Although this is the 1814 version, it is important
to recall that Beethoven wrote the original in 1804 with all
the political upheaval that was then swirling around. The
tumbrils of France cast a long shadow over Europe, with the
Reign of Terror and its guillotine or incarceration for political
deeds or words. Couple that with Beethoven’s increasing isolation,
caused by his diminishing hearing, and his determination to
overcome it. Thus, it is not surprising that this supposedly
true story, upon which a play had been based, should have
such appeal for him. A husband’s incarceration below ground
for an unspecified offence coupled with the fearless determination
of his wife to release him mirror Beethoven’s view of this
This recording is one of a collection of fifteen
titles launched by Brilliant Classics with another fifteen
scheduled for release in December 2009. Their web-site tells
us that in the first batch “Many of (the) releases are award-winners
and will be instantly recognisable to consumers as classics”.
These releases include Callas/Tosca, Schwarzkopf/Marschallin
and Flagstad/Isolde. The website also gives brief background
to the writing of this opera whilst the booklet accompanying
the CD gives a synopsis and a list of track numbers. “What,
no libretto?” I hear you say. Not in the booklet, but there
it is on their easily navigable web-site.
If recordings are to be referenced by individual
names - as others are referred to above - then I suspect that
with Fidelio it is going to be the conductor who is
referred to more than any soloist. I say that because in my
own collection the recording that I tend to reach for is the
Klemperer of 1962, digitally re-mastered in 1994 (EMI CDS
5 55170 2) although the Barenboim of 1999 runs it close (Teldec
3984-25249-2). Therefore will this recording become the Dohnányi
Fidelio? Very possibly – but not necessarily for all
the right reasons.
This is a strong reading of the score with
the orchestra fully involved in the production. The pace is
generally brisk and occasionally at a gallop. What disappoints
me is the balance between wind and strings. The brass has
a clear role in this opera that this recording does not reflect:
I know not whether the microphones were in the ‘wrong’ place
but too often the brass sounds distant or even slightly muffled.
However, Gabriele Schnaut, in the title role,
is never muffled. She is a powerful Fidelio (Leonore) whom
I usually associate with her more frequent Wagnerian roles.
There are several opportunities for her to display her deeply
attractive and warm speaking voice commencing with her initial
exchanges with Kurt Rydl (the gaoler, Rocco). Her vocal acting
is excellent: an example is her eruption after the on-stage
plotting of Hartmut Welker (the prison governor Pizarro) and
Rydl. She starts with steady, controlled recitative before
moving into her truly dramatic soprano with some fairly horrible
leaps which she hits well. If there is a suggestion of a lack
of vocal strength in her lower register and a slight diminishing
of tonal beauty on high, it is more than made up for by her
evenness of head to chest transfers, her assurance of vocal
line and the believable drama with which she invests the role.
Not having appeared in Act I, Josef Protschka
(Florestan) never leaves the stage in Act 2. His introduction
to that second act, which leads into his aria, does not reflect
the bleakness of his situation. The colouring is too bland
with no serious darkness. Therefore there is no overwhelming
contrast between that section and the sudden breeze and light
as Rocco and Fidelio enter the dungeon bringing a gloom-relieving
spring in the music. Certainly Protschka displays that spring
with mounting excitement and dynamics. It would have appeared
in greater contrast if the first part had conveyed the apparent
hopelessness of his position.
The dependable Kurt Rydl is the pragmatic gaoler.
Rydl also has the gift of a warm-toned speaking voice. His
vocal skills make so clear his role as the reluctant accomplice:
with Schnaut, giving wine and bread to Protschka; with Hartmut
Welker (Pizarro) in the grave preparation - but convincingly
drawing the line at murder. Earlier he is the caring father
emphasising the importance of money to oil the wheels of love:
Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben. Rydl consistently
displays his vocal strengths in note accuracy, dynamics, colours
and tone. Really we would expect no less.
The Don Pizarro of Hartmut Welker only occasionally
sounds venomously evil. Pizarro is an out-and-out villain
with no sign of remorse or hope of redemption. Too frequently
Welker seems to mistake loudness for aggression. Critical
words are ‘just’ sung and not snarled: Er sterbe!...
sounds almost like an invitation. He also has the misfortune
to have a too enthusiastic orchestral accompaniment at his
initial entrance to the Act I finale.
Don Fernando is a small but important part.
Despite his undoubted class, Tom Krause does not quite bring
off the rescuing Minister’s authoritarian sound. Initially
when addressing the people there are signs of vocal effort.
Later there is only limited colouring and vocal involvement
in the recognition of Florestan and in the instructions to
release Florestan’s fetters.
Ruth Ziesak (Marzelline) and Uwe Heilmann (Jacquino)
set the opening ‘domestic’ lyrical scene with complementary
tones, brightness and strong vocal lines with subdued orchestral
support. Her aria is delivered with a firm vocal line and
an emphasis on the lightly lyrical longing of love.
Falk Struckmann as the prisoner is luxury casting:
eight years after this recording he became Pizarro on the
Barenboim recording - and a nasty piece of work he is there.
Here he delivers a soft-toned prisoner suddenly and temporarily
released into the light; a pleasure to hear.
The chorus, variously soldiers, prisoners or
villagers, are crisp and convincing with dynamics in plenty
- from whispering sentries for Pizarro to celebrating villagers.
So much for the individuals: I sometimes wonder
whether Beethoven was not more comfortable with a multiplicity
of voices. Certainly, for me, the writing for the ensembles
appears more assured. The canon Mir ist so wunderbar
is excellent. Ziesak’s ringing tone couples with Schnaut’s
tonal warmth, Rydl’s gentle depth and Heilmann’s supportive
tenor to cogent effect. Similar remarks apply to the thoroughly
enjoyable trio Gut, Söhnchen,gut (Schnaut/Ziesak/Rydl).
The interaction of Schnaut and Protschka is
fundamental to Act II: sadly, too often the orchestra becomes
a participant rather than a supporter. In the last duet, O
namenlose Freude!, the consequence of too much orchestral
weight is that Schnaut turns up her volume. From time to time
she loses both her tonal beauty and her pinpoint steadiness.
In conclusion there are some excellent features
on this recording but for me it does not disturb the supremacy
of the Klemperer recording.