is technically a Singspiel: with spoken dialogue linking the
musical numbers. This should make it easier to highlight than
many operas of later date with more or less continuous music.
Certainly it avoids forcing producers sometimes to fade the
music. As usual with highlights discs one loses the development
of the story but to some extent this is rectified through a
cued synopsis. The end result on this occasion is more a collection
of numbers. For this reason it’s the quality of the singing
more than the conductor’s overriding view that matters the most.
With such a strong personality as Herbert von Karajan at the
helm there are still some distinctive stamps of his individuality.
These are most obvious in the extreme dynamics. The greatest
problem for the domestic listener is to find a suitable setting
of the volume control. As a matter of fact, in the fairly small
room where I listen, I need to adjust the volume continuously
if I want to hear the pianissimos and yet avoid contracting
tinnitus when the Berlin Philharmonic are let loose in thundering
fortissimos. The risk is imminent in the powerfully dramatic
overture, which is gloriously played here. With the responsive
voices of the Deutsche Oper Karajan builds up the prisoners’
chorus in one long arc. Here it is interesting to find Werner
Hollweg, one of the foremost German-speaking lyrical tenors
for a number of years, in the small role as First Prisoner.
principals – and I suppose most collectors buy a highlights
disc for their sake – are primarily from Karajan’s regular stable.
From the late 1960s and onwards he often chose lighter voices
than usual for dramatic roles; sometimes with good results,
sometimes less so. Karl Ridderbusch, Karajan’s Fafner and Hagen
in his complete Ring cycle, has little of the blackness
of, say, Gottlob Frick, but he sings Rocco with great warmth.
I wish there had been more of him. The other bass, Zoltán Kelemen,
who was Karajan’s Alberich, is a ferocious Pizarro, making this
evil governor of the prison an even more formidable character
than on most recordings. Helga Dernesch, Brünnhilde in the last
two parts of the Ring, is an excellent Leonore, singing
with both venom and warmth in her aria. Jon Vickers, who was
Siegmund for Karajan and a couple of years later sang Otello
in Karajan’s remake, is his inimitable self with intense dramatic
outbreaks and extreme pianissimos. His big scene, opening act
II, is exceptional in its contrasting emotions – slightly wayward
but enormously gripping.
young Helen Donath is a bright and charming Marzelline, singing
well in her aria and in the quartet where we also get a glimpse
of the tenor Horst R. Laubenthal. José Van Dam, another Karajan
regular, is only heard in unison with the others in the final
is very little negative to be said about this issue; the only
drawback – as with highlights discs in general – is that once
heard one almost certainly would like the complete opera. Readers
who are well stocked with complete Fidelios already but
with a special interest in one or more of the soloists here,
shouldn’t hesitate. Others are better advised to save up for
the complete recording, when/if it appears again – a search
on EMI’s catalogue gave only this highlights disc. Since I haven’t
heard the complete set I don’t know how eccentric Karajan
is here so a safer recommendation would be Klemperer – also
EMI, now in the GROC series. You could also try the wholly admirable
super-budget Naxos set with Michael Halasz conducting and a
star line-up of singers including Alan Titus, Gösta Winbergh,
Inga Nielsen and Kurt Moll.