Opera News, November 2011
Stemme, Harnisch; Kaufmann, Strehl, Struckmann, Mattei, Fischesser; Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, C. Abbado. Texts and translations. Decca 478 2551

The Lucerne Festival Orchestra only comes together for a few brief periods each year. It's hard to say whether they play so spectacularly well because they hardly ever see each other, or whether it's a miracle they play as well as they do since they get together so infrequently. At any rate, the orchestral contribution to this Fidelio, under Claudio Abbado's supremely astute musical direction, makes this a recording of unusual interest. The players are extraordinary — there's no reason to apologize for these horns, the bassoons are especially fine, and the oboe playing, as ever in Lucerne, is of historic achievement — but this is only a starting point for the musical rewards. Under Abbado's guidance, something like the canon quartet in Act I is more than a beautiful, swaying moment in suspended time. By the fourth vocal entrance, the piece evolves from an initial warm hominess to a scene where real human beings are sorting things out. The "Gut, Söhnchen, gut" trio is a complete character study: it's where this Leonore first finds her heroism, and in the final allegro molto section it suddenly becomes a time of action for the three characters as they seem to return to reality. Best of all is the gravedigging duet in Act II. This is the piece in which Beethoven reached his Mozartean ideal of a convergence where the shape, the melodies, the form and the orchestration all serve the dramatic moment and each other. Abbado, as he so often does in this performance, gives the impression that, quite literally, every note Beethoven wrote is making an effect.

Offered this orchestral paradise, the singers must have felt the way Michael Phelps feels when he gets to swim in a really fine pool — that this was the chance to surpass themselves. Nina Stemme's Leonore is finely graded from start to finish. She is even careful to try to imitate a male voice in the dialogue when she is disguised as a boy. This is a psychologically keen performance; if she seems constrained at first, it turns out to be because she cleverly plays "Abscheulicher!" as the only moment in which Leonore can be herself. The aria is so cleanly, bravely and truly sung that the connection to Fiordiligi's "Per pietà" from Così Fan Tutte has never been clearer. Likewise, Jonas Kaufmann's Florestan is beautifully sung, and when the two finally join forces for "O namenlose Freude!" the result is suitably Mozartean, not a prototype for Wagner's Siegfried. Kaufmann has enough mastery of his difficult aria to allow us to think about the glorious music and the beauty of the words, and he makes a splendid contribution to the finale, revived rather than exhausted. Christoph Fischesser's Rocco is a neat portrayal, one of those people with just a little bit of authority who think they need to explain things to everybody. Listening "blind" to the arrival of Don Fernando at the end brought a sense of grave beauty — startlingly so. He turns out to be the great Peter Mattei, and for once the audience can be as gratified to meet Don Fernando as the prisoners are.

The men of the ever-excellent Arnold Schoenberg Choir are expert actors as well, from their hushed horror at Don Pizarro through their awestruck glimpse of a bit of sun to their triumphal release from prison. (When so many portrayals are musically so well characterized, we perhaps detect not just Abbado's hand but that of Lucerne stage director Tatjana Gürbaca as well.) With today's recorded sound so often un-ambient and artificial, it's pleasing to note the voice-to-orchestra balance here, which resembles the actual experience of an opera house. But there is one serious flaw in this Fidelio: the dialogue has been cut down to the bare-bones minimum for plot coherence. Dialogue in Fidelio is meant to be more than that; it is supposed to set up a deceptive Singspiel atmosphere, out of which the growth of heroic deeds is all the more effective. (Abbado, like Leonard Bernstein, understands this. After curtain rise, we seem to be in a light domestic comedy.) Beethoven only rarely started a number without initial dialogue, reserving the expressive effect of a sudden cold start for an important shock such as "Abscheulicher!" If Fidelio really had so little dialogue, Beethoven would simply have written different music for it. But under Abbado, this performance is so consistently rewarding that you may be tempted to skip the intermission. And when Act II is done, you may be tempted to start in again at the beginning, as I did.


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