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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio, Opera in two acts (1804-05, rev. 1814)
CD 1
Leonore Overture No. 2, Op. 72 (1805) [15.46]
Fidelio, Act 1
Fidelio, Act 2
Leonore Overture No. 1 in C major, Op. 138 (1807) [11.27]
Leonore Overture No. 3 in C major, Op. 72 (1805-06) [15.26]
Fidelio Overture, Op. 72 (1814) [06.54]
Kwangchul Youn, bass - Don Fernando
Falk Struckmann, bass-baritone - Don Pizarro
Plácido Domingo, tenor - Don Florestan
Waltraud Meier, mezzo - Leonore
René Pape, bass - Rocco
Soile Isokoski, soprano - Marzelline
Werner Güra, tenor - Jaquino
Klaus Häger, bass - second prisoner
Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper, Berlin
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. May/June 1999, Broadcasting Hall, main radio station in former East Germany, Berlin. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 3984 25249-2 [77.54 + 79.56]
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 operatic repertoire.
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.
Michael Cookson



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