Are there lessons to be learned today from the turbulent history of the Napoleonic Empire, when a shrewd megalomaniac driven by an obsession for power conquered much of Europe? Are there parallels to be drawn between those oppressive years of the early 19th century and our own times?
For Jose Luis Moscovich's answers to those questions, one need only see his latest West Bay Opera production, "Fidelio," Beethoven's only opera. Transferring the two-act opera's original setting from an 18th century political prison in Spain to a modern-day for-profit U.S. prison, Maestro Moscovich leaves no doubt that his answer to both is, "regretfully, yes."
"Fidelio" opens on Friday, Feb. 16, for a two-weekend run at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Mr. Moscovich, West Bay's general director, will conduct an orchestra playing from both the pit and the stage. Ragnar Conde, the artistic director of Escenia Ensamble of Mexico, will direct the production. The duo most recently collaborated in the staging last year of Richard Strauss' "Salome" also set in a future time rather than in its original period and also offering a cautionary message.
Performing the lead roles are dramatic soprano Meredith Mecum, a Merola alumna now based in New York City, as Leonora/Fidelio; and heldentenor Brent Turner as Florestan. Mr. Turner, also based in New York City, won the Jim Toland Vocal Competition of 2015.
The opera premiered in 1805 Vienna, days after Napoleon's troops marched into that city. Mr. Moscovich described the Vienna of that day as "a place of splendor and enlightenment" that was transformed overnight by the military and political upheaval.
It was a climate of fear and uncertainty, with relevance to our times, he noted. "Upending the existing order, questioning existing institutions and threatening the press are all part of a strategy to make people feel insecure," he explained. "Next step is the strong hand that will tighten the screws and make them feel secure again, this time under a much tighter system ... where there are no real freedoms, only those granted by the magnanimity of the person in power, provided they don't threaten his grip on power, and the courts are packed with judges who are happy to find justifications for the agenda of those in power."
He added: "I should know. I spent the first 20 years of my life in Argentina and lived through the military dictatorship under which 30,000 people disappeared, and I witnessed all of these things happen like clockwork. People need to read history."
Beethoven's moving his story to Spain decades before this Napoleonic takeover of power was strategic, Mr. Moscovich said. "It was very common for people to set plays in distant places where any criticism of the existing order (in this case of the Habsburgs) could be disguised as not referring to them at all." The opera's original setting was intended, he said, to circumvent the censors.
In "Fidelio," the Spanish nobleman Florestan is a political prisoner, jailed for challenging the governor, Pizarro. Florestan's wife, Leonora, disguises herself as a man Fidelio and goes to work in the prison to learn about her husband's fate.
The story, Mr. Moscovich said, is ultimately about "how a situation of swirling institutional chaos affects individual lives and threatens people's freedoms and ability to pursue happiness."
And on a hopeful note, he added, "it is about the message that every single person, no matter their gender or whether they're armed or strong physically ..., has within themselves the ability to stand up to injustice and bring about fundamental change."
If you go
"Fidelio" opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16. Other performances: Saturday, Feb. 24, 8 p.m.; Sundays, Feb. 18 and 25, 2 p.m. There will be a discussion with cast and directors seated onstage after the Feb. 18 performance. Tickets: $35-$85; group discounts available. Tickets: 650-424.9999 or WBOpera.org.