Classics Today and International Record Review
Robert Levine

Taken from a pair of semi-staged concert performances in Lucerne in the summer of 2010, this is a most scrupulously rehearsed and performed Fidelio. Conductor Claudio Abbado appears to be using a somewhat reduced orchestra, and the winds are very prominent; the string section never overwhelms. In fact, there are times when the strings are far less audible than they should be. Abbado keeps vibrato down, with a (not necessarily authentic) nod toward the date of composition. Each cast member sticks to his or her rhythms, and ensembles are letter perfect. Dynamic instructions are rigidly adhered to, with real pianissimos, mezzo-fortes, and fortes.

Florestan's opening cry of "Gott" begins as a whisper, seemingly coming out of the dungeon's darkness, and grows into a big, potent fortissimo. Every grace note in Pizarro's aria is audible. The Prisoners' Chorus is truly eerie at first, and their eventual joy at being in the sun is truly moving. The coda to the "Er sterbe" quartet is a flawless dance, and every syllable in "O namenlöse Freude" is precisely in time and in tune. Abbado's sense of architecture is amazing and each act captures lightness and darkness in texture and tone.

That having been said, I fear I'm about to be in the minority when I state that I find this performance almost clinical. The overture is fine--beautifully played, exciting, punchy, and nervous, but never grand. The early bits of Singspiel are deftly handled and handsomely sung by Rachel Harnisch as Marzelline and Christoph Strehl as Jaquino. The former is perky without being too cute--she seems to be a character from a Mozart opera--and the latter's sound is so impressive that I suspect he will not be singing Jaquino much longer. Their banter is utterly believable. Christof Fischesser's Rocco is having such a good time that he occasionally sounds like a character out of Benny Hill; his duet with Pizarro is even mellow. By the second act he sounds somewhat grave--and granted, this is a character who is hard to pin down, but still...

Gravitas enters with "Mir ist so wunderbar", which is wonderfully colored and mellifluously delivered, but the orchestra still sounds a bit delicate. Pizarro's aria isn't exactly leisurely, and I suspect that for sheer clarity of enunciation and note-producing, Falk Struckmann has every other baritone beat--but it lacks menace. I've heard Struckmann sing menacingly so I know he can do it, but here he sounds like a chilly bureaucrat and entirely lacks the necessary snarl. The lack of barking is a delight, but it almost de-fangs the characterization. The entire "Er sterbe" sequence is, as mentioned above, unimpeachably delivered, but that's just what it does not need: this is a moment of mania, surprise, intensity, and horror, and we find ourselves being amazed at its clarity and not at its emotional content. Peter Mattei is a luxurious Don Fernando.

Our two leads are great singers. Nina Stemme arguably is--after Karita Mattila--the Fidelio for today. She sometimes sounds like Nilsson in her lower notes, but her high notes have more warmth; her dialogue (all dialogue is pared to a minimum in this performance) is just as effective as her singing. Stemme's accuracy, a few muffled moments at the start of her big aria aside, is astonishing. She lacks the rage one looks for, and that we find with sopranos from Flagstad through Mödl, Nilsson, and Mattila, and I'm sure that this is all part of Abbado's non-violent approach to the opera. Very un-epic; very un-Klemperer.

Jonas Kaufmann, everyone's tenor-love of the moment, can do no wrong, and in fact he does no wrong here, articulating his despair as well as his hope and desperation with great sincerity, solid tone, and intelligence. And it's a pleasure to hear the last couple of minutes of his aria so flawlessly, almost effortlessly sung--but I suspect that Beethoven wrote it that way in order for it not to sound easy: use Jon Vickers as your guide. It's hard to fault a singer for sounding too secure, but that's just about what we get here. Kaufmann does not take a wrong step throughout the entire act, delivering his part of "O namenlöse Freude" with urgency and round tone. Both he and Stemme sound properly relieved, but anyone recalling the near-hysterical outburst of Ludwig and Vickers under Klemperer will realize that something is missing here.

What is one to make of this? Abbado is obviously going for a lean performance and he succeeds; you hear things in both orchestra and vocal lines that are frequently smudged elsewhere. But this is not the cry for freedom we want: the final scene is joyous and gloriously played and sung, but it doesn't drive the listener wild, as it should and invariably does. Is this an opera that calls for discretion? A chamber-music approach?

The performance on Naxos under Michael Halasz is lean as well, but it can be properly vicious as Abbado's never is. I'm afraid that I like my Fidelio with strong moral and philosophical underpinnings and would be willing to give up a grace note or two for the real drama that is inherent in the arias for Pizarro, Leonore, and Florestan as well as the obsessive passion that overtakes the entire opera when we enter the dungeon.

As I said, I suspect some colleagues will adore this clean, unaffected, almost bel canto-like reading, but I think that, at its core, it misreads Beethoven's intentions. It may sound great, but it doesn't get to Beethoven's vision. Listen to Klemperer's two recordings, on EMI and Testament, and get ready to be overwhelmed; Böhm, on Opera d'Oro with Christa Ludwig and James King, also is a front-runner. Sonics, by the way, are superb, packaging is plastic-free, and Thomas May's booklet notes are intelligent and well-written.

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