Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio - opera in two acts (1804-05, rev. 1814)
Leonore - Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Florestan - Jon Vickers (tenor)
Don Pizarro - Hermann Uhde (baritone)
Rocco - Oskar Czerwenka (bass)
Marzelline - Laurel Hurley (soprano)
Jaquino - Charles Anthony (tenor)
Don Fernando - Giorgio Tozzi (bass)
First Prisoner - William Olvis (tenor)
Second Prisoner - Calvin Marsh (bass)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Karl Böhm.
rec. live (mono) 13 February 1960, Metropolitan Opera, New York City.
SONY CLASSICAL 8869785309 2 [69:25 + 58:52]

The management of the Metropolitan recently decided to release a clutch of broadcast recordings long jealously held in their vault and otherwise available only as pirates or dodgy imports. Their comparative rarity lends them a certain cachet, but closer inspection reveals that they are not necessarily as attractive as they first appear. First, they are all monaural and pretty scratchy, with a constant fluttering interference as background noise. Voices are well forward but the orchestra and chorus can be dim. Secondly, in some cases performance standards are variable; for instance, in the case of this Fidelio despite the star names, the supporting cast is very ordinary. Thirdly, those star singers are very often available in contemporary studio recordings of far superior quality – although the frisson of a live performance might be absent.

It is certainly the case that anyone who wants to hear Nilsson or Vickers in the principal roles here need only turn to two celebrated recordings by Maazel and Klemperer respectively – and they are in finer fettle in those studio recordings, even though their performances here remain impressive. Another possible attraction might be to hear Karl Böhm’s interpretation of the opera, though on the showing here I wonder why: he is in his most restless and impatient mode, harrying his singers to the extent that they cannot always make their points. Hermann Uhde in particular suffers from being mercilessly rushed so he cannot hit his considerable vocal stride; one has only to hear Berry for Klemperer or Tom Krause for Maazel to sympathise with him; Maazel seems to give his singers so much more time despite the fact that timings are often similar. It doesn’t help that Pizarro seems to lie a little low for Uhde, too.

Böhm’s unfeeling haste afflicts several key passages, not least the Prisoners’ Chorus and their absurdly jaunty farewell to the sunlight. You listen in vain for the poetry of Klemperer’s account and Böhm’s approach is not enhanced by the tremolo-ridden contribution of his First Prisoner. No-one can keep up in “O namenlose Freude” and even parts of “Abscheulicher” sound as if the great Birgit Nilsson is having to gabble. I was struck afresh by how big her voice sounds in this company; she doesn’t really do vulnerable all that convincingly, but the part frequently requires her to convey steely determination. As singing, her performance is electrifying and her top notes stunning.

I like the two lovers, who sing sweetly; their contribution to the celebrated quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar” is charming and for once Böhm gives the music some space to breathe. Oskar Czerwenka is a lumpen and lugubrious Rocco, making you long for Gottlob Frick or Kurt Moll. Giorgio Tozzi’s Don Fernando is soundly and sonorously vocalized but not a patch on Franz Crass for Klemperer.

Although I know some object to the dramatic propriety of doing so, Böhm’s inclusion of the Leonore No. 3 Overture as the prelude to the final scene provides a welcome bonus, but again, he takes it an absurd lick. It undoubtedly manufactures a kind of scurrying excitement to which the Met audience understandably responds; some clap - and are hushed by others - when it begins and they applaud again enthusiastically at its close. For repeated hearings, however, the rushed big tune must surely begin to sound ridiculous the way Böhm rattles through it. I much prefer the weighty, stately grandeur of Klemperer’s 1963 recording, included as an appendix in the EMI set.

There is also the issue of the quality of the Met’s orchestral playing. They are certainly no match for either the Vienna Philharmonic or the Philharmonia; we immediately hear horn bobbles the moment the overture begins and these recur throughout, most damagingly in the “Abscheulicher”. The strings cannot articulate the semiquavers in the fast passage of the Leonore overture and it all gets mushy.

There is a certain pleasure in being able to hear a good live performance from the Met dating back over fifty years, but I cannot say that this one to which I shall return; it is all too hectic for me.

A track-listing and synopsis only is provided in the booklet.

Ralph Moore

A certain pleasure in hearing a good live Met performance dating back over fifty years but this is all too hectic.