Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio (The triumph of married love) - Opera in Two Acts. Op.72 (1814)
Leonore/Fidelio, wife of a political prisoner - Christa Ludwig (soprano); Florestan, her husband - James King (tenor); Rocco, gaoler - Joseph Greindl (bass); Pizarro, Prison Governor - Walter Berry (baritone); Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter in love with Fidelio - Lisa Otto (soprano); Jaquino, assistant gaoler, in love with Marzelline - Martin Vantin (tenor); Don Fernando, Governor of the Province - William Dooley (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin/Arthur Rother
Stage Director: Gustav Rudolf Sellner
Set and Costumes: Wilhelm Reinking
rec. live, Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1962-1963
PCM Mono. Picture Format 4:3. DVD 9 NTSC.
Subtitles in German (original language), English, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 101597 [124:00]
History often has an important part to play in the composition and performance of opera. This relationship brings the present performance, in black and white, into the public domain after fifty years. Often such issues on DVD are influenced by the presence of a great conductor or roster of artists. Worthy as these factors are in this case it is the historical associations that are paramount. The performance celebrated the opening of the Deutsche Oper Berlin on 7 November 1912 under the title of Deutsches Opernhaus.
The new opera house was built as a speculative venture to profit by performing Wagner operas, due to their come out of copyright in 1914. It opened with a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio and it was that opera that was chosen for the 50th anniversary concert on 7 November 1962. This DVD derives from a film of the production made for TV and transmitted on 17 June 1963, the tenth anniversary of the popular uprising in the then German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
Looking back on musical history it seems strange to us today that Beethoven, widely recognised as the pre-eminent composer of his time, only managed to write one opera and that after two unsatisfactory trials and much revision. As the son of a singer and grandson of a former Kapellmeister, Beethoven must have become familiar as a boy with theatrical repertoire. In later years, in Bonn and then Vienna, he certainly encountered a wide operatic repertoire. In both cities Beethoven contributed music for theatrical productions providing a score in Vienna for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. He also wrote arias for use in operas by other composers. It was not until 1803 that he started work on what was to be his only opera. Fidelio based on a French play Leonora or Conjugal love of 1798. It’s a typical rescue opera, deriving from an incident during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
The translator of the German version of the French play was given the job of director of the Theater-an-der-Wien, replacing the actor-manager Emanuel Schikaneder, author of the libretto of Mozart's Die Zauberflote. In accordance with terms already agreed with Schikaneder, Beethoven occupied rooms at the theatre during the composition. These were at the very advantageous rate of free lodging during the composition and ten per cent of the box office proceeds from the first ten performances The new lessee of the theatre renewed this arrangement. The first sketches of Beethoven’s Leonore, his favourite title, date from 1803 and are contemporaneous with his Eroica symphony.
Beethoven worked assiduously and meticulously throughout 1804 and 1805 making many sketches including eighteen for Florestan’s first aria. To avoid confusion with Paer’s opera based on the same play, Beethoven's work was given under the title Fidelio. Blighted by poor casting and the invasion of Vienna by Napoleon shortly before the premiere in November 1805, it was greeted poorly by a sparse audience. Beethoven withdrew it after three performances.
Friends encouraged Beethoven to shorten the work with a revised libretto of two acts instead of three. This revision was performed at the end of March 1806, this time with the third of the Leonore overtures, now best known in concert performance. It was then withdrawn, apparently through Beethoven's dissatisfaction either with the performance or the financial results after two performances. When Beethoven published music from the opera himself, he used his preferred title of Leonore.
It was not until 1814, after further revision and changes in the libretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke, an actor who had quickly risen in 1802 to the position of poet and stage-manager of the German Court Theatre, that the opera as Fidelio was again staged in Vienna. The Fidelio overture was not ready for the first performance on 23 May 1814 but was available for the second performance, three days later. It is in this final revision, with the new overture, that the opera Fidelio, as it is now known, was premiered. Leonore overture number three is often given as an introduction to the second act.
The name Fidelio is assumed by the heroine, Leonore, who disguises herself as a boy. She takes employment under the gaoler Rocco in the prison where her husband Florestan is kept by his enemy, the prison governor Don Pizarro. She is able to rescue her husband from imminent death as trumpets announce the arrival of the King’s Governor. Leonore and her husband get their freedom whilst Don Pizarro gets his due, a shot being heard off stage after he has been lead away with a hood over his head.
The conductor of this celebratory performance, Artur Rother, had been a mainstay of the house and had been personally involved in much of its former history. After joining in 1934 in the 28 years leading up to the anniversary he had conducted no fewer than 66 premieres. He is no mere routinier, conducting a well paced and dramatically involving performance. The production was in the hands of theatre director Gustav Rudolf Sellner and his chief set designer Wilhelm Reinking. It is a traditional production - Regietheater had not yet raised its head in East Germany - with costumes and set all within period. The picture is sharp with close-ups predominating giving little opportunity to see the set as a whole. The sound with limited treble is a little fierce.
Many of the singing cast would go on to international careers and appear in these roles, and many others, at some of the best operatic addresses. There are several particularly notable interpretations. First and foremost is the masculine-looking Leonore of Christa Ludwig. With a Presley haircut, any impressionable young lass would be taken by him as Fidelio. Her singing of the demanding Abscheulicher (CH.16) is appealing in tone, expression and lyricism; no wonder she became a favourite of Karajan and Klemperer among others. Likewise Walter Berry who sings strongly and portrays a particularly brutal Pizarro with flashing eyes and malevolent facial expression. Berry conveys Pizarro’s cynicism perfectly as he plays with a bag of money and tries to bribe Rocco (CH.15). Add vocal bite and his portrayal is particularly demonic and chilling. It is easy to understand Rocco’s abject fear of him. In the latter role the more experienced and physically imposing Joseph Greindl portrays both a sympathetic father to Marzelline alongside his moral equivocation in respect of his prisoner and his fear of Pizarro. His vocal and acted contribution in the two trios (CHs 10 and 30) and quartets (CHs 6 and 32) as well as in the duets between Rocco and Fidelio and Pizarro does much to anchor the whole performance; albeit he has an unsteady moment in his aria (CH.8).
The often-underrated James King, his slim lithe figure belying the strength of his true lyric tenor tone, is a tower of acting and singing strength, hitting the demanding notes of his big aria at the start of act 2 with impact and accuracy (CHs.25-26). The young Lisa Otto plays an impressionable and winsome young girl to perfection. She sings with light tone, vocal flexibility and good characterisation (CH.4). It’s a poignant moment when she realises that her Fidelio is in fact the wife of the prisoner in the dungeon, and that she should perhaps not have spurned Jaquino’s advances. As her suitor Jaquino, Martin Vantan is less than ideal, looking too old and rather starchy as he presses his suit (CH.3). The chorus are outstanding (CHs.10 and 36) and the finale is realised with drama as Don Ferrando hands Leonore the keys to release her husband from his shackles (CH.37).
Robert J Farr
A dramatically cohesive house production from yesteryear with an excellent cast in a production without gimmicks.