Even before it was released this recording
had the look of a winning combination: Haitink had successfully
conducted “Fidelio” at the Met and in 1989 Jessye Norman was still
in possession of the grandest voice since Flagstad in her prime.
In the event, despite its promise and the desirability of a new
interpretation in digital sound, this set turned out to be a disappointment.
In Norman’s case, a noble voice proved inadequate if it was not
paired with the sense of drama and acute facility with the text
evinced by rival interpreters such as Ludwig or Nilsson. Haitink
seems to have jettisoned the excitement which apparently characterised
his live performances in favour of a literalism which borders
on the inert. It is not so much the case that his speeds are slow,
as that he fails to phrase and that rhythms remain slack.
This melancholy conclusion holds good throughout a side-by-side comparison of the main features of this recording with those of the earlier sets conducted by Klemperer and Maazel. Take the famous Prisoners’ Chorus; Klemperer generates spiritual intensity, Maazel a searing desperation, and Haitink … well, virtually nothing other than a serviceable run-through. As Florestan and Pizarro, Vickers and Berry for Klemperer and McCracken and Krause for Maazel have twice the power of the generally light-voiced or simply inadequate singers available to Haitink. The tenor First Prisoner is dreadful. Andreas Schmidt has an attractive baritone with a fast vibrato, but can in no wise emulate the frisson that Franz Crass’s noble baritone creates for Klemperer when Don Fernando arrives to punish evildoers. I am mystified to read elsewhere rapturous appreciations of Wlaschiha’s windy, grainy Pizarro; wholly unable to conjure up the Grand Guignol of his predecessors’ assumptions through vocal means alone; he shouts and blusters his way through the part. Reiner Goldberg was probably at that time the best tenor of the type required that Decca could find. Even so, I have heard him sing with fuller, more attractive tone in other roles. Here his tone is frequently throttled. In comparison with both his stage wife and his illustrious recorded forebears, his inadequacy is all too plain to hear; he is like a male spider, vocally devoured by his mate.
There are bright spots. The glory of Norman’s singing as singing per se
is one – yet even Norman’s vocalism sounds to me at times not so much uncomfortable as manufactured in the upper reaches of her voice: the top Bs and B flats sound disjointed from the rest of the voice and I have already noted her lack of engagement with the text. Kurt Moll’s Rocco is almost a case of over-casting but he is as firm and as sonorous as ever, and makes much more of his words than Norman – even if his is a rather noble sound for a character who extols the joys of money. The dialogue is clearly, intelligently and pacily delivered. The Dresden Staatskapelle and the State Opera Chorus are fine – but the latter are outshone by both Wilhelm Pitz’s Philharmonia Chorus and the Vienna State Opera Choir, who sing with more power and expressivity. The recorded sound in the Lukaskirche is warm and spacious. There is some sweet, innocuous singing from the young lovers, Pamela Coburn and Hans Peter Blochwitz. Yet even the divine quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar” fails to take off; I turned with relief from Haitink’s stodgy version to Klemperer’s glowing account.
Comparisons are odorous, but unless you are a die-hard Jessye Norman fan-completist, or must have digital sound, I can see no good reason for preferring this to the classic versions by Klemperer and Maazel – or, for some tastes, those by Karajan and Bernstein.
This 2 CD set is one of a new series of bargain issues by Decca in crude, 1960s pop-art style sporting hideous, acidic colours. Despite their appearance, they are very good value, even if there is no libretto.