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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827) Fidelio - opera in two acts, Op. 72 (1814)
Boje Skovhus (baritone) - Don Fernando, Minister; Sergei Leiferkus
(baritone) - Don Pizarro, governor of a state prison; Peter Seiffert
(tenor) - A prisoner; Charlotte Margiono (soprano) - Leonore, His
wife, under the name Fidelio; Lászlo Polgar (bass) - Rocco,
gaoler; Barbara Bonney (soprano) - Marzelline, his daughter; Deon
van der Walt (tenor) - Jacquino, gatekeeper; Reinaldo Macias (tenor)
- First prisoner; Robert Florianschütz (bass) - Second prisoner;
Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. Stephaniensaal, Graz, June 1994
The libretto can be found at the Karadar
WARNER TELDEC 2564 69125-4 [71:13 + 47:28]
Nikolaus Harnoncourt's readings, whether live or recorded, tend to divide
opinion among critics, which is no bad thing. He is no mainstream conductor,
has very clear opinions and takes risks, daring to challenge ingrained opinions.
His Beethoven symphony cycle was to many a revelation - I haven't heard the
complete cycle but the towering Ninth in Harnoncourt's reading has long been
a favourite of mine. When he tackled Beethoven's only opera he opted for
the same superb orchestra and choir as in the symphony cycle and the result,
to my mind, is just as superior.
This is an eager, taut reading, where the conductor from the outset drives in the highest gear. He only relaxes temporarily in the grand last scene with Don Fernando's solos and choral forces in brief contemplation before the jubilant and triumphant concluding ensemble. The overture is a magnificent eye - or rather ear - opener with sharp contrasts, clipped phrasing and almost unbearable intensity. The march, heralding Pizarro's entrance, is martial but impatiently swift - characterising the governor. There is no Leonora overture No. 3 between the two scenes in act II. It only prolongs the story and Harnoncourt's aim is to reach the stage when the evil powers - read Don Pizarro - are defeated. With choral singing on the same elevated level as the orchestral playing this is as thrilling a performance of Fidelio as any you are likely to hear.
He has also assembled a cast of singers to match his approach. Barbara Bonney is a delectable Marzelline and Deon van der Walt once again proves that he was one of the finest lyric tenors of his time. Lászlo Polgar has for many years been one of my favourite basses. He is a youthful, rather light and flexible Rocco with excellent enunciation and a wide register of emotional expressivity. Few singers have been so apt at delineating evil characters as Sergei Leiferkus. He makes for a truly nasty, snarling Pizarro, someone I wouldn't like to meet in a dark alley. Peter Seiffert's beautiful voice is in itself a pleasure to listen to. He pairs beauty with deeply penetrating dramatic/psychological insight, singing in the Jon Vickers mould. As the eponymous heroine Charlotte Margiono's vibrant and deeply-felt reading expresses all the various emotions: fear, anger, desperation as well as determination. Her big aria is gloriously executed. Bo Skovhus - he still used his full Danish name Boje at the time - may lack the heavenly nobility of Martti Talvela's Don Fernando (Karl Böhm's 1969 recording on DG) but is a more vulnerable and commonplace human being.
Is this, then, a Fidelio to outdo all the competition? At the moment I am fully under the spell of Harnoncourt and will give this set a place of honour in my collection - but there are several worthy alternatives. The monumental Klemperer recording, now in EMI's GROC series, is almost universally hailed as one of the really great opera sets. It is at the opposite pole from Harnoncourt's and should be a healthy pick-me-up after the intoxication derived from Harnoncourt. Ferenc Fricsay's early stereo version for DG is splendid and so is the aforementioned Karl Böhm. The keenest competitor is however, in my view, Michael Halász's recording with Inga Nielsen, Gösta Winbergh, Alan Titus and Kurt Moll (Naxos 8.660070-71). Only diehard traditionalists will go far wrong with the Harnoncourt set and there are revelations aplenty for the unconverted.
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