Warner Classics have reissued
and re-packaged Daniel Barenboim’s acclaimed Staatskapelle
Berlin Fidelio. The 1999 Teldec recording was hailed
at the time as a major operatic event by the international
music press. The recording was inspired by the success of Barenboim’s
semi-staged performances at the Chicago Symphony. The semi-staged
production called for Beethoven’s original spoken dialogue
- often considered a dramatic ‘Achilles heel’ - to be omitted
to compress the action. The inclusion of a narration by the
eminent music writer Edward W. Said was given to Leonore to
describe the events of that fateful day looking back from a
perspective after the action of the opera had taken place.
That novel idea has been dropped for this recording but the
dialogue has not been reinstated.
Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio is
almost always described as a stirring ode to freedom; the triumph
of good over evil. And yet, the score is considered to be highly
problematic. Beethoven scholar George Alexander Fischer in
his work, Beethoven, A Character Study Together With Wagner’s
Indebtedness To Beethoven has provided the following viewpoint: “Musically,
it is a work of surpassing beauty; but there is a dissonance
between music and libretto which gives the impression of something
lacking; there is not the harmony which we expect in a work
of this kind. Wagner has taught us better on these points.
The music of Fidelio has force and grandeur; some of it has
a sensuous beauty that reminds us of Mozart at his best. Had
Beethoven's choice fallen to a better libretto, the result
might have been an altogether better opera.” Eminent music
writer David Ewen in, The Complete Book of Classical Music explains
that, “None of Beethoven’s scores cost him as much effort
and grief, both in conception and production. Beethoven was
essentially an instrumental composer. He found it difficult
to adjust his musical thinking to the requirements of the stage.”
In 1803, Emanuel Schikaneder,
the manager of the Theatre-an-der-Wien invited Beethoven to
write an opera. Beethoven went so far as to take up his quarters
in the theatre, preparatory to this work; but a change of theatre
ownership and management made it necessary for him to give
up the idea for the time being. In 1804, the offer to write
the opera was renewed and Beethoven embarked on the score.
The German libretto is Josef Sonnleithner’s and Friedrich Treitschke’s
adaptation of the text from Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s, Lenore,
où l’amour conjugal. The opera took up a large part of
Beethoven’s time until its production on 20 November 1805.
Beethoven, in fact, describes his opera as, “a child of
sorrow” claiming that it had caused him, “more birth
pains than any other.”
It was first produced in a three
act version under the title Leonore in Vienna’s Theatre-an-der-Wien
in November 1805, with additional performances given on the
following two nights. The success of these poorly attended
first performances was greatly hindered by the fact that Vienna
was under military occupation by Napoleon’s forces and most
of the audience were French military officers.
After the première, Beethoven
was pressured by friends to revise and shorten the opera into
two acts. He did so with the help of Stephan von Breuning,
also writing a new overture, which is now known as Leonore
Overture No. 3. In this form the opera was first performed
on March 29 and April 10, 1806 to far greater success. Sadly
further performances were prevented by an acrimonious dispute
between Beethoven and the theatre management.
Eight years later in 1814, Beethoven
revised his opera yet again, with additional work on the libretto
by Georg Friedrich Treitschke. This version was first performed
in Vienna’s Kärtnertor Theater on May 23, 1814, under the title Fidelio.
The increasingly-deaf Beethoven led the performance, ‘assisted’ by
Michael Umlauf. This version of the opera was a great success.
I find it surprising that the score to Fidelio, which
is filled with inspiring music, is not a staple of the standard
Beethoven struggled to produce
a suitable overture for Fidelio, and ultimately went
through four versions. His first attempt, for the 1805 premiere,
is believed to have been the overture now known as Leonore
No. 2. Beethoven then revised this version for the performances
of 1806, creating Leonore No. 3. The latter is considered
by many listeners as the greatest of the four overtures, but
as an intensely dramatic, full-scale symphonic movement it
had the defect of overwhelming the - rather light - initial
scenes. Beethoven accordingly experimented with cutting it
back somewhat, for a planned 1807 performance in Prague; this
is believed to be the version now called Leonore Overture
No. 1. Finally, for the 1814 revival Beethoven began anew,
with fresh and lighter musical material and wrote what we now
know as the shorter Fidelio overture. For the purposes
of this recording the opening sequence of numbers from the
earliest version of the opera has been restored, with the result
that the overture heard here is the Leonore Overture
No. 2, Op. 72, that was first performed in 1805.
