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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
An Introduction to … Fidelio

Written by Thomson Smillie; Narrated by David Timson.
Rec Motivation Sound Studios, London. No date given. [DDD]
NAXOS OPERA EXPLAINED 8.558077 [79’33]


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The Naxos ‘An Introduction to …’ series is an inexpensive way to be guided, intelligently, around the mainstays of the operatic repertoire. Aida, Carmen, Rigoletto, Tosca, La traviata, Fledermaus are but some of those on offer. In this case the spoken text is smattered with musical extracts drawn from Michael Halász’s critically well-received Naxos recording (8.660070/1).

Actor David Timson is our well-spoken guide. He has already appeared as part of Naxos’s spoken word catalogue, having recorded six volumes of the Sherlock Holmes adventures. He is also narrator for the Naxos Stravinsky Soldier’s Tale. The text itself is by Thomson Smillie, whose operatic credentials include stints at Wexford, Opera Company of Boston and general director of Kentucky Opera.

The product opens with the final chorus of praise to Leonore from the Naxos recording (a ‘Hymn to Joy’, which promptly appears; alas, in not such an uplifting performance, to be followed by the close of the Choral Fantasy, in Toscanini’s 1939 recording). Background is interesting and accurate, referring to the value of Beethoven’s copious sketchbooks as clues to genesis. The ‘Leonore’ overtures are, of course, mentioned: including the use of Leonore No. 3 in Act 2 (which the Naxos recording ‘of course’(!) omits).

The discussion of the actual ‘Fidelio’ overture is informed and clear, correctly pointing out the suitability of the final choice, the Fidelio Overture (it does not overbear the domestic scene after the curtain has risen). Timson gives a strange musical mnemonic for the opening: when Smetana came to Western Europe, people referred to him as ‘Monsieur Smetaana’, to which he would reply ‘No, no, like Fidelio pronounce’ and then sing his name to the rhythm of the opening bar. The opening duet raises a couple of questions: Jaquino is pronounced with the initial ‘J’, and why does he, when he sings, omit ‘Wir können’ from his statement?.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy. The performance of the Act I Quartet is referred to as from the ‘realms of the sublime’. Quite right: this is music delivered straight from Heaven, and this is indeed a lovely performance (enough to persuade many listeners to buy the complete set on the strength of this alone, probably). Rocco’s money aria is superb (it comes in the shape of Kurt Moll, no less!).

Some of the discussion is fascinating (Abscheilicher! is a prime example). The examination of Act II Scene 1, however, degenerates more into the ‘this happens, then that happens …’ mode. Leonore’s moments are a delight to hear (it is, after all, Inge Nielsen in the starring role), whereas Florestan, Gösta Winbergh, has a tendency to shout.

Certainly this is a recommendable product to anyone who wishes to be initiated into one of the greatest hymns to love and humanity ever penned. Then all you need to do is buy the opera itself.

Colin Clarke

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