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Opera Explained: An introduction to Fidelio Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) (opera’s final version 1814) Libretto by Joseph Ferdinand von Sonnleithner, Stefan von Breuning and Georg Friedrich Treischke after the Libretto by Jean Nicolas Bouilly for the opera "Léonore ou L'amour conjugal" by Pierre Gaveaux
Text written by Thomson Smillie,
Narrated by David Timson
Excerpts from the complete recording as performed by Wolfgang Glashof, Alan Titus, Gösta Winbergh, Inga Nielsen, Kurt Moll, Edith Lienbacher, Herwig Pecoraro, Peter Palinkas and Jozsef Moldvay
Hungarian Radio Chorus, Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia
Michael Halasz conducting, on Naxos 8.660070/71. [DDD]
NAXOS 8.55807 [79.33]

Among the vast and unique resources available to serve you from Musicweb is a staff reviewer who isn’t at all familiar with Fidelio, and doesn’t care for what little he does know, so I am in a position to appreciate this ‘Fidelio for Dummies’ presentation exactly as intended.

Beethoven’s interest in Egyptian religion no doubt enhanced his interest in this scenario for he surely realised that it is a transparent resetting of the story of Isis and Osiris, and how the faithful wife liberates her husband from the bonds of death. Many of the trappings of Plutarch’s version of the tale are there: The evil schemer, the disguise, the deception, the appeal to authority, the wild ecstasy of the final triumph.

Beethoven was the first of many composers to parade his neuroses before his listener, and since paranoia is and was very common, especially in a Europe reeling from the multiple shocks of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars which followed, artistic depictions of paranoia by Beethoven and others became and remained very popular. The Classical world would have considered such things shockingly, embarrassingly, rudely, personal and the Baroque world would have considered them irreverent, irrelevant, and ugly. But borrowings from Mozart are heard in Fidelio, as borrowings from Fidelio were to abound in the music of the following century.

As a sales pitch for the Naxos complete recording this disk is not completely successful. Yes, the sound is excellent and the orchestra sounds terrific, but the lead soprano sounds at once heavy, shrill, and wobbly, while in addition we hear that most annoying of all voices, the baritone whose tone is all in his nose. But perhaps I am being unfair, because naturally we hear only selected emotional climaxes, and the singers may with good justification be allowing their tone to run somewhat coarse to express passion and conflict. But try to hear more before you buy. Also, is it really justifiable to spend time in class defending the cuts made in the recording? We should be talking about the opera, not the particular version used to display it. But the text is good and informative, and the delivery by David Timson could not be any better. We tend to hear as examples reasonably complete musical phrases without those annoying slow fades.

So did I hear anything to change my mind about Fidelio, to make me want to hear the whole thing from beginning to end? No. It is still a stuffy story abounding in silliness and the music is nowhere as good as Beethoven’s best. I think Beethoven was wise not to try another opera. I think the ‘Leonora Overture No. 4’ spoof in the Hoffnung concert says it all explicitly.

Paul Shoemaker


See also review by Colin Clarke

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