In his monumental six-part work The Oxford History of Western
Music, Richard Taruskin begins the volume devoted to the 19th
century with Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, which debuted in
Vienna in 1805 before its final revised version was staged there
in 1814. Here we have an opus of searing intensity that signaled
the arrival of Romanticism in music.
At the same time, it
epitomized the turmoil and fervor of the Napoleonic era. In the
aftermath of the French Revolution, the power of the Austrian
police was focused on suppressing local dissent. Consequently,
Fidelio’s celebration of political freedom was disturbing
subject matter indeed for its earliest Viennese audience, which,
nervously, considered it a failure. But thanks to Beethoven’s
genius, it was to become the basis for one of the greatest
operas of all time.
Decca’s live recording (on two CDs)
derives from a pair of performances at the Lucerne Festival in
August 2010. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which uses the
youthful Mahler Chamber Orchestra as its core ensemble, is
outstanding under its frequent conductor Claudio Abbado. The
78-year-old Italian maestro actually founded the orchestra in
2003 after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. He recently
declared himself in good health again — and based on this
rousing recording, he has recovered strongly enough to bring the
theatrical fire and musical discipline for which his
increasingly rare opera performances are revered.
Abbado’s urgent reading of the score conveys the opera’s
stirring drama without sacrificing the nobility of its ideals.
The recording dispenses with the oft-interpolated “Leonore No. 3
Overture” before the Act II finale and employs a shortened
version of the spoken dialogue. These performance decisions and
the brisk tempos keep things moving along appropriately for a
21st-century audience. Comparative timings to some classic
recordings are revealing. Abbado’s first act is a nimble 68
minutes, while Leonard Bernstein’s on Deutsche Grammophon is a
more ponderous 73 and Otto Klemperer’s on EMI a plodding 76.
The cast is nearly ideal. For almost 50 years, the
performances of the lead roles by Christa Ludwig and Jon Vickers
for Klemperer have been the standard-bearers. Soprano Nina
Stemme’s Leonore is now the finest on recording since Ludwig’s.
In her great recitative and aria “Abscheulicher . . . Komm,
Hoffnung,” Stemme lacks only the final shade of subtlety and
tonal beauty that infused Ludwig’s equally dramatic performance.
In Jonas Kaufmann, we have found Vickers’s
modern-day counterpart in the fiendishly demanding tenor role of
Florestan. Kaufmann has nearly as thrilling intensity and even
more beautiful tone, such that this Fidelio reaches true
greatness only upon his arrival in Act II. Abbado’s conducting,
effective and exciting until this point, gains gravitas in the
introduction and aria “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!”
The lighthearted first scene between the jailor’s daughter
Marzelline, sung by soprano Rachel Harnisch, and her boyfriend
the gatekeeper Jaquino, sung by tenor Christoph Strehl,
introduces the somber setting if not yet the drama that is about
to unfold. They are joined by Stemme and bass Christof
Fischesser (as the jailor Rocco) in the great quartet “Mir ist
so wunderbar,” which sets the tone for the darker times ahead.
The baritone voices of Falk Struckmann as the threatening
Don Pizarro and Peter Mattei as the consoling Don Fernando
provide strong support. The profoundly moving Prisoners’ Chorus
“O welche Lust,” sung during a rare moment of daylight in the
men’s dismal existence, is the emotional highlight of the first
act as performed by the excellent Arnold Schoenberg Chorus. And
they are exhilarating in the Act II Finale when joined by the
women in celebration of their liberation.
recording of the semi-staged performances is bright,
full-bodied, and free of extraneous noise (an errant cough or
two notwithstanding). While not studio-quality, it captures the
pit-to-stage balance realistically and compensates in its
theatrical power. The offstage trumpet, perfectly distanced,
signals chillingly the imminent arrival of hope and the triumph
over tyranny that Beethoven yearned for as much as the
characters in his great opera.