The story of Leonore’s devotion
and faithful love for her husband Florestan and her success
in rescuing him from mortal danger clearly moved Beethoven
profoundly. Set in eighteenth-century Seville, the curtain
rises on a courtyard of a prison fortress. Florestan is a Spanish
nobleman who has been imprisoned by his political enemy Pizarro,
the Governor of a state prison. He is being left to die in
a prison cell. Pizarro spreads a report that Florestan is dead.
Leonore refuses to believe the news and is determined to save
her husband. She arrives disguised as a young man, takes the
name of Fidelio and finds employment with the jailer, Rocco.
The Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski
takes the role as Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter. Revealing she
is in love with Fidelio in the aria, “O wär ich schon mit
dir vereint” the lively Isokoski displays her bright, lyrical
soprano. In a role that really calls for a more girlish voiced
soprano, Isokoski’s noticeable vibrato presents few problems.
The celebrated quartet of Rocco,
Jaquino, Marzelline and Leonore, “Mir ist so wunderbar” is
one of the most remarkable ensemble numbers in the opera. Taken
at a leisurely pace the performance from the quartet is moving
and highly satisfying.
René Pape, as the gaoler Rocco
points out the importance of money in any marriage, “Hat
man nicht auch Gold beineben.” The German-born Pape is
striking with his rich bass and impressive enunciation.
In the aria with chorus, “Ha,
welch ein Augenblick!” Pizarro declares that the
Minister is arriving shortly on an inspection and Florestan
must be slain. Falk Struckmann, the German bass-baritone,
reveals Pizarro’s threatening character to great effect,
with a noticeably clear diction and strength of projection.
The leading role of the courageous
Leonore is taken by Waltraud Meier, the German mezzo-soprano.
In the moving aria, “Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin” Leonore
has overheard the plot and voices a fiery and defiant challenge.
The smooth and creamy-toned Meier makes a successful Leonore,
conveying substantial drama in an intense performance. Meier
is exciting and impressive as Leonore’s terror gives way to
a confidence that her great love will effect her incarcerated
husband’s rescue in the aria “Komm, Hoffnung.” When
forced, Meier does lose a trace of smoothness in her higher
registers, although I detected no major tuning problems.
Plácido Domingo, the famous Spanish-born
tenor is cast in the role of Florestan, who does not appear
until the second act. In the first of his two solo arias, Florestan
chained to the wall of his cell performs a gloom-ridden soliloquy
about his sad fate with, “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier.” In
the second aria, Florestan, lamenting his fate recalls happier
times with his beloved Leonore, “In des Lebens Fruhlingstagen.” Domingo
is a dramatic and commanding Florestan. Right from his opening
words, “Gott!” (Oh God!) Domingo able to convincingly
communicate the pathos and inner torment demanded by the role.
This is magnificent singing.
Pizarro leaves to welcome the
Minister, allowing Leonore and Florestan the opportunity to
rush to each other with a song of joy at their meeting, “O
namenlöse Freude!” Leonore directs Florestan out of the
prison. The stars of the performance, the heroes Plácido Domingo
and Waltraud Meier are in superb voice. They have a special
presence and their innate unforced manner enables them to convincingly
convey their euphoria at their reunion. Technically and artistically
this is truly accomplished singing.
The prisoners leave their cells
and stumble out into the daylight of the courtyard chanting
a poignant hymn of elation. The impressive Berlin Chor der
Deutschen Staatsoper vigorously sound the prisoner’s
determination to be free in a paean to freedom in their chorus “O
welche Lust.” In the public square the chorus of prisoners
and townsfolk hail the Minister, “Heil sei dem Tag!” and
the chorus sing the praises of Leonore for her courage and
devotion in, “Wer ein solches Weib errungen.” The Berlin
Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper deserve considerable praise for
their satisfying and secure contribution.
This Warner Classics set is, I
believe, the finest modern digital version. From my collection
the two classics that take centre-stage are from Wilhelm Furtwängler
and the VPO, recorded at the 1950 Salzburg Festival, with Julius
Patzak and Kirsten Flagstad on EMI mono 7 64496-2 and from
Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia, recorded at the 1962 Kingsway
Hall, with John Vickers and Christa Ludwig on an EMI ‘Great
Recordings of the Century’ 5 67364-2.
The excellent documentation with this set includes a synopsis
by Anna Mika, a reprint of Edward Said’s 1998 narration from the Chicago
semi-staged performances, essays by Said and Eva Reisinger. A separate booklet
contains the full libretto with English, German and French
texts. The sound engineers have provided a high-end sound quality
which is cool, crisp and well balanced.
A dramatic and exciting performance. One of the finest
modern Fidelios on record.