New York Times, September 30, 2011
Old and New, a Tale of Heroes and Villains

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 Orchestra.

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 Saturday matinee.

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.


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