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Grasping at Fidelio; Listening for Coraline 

Ich bin ein Bethoven!

The advantages for relying on readily recognized plays, novels, myths or historical events for operatic storylines become quickly apparent in conventional productions of Beethoven's Fidelio.

When the title character appears in a prison courtyard, we already know the jailer's young daughter, Marzelline, is dizzily in love with Fidelio, having rejected Jaquino, the jailer's assistant, as emphatically as she knows how. So why is Marzelline's dreamboat, heartily endorsed by her dad, a soprano?

It's tempting to presume that the difficulties in grasping what's going on in Fidelio have multiplied since Beethoven's day. Ludwig's only opera, initially premiered during the French occupation of Vienna in 1805, was set at a fortress in Seville during the previous century, though its political aspirations were intended to resonate with the French Revolution.

True enough, the work was originally named Leonore after the masquerading Fidelio's true name, but that name wasn't spoken until the third and final act.

Subsequent revisions trimmed the work to its current two-act format. Rocco doesn't even know the name of the prisoner he's starving in his deepest dungeon — the husband Leonore secretly seeks though he's presumed to be dead. So the name of the dissident Florestan isn't spoken until his nemesis, Don Pizarro, arrives on the scene.

In that dim light, the radical changes in Opera Carolina's new production, under the stage direction of Tom Diamond, only do favors for Beethoven's opera that the re-revised libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner and Georg Friedrich Treitschke cries out for.

While maestro James Meena conducts the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in the stirring overture, we're getting some important information on the transparent scrim as the Belk Theater curtain rises.

Maria Katzarava first appears in her starring role with long hair under a stage right spotlight and "Leonore" flashes onto the scrim in front of her. Then with the aid of her friends, acting with revolutionary purposefulness, she undergoes a strategic makeover.

By the time the overture has ended, she has emerged with short hair. Putting on a man's military jacket, she stands under a stage left spotlight as her undercover name flashes onto the scrim.

More context comes our way in a title projected onto the gray cinderblock wall of Dejan Miladinovich's parsimonious set design. We're in East Germany on November 8, 1989, a day before the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall.

A recorded excerpt from JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech gives us more Cold War flavoring — surely a more spot-on echo of Beethoven's spirit than some obscure intrigue in 18th century Seville — and you can bet on hearing Reagan's challenge to Gorbachev before the night is done.

Names of key characters have also been changed to enhance the East German ambiance.

The implacable governor who spitefully imprisons Florestan, Pizarro, has become the East German head of state, Walter Ulbricht, the man who prevailed upon the Soviets to build the wall.

Florestan is now listed in the program booklet as Kurt Wismach, a laborer who famously heckled Ulbricht, calling for free elections. His ultimate liberator, the beneficent Don Fernando, is reincarnated as Walter Momper, the first mayor of reunified Berlin.

Historical accuracy may be tossed out the window by linking Momper with the others, but the additions fill in some gaping narrative holes, giving Katzarava something to sing about in Act 1 as she drops hints about her motives.

The soprano sings powerfully and beautifully but without sufficient urgency in Act 1, so the strange Fidelio-Marzelline-Jaquino triangle matters a little more than it should.

What ignites Katzarava — and indeed this entire production — is Andrew Richards' soulful portrayal of Florestan.

From Florestan's first famished outcry as we behold the shackled prisoner for the first time, we ascend to a loftier level, even if Richards' highest notes aren't completely secure. Katzarava rises to the occasion with him. This is a man who has lived purely, idealistically, and after trifling with Mazellina and Rocco, Leonore is purified in his presence.

After an auspicious outing earlier this month at Opera Carolina's Art . Poetry . Music over in CPCC's Halton Theater, Raquel Suarez Groen was underpowered in the larger Belk hall as Marzellina, barely audible over the orchestra at times, and drowned out in the Act 1 vocal ensembles. What we did hear from the soprano was quite sweet, and her fainting spell in the final scene, upon learning the truth about her fiancé, was the comic highlight of the evening.

Otherwise, the supporting cast was strong and satisfying. Andrew Funk gives a rich account of the obedient, good-hearted Rocco, his copper-colored suit an island of color amid the drab costume designs of the opening act.

Kyle Pfortmiller strikes terror from the moment he enters as the imperious Ulbricht, sporting a spiky bass that the notoriously squeaky voiced real-life Ulbricht could only dream of. Funk is suitably shaken when the despot first appears, but Pfortmiller's confrontation with Florestan and Leonore in the denouement is even more electric.

Along with the robust Opera Carolina chorus, two locals round out the cast. Earnestly courting Marzelline, tenor Brian Arreola as Jaquino gives Leonore ample reason to feel guilty over her deceptions, and baritone Dan Boye is warmly authoritative meting out justice as Momper in the final scene.

The conclusion is often cited as a harbinger of the "Ode to Joy" that ends Beethoven's Choral Symphony with unmatched exhilaration. But having seen the public acclamation of Hans Sachs earlier this year at the Metropolitan Opera, I'd say that the praise showered upon the brave Leonore also prefigures the wondrous final scene of Die Meistersinger by Richard Wagner.

No doubt about it, the current Children's Theatre production of Coraline at ImaginOn is the thinking family's alternative to the purely visceral Scarowinds — and the insanely long lines of traffic to get there. The surreal scenic design by Tom Burch, with its gnarled tree and outsized moon, is nicely calibrated to the strange creepshow adapted by David Greenspan from Neil Gaiman's novel.

Costumes and puppets by Magda Guichard, ranging from zombie paleness to nightmarishly over-colorful clownishness, will have you wondering whether your toddler can keep it together.

And perhaps eeriest of all, the music! — delivered by a ghostly trio at electric keyboards and guitar, directed by Mike Wilkins. Also conspiring in the creepiness are sound designer Benjamin Stickels and Moving Poets choreographer Till Schmidt-Rimpler.

So I probably would have enjoyed Coraline if I'd been able to hear more than 70 percent of it. Stonefaced Parker Mullet was often inaudible as Coraline, but she was clarity itself compared to the three ghost children who help our hero find her true parents and escape the clutches of her evil Other Mother — in the parallel twisted universe beyond her closet door.

Why Coraline was collecting marbles was far clearer to the kids around me who knew the book or saw the movie than it was to me.

Even the adults onstage could be difficult to understand when they weren't singing alone, so I was often equally mystified about the lyrics Stephin Merritt had written to complement his music. But Nicia Carla and Grant Watkins are superb as the button-eyed Other Parents, proving there can be different paths to scariness, and before we reach their spectral domain, Devin Clark is a delight as the Cat.

Directing this colorful spookfest, Mark Sutton only lets us down by not ensuring that we hear it. I strongly suspect he would have achieved far more satisfying results moving the show from the Wells Fargo to the larger McColl Theatre.

All the actors could have been outfitted with mics there, lighting designer Eric Winkenwerder and his cohorts could have unleashed a more powerful barrage of tech artillery, and when Carla made her grand exit, a trapdoor could have whisked her to the infinite void.

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