THERE is a rich legacy of recordings of Beethoven’s opera
“Fidelio,” including the 1962 account on EMI with Otto Klemperer
conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus in a majestic
performance. The colossal tenor Jon Vickers sings Florestan, a
Spanish nobleman unjustly imprisoned for his liberal sympathies
by a tyrannical governor, and the distinguished mezzo-soprano
Christa Ludwig is Florestan’s wife, Leonore, who, disguised as a
young man, finds a job in the prison where her husband is held
in order to rescue him.
Now a new “Fidelio” has joined
the ranks, offering as good a cast as could be assembled today,
with the tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan and the soprano Nina
Stemme as Leonore. But what makes this recording (Decca 478
2551; two CDs), from the 2010 Lucerne Festival, stand out is the
superb performance the conductor Claudio Abbado draws from the
combined Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Lucerne Festival
As a point of comparison with the historic
Klemperer “Fidelio” and also the new one, Sony Classical, in its
collaborative series with the Metropolitan Opera, has issued a
live Met performance from 1960 with Mr. Vickers, Birgit Nilsson
as Leonore and Karl Böhm conducting. This version (Sony
Classical 88697 85309 2; two CDs) has exciting immediacy and
captures the conductor, cast and orchestra at an inspired
Mr. Abbado may be the most universally
respected conductor around now. Yet I have always found it
challenging to describe exactly why his best work is so good. In
his “Fidelio” the orchestral playing is lithe and bracing but
not because the tempos are exceptionally fast. The music emerges
with freshness, grandeur and infectious spontaneity. Mr. Abbado
brings probing musical insights and a touch of Germanic weight
to the music making, balanced by innately Italianate lyricism.
Ms. Stemme’s gleaming voice, which can sometimes sound
hard edged in the opera house, is captured excitingly here.
Mr. Kaufmann is a terrific Florestan, singing with
burnished sound, virile power and anguished emotional intensity,
as well as poignant pianissimo phrases, a Kaufmann trademark.
It is noteworthy that Mr. Kaufmann’s account of
Florestan has come out around the same time as the live Met
version with Mr. Vickers. Mr. Kaufmann has often been compared
to Mr. Vickers, and the similarity comes through strongly in
these recordings. As anyone who has heard Mr. Kaufmann in person
knows, and as his recent Siegmund in Wagner’s “Walküre” at the
Met especially showed, he has a big, healthy voice with robust
top notes. He does not have the heroic-size voice of Mr.
Vickers. What tenor today does? But the dark colorings and
expressive inflections of their sounds are strikingly close.
Both artists also put a premium on enunciating the German words
with vivid declamation. I doubt that Mr. Kaufmann is trying to
emulate Mr. Vickers, which would be foolish. But there it is.
Mr. Abbado’s winning cast includes the rosy
soprano Rachel Harnisch as Marzelline, the appealing lyric tenor
Christoph Strehl as Jaquino and the veteran bass-baritone Falk
Struckmann as an uncommonly cagey villain, Don Pizarro.
On the Met recording the great Nilsson — no surprise — is
thrilling as Leonore. In live outings Nilsson had a slight
tendency to sing a little sharp. Here her performance is
impressively clean over all, as well as charismatic. Those who
knew the tenor Charles Anthony only from his performances in
minor parts at the Met in the later stage of his 56-season
career (he retired at 80 in 2010, after more than 2,900
performances) will be fascinated to hear him here, in his young
lyric tenor days, singing Jaquino quite elegantly.