BBC Review, 1 July 2011
Daniel Ross
Elements combine effectively to highlight what a baffling composer Beethoven could be.

Beethoven’s only opera has about it the whiff of a Shakespearean suspension of disbelief. Cross-dressing, wrongful imprisonment and gargantuan villainy occupy much of its narrative, and the resoundingly triumphant, wrapped-up-rather-nicely-thank-you ending is typical of its period. So what is it that makes it a success? And how does a modern troupe of performers approach it? Well, both answers inform one another. Its ridiculousness, like so many operatic plots, is so gleefully far-fetched that the libretto actually makes perfect dramatic sense, and the gusto required to authenticate it is what makes it work as a performance.

Gusto is something that this recording certainly doesn’t lack. Under Claudio Abbado’s assured direction, the Mahler Chamber and Lucerne Festival orchestras derive a fantastic amount of energy. They’re dainty when dealing with the mischievous opening scenes, battering as they move through the second act and, when the plot requires, they’re emotionally as wrought as anything Beethoven ever dreamt up. Nina Stemme in particular carries a huge amount of the work on her shoulders and she manages to imbue her Fidelio/Leonore role with the requisite disguised anguish.

High praise also must go to the spellbinding ensemble work. The prisoners’ cautious joy in O welche Lust, in freier Luft den Atem leicht zu heben! is beautifully measured, and the climactic Finale in the second act sees their joy spill over unbidden. Jonas Kaufmann also impresses, most of all in his lachrymose opening to the second act. His swelling crescendo that begins Gott! Welt Dunkel hier is impeccably delivered and surprisingly hammy, but it works perfectly.

Due in part to the relative infrequency of recordings of Fidelio, this is one in particular to be cherished. Discussion is rife as to which is the most successful, and this effort will certainly be the subject of spirited scrutiny. In the end, though, it’s a matter of how successfully the players have evoked what may have been in the composer’s mind – suggesting that this could be a winning recording. All the elements combine effectively to highlight what an emotional, baffling and ridiculous composer Beethoven could be at times, the whole proving to be an engaging, lasting experience.


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