As the first act opens, Florestan's wife, Leonore (Erika Sunnegardh), has established a false identity as the young man, Fidelio, and obtained a job as a guard at the prison where she believes Florestan to be held. He has been "disappeared" for two years. "Fidelio" is rather chagrined that the head guard's daughter, Marzellina (Valerie MacCarthy) has fallen in love with "him" to the extent of throwing over her fiance, the guard Jacquino, but uses the good grace this has put him in with her father, Rocco (Stephen Morschek), to work further into Rocco's confidence. This allows her access to the more secure areas of the prison in search of Florestan. Fidelio manages to talk Rocco into allowing the "underground" prisoners an airing in the prison courtyard, which brings on one of the opera's most beautiful moments, the "prisoners' chorus." However, Florestan is not among them, which leaves only the nameless prisoner incarcerated in the lowest dungeon unseen.
The prison's governor, Don Pizarro (Kristopher Irmiter) lambasts Rocco for allowing the prisoners some freedom, no matter how minimal, and then goes on to plot the death of the unknown prisoner. Rocco will not do it, despite Don Pizarro's offer of money. Pizarro then agrees that he will perform the act himself, but directs Rocco to prepare a hidden grave in the bowels of the prison where the body will never be found.
Rocco brings Fidelio to help him excavate a tomb in an unused cistern, and then finally shows him the wretched prisoner, who is indeed Florestan. Don Pizarro arrives and gloats over Florestan, whom Pizarro hates because Florestan exposed past wrongdoings of his. He is about to cut Florestan's throat when Fidelio draws a hidden pistol and holds him at bay. Time runs out for Pizarro with the arrival of his new superior, Don Fernando (Ethan Herschenfeld), who is also an old friend of Florestan's. When the tale is unfolded to Don Fernando, Don Pizarro becomes a prisoner, and the other prisoners are set free to sing the praises of Leonore's courage and steadfastness.
The orchestra, under the baton of Milwaukee Symphony conductor Andreas Delfs, delivered Beethoven's score flawlessly, and the singing was up to that level as well. Ericka Sunnegardh as Leonora/Fidelio was especially good, and her first solo filled the hall beautifully. The opera chorus is a genuine character as well, and sang the moving first and second scene climaxes with appropriate joy.
The stark setting and drab uniforms worked well to bring the story into near-present-day without being too trendily topical. I can imagine that there might have been temptation to set the production in, oh, Iraq, but that might have been too cutting. Also, production design is a lengthy process, stretching back before some scandals were fully developed--. Interestingly, the program notes indicate that the story is based on a true incident from the French Revolution. The performance was thouroughly enjoyable and uplifting.