Sound+Vision, August 31, 2011
By Robert Ripps
Beethoven’s “Fidelio”
A new recording that can stand with the classics.

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.

Decca’s live 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.


 back top