orchestra joined in a swelling celebration of Florestan’s freedom and his reunion with Leonore, this Fidelio never settled for simple verities. Freed from his shackles, Thomas’s Florestan still looked damaged and fragile, the specter of PTSD looming. Liberty is hard won, and comes with great costs.

And what about that charismatic and suave-voiced Don Fernando in his bespoke suit, a boom mike hovering over him wherever he went? Meted-out justice and punishment, might he be a shade too good to be true? Power, in this absorbing and morally complex Fidelio, needs to be carefully, warily watched.