Opera Britannia, 06 October 2011
Mark Pullinger
Beethoven: Fidelio (Decca)

Despite some wonderful vocal performances, this is very much Claudio Abbado’s Fidelio. Following his re-evaluation of performance practice in his Beethoven symphony cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic, which followed Jonathan del Mar’s (then) new critical edition of the scores, he turns his attention to the composer’s single opera. Recorded during two semi-staged concert performances in the 2010 Lucerne Festival, this is a lean, chamber-sized account, every note precisely placed, but with enough punch for the drama to hit home. Abbado opts for the 1814 Fidelio overture, rather than any of the Leonore overtures. The playing is glorious throughout, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, largely made up of players from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, is incredibly fine, responding to Abbado’s alert pacing and scrupulously observing dynamic shadings. The chamber-sized orchestra allows woodwinds to clearly register, the textual transparency allowing one to marvel afresh at Beethoven’s orchestration.

Tatjana Gürbaca, the stage director, has taken the pruning shears to the spoken dialogue, which propels the drama forward so that the whole opera takes less than two hours. No music is officially ‘cut’, although don’t expect the overture Leonore No.3 inserted into Act II, thank goodness.

The cast is exceptionally fine, especially the Florestan of Jonas Kaufmann, who makes the most stunning vocal appearance with his utterance of ‘Gott!’, which grows from a whisper to a spine-tingling fortissimo. His following aria is superbly sung, Kaufmann’s heroic tenor reminding one of Jon Vickers’ portrayal, although Kaufmann could almost be accused of singing it too perfectly for a prisoner who’s been incarcerated for two years. As the leading Cavaradossi and Don José of today, Kaufmann must be fairly used to singing in chains by now! Nina Stemme sings Leonora, Florestan’s wife who has assumed the male identity of Fidelio to help rescue him from prison. She sings warmly, including an excellent ‘Abscheulicher!’, if without quite the passionate drama one finds elsewhere. She and Kaufmann are excellent together in ‘O namenlöse Freude’.

The Pizarro of Falk Struckmann is coldly dispatched, but lacking the sardonic snarl that the meanest Pizarro’s have – such as Sergei Leiferkus – his ‘Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!’ is taken quite carefully, but enunciated well. Christof Fischesser’s Rocco is kindly and securely sung, whilst I enjoyed Rachel Harnisch’s performance as Marzelline, his daughter. Christoph Strehl sings an attractive Jaquino and Peter Mattei is a suitably sympathetic Don Fernando.

The Arnold Schoenberg Choir sings superbly – the Prisoners’ Chorus as they get their first taste of fresh air for months is as moving as it should be, while the singing in the finale is incisive. Although recorded live, there is no audience noise or applause. Full texts and translations are happily included in the 130-page booklet. Abbado’s humane account may not be dramatic enough for some, but for superb technical playing, transparency of sound and with Stemme and Kaufmann in glorious voice, this is a Fidelio to treasure.


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