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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
Fidelio (1814)
Florestan – Christian Elsner (tenor)
Leonore (Fidelio) – Lise Davidsen (soprano)
Rocco – Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
Marzelline – Christina Landshamer (soprano)
Jaquino – Cornel Frey (tenor)
Don Pizarro – Johannes Martin Kränzle (baritone)
Don Fernando – Günther Groissböck (bass-baritone)
First prisoner – Aaron Pegram (tenor)
Second prisoner – Choo Deng (bass)
Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, Male Voices of MDR-Rundfunkchor
Dresdner Philharmonie/Marek Janowski
rec. Kulturpalast Dresden, Germany, June and November 2020
Libretto with English translation enclosed
Reviewed as downloaded from digital press preview.
PENTATONE PTC5186880 SACD [66:10 + 43:09]

Fidelio has been quite fortunate in the recording studios since the good old days. My first encounter with it was the 1969 DG recording from Dresden under Karl Böhm (E4775584, download only, budget price, with pdf booklet) – heralding the company’s jumbo project of issuing most of Beethoven’s oeuvre during the following year’s bicentenary celebrations – and so often one’s first loves tend to be imprinted in one’s mind forever. But there have been excellent recordings both earlier and later. I haven’t heard all of them, but Fricsay (also DG, E4531062, also download only, budget price, no booklet) from the 1950s and Klemperer (EMI, now Warner 2564695614, budget price, CD and download – review of earlier reissue) from the early 1960s, have been universally hailed, in particular the latter. Harnoncourt (Teldec, now also Warner 4509945602, download only, super-budget price, no booklet – review of highlights) and Halász (Naxos 8660070-71, CD and download, budget price – review of highlights) both made splendid recordings in the 1990s, which adorn my bending shelves, and there have been a substantial number of other contenders as well.

The most recent is this Pentatone set, like Böhm’s from Dresden, but while Böhm had the Staatskapelle at his disposal, Marek Janowski has the Philharmonie, of which he at present is chief conductor. He has an impressive list of opera recordings to his credit, crowned by the complete Ring from the early 1980s. Here, 40 years later, he is still vital and alert and the drama unfolds fairly briskly. He skips the Leonora Overture No 3, which Böhm and several others play as an interlude between the two scenes of Act II, presumably to heighten the intensity and preserve the tension that has been built up in the first scene. From the conductor’s point of view this reading is certainly on a par with most of the competitors.

The singing is also, by and large, in the top flight. The secondary love couple, Jaquino and Marzelline, are well in the picture. Cornel Frey is an expressive character tenor and Christina Landshamer is a fresh-voiced Marzelline who twitters beguilingly in her aria, notwithstanding some unsteadiness that is easily forgiven in view of her charm. Georg Zeppenfeld, today developing as one of the leading basses in the German repertoire, is lighter and more baritonal than many of his predecessors in the role of Rocco – just think of Gottlob Frick’s pitch-black chief-jailor in the Klemperer recording – but he is expressive and has secure low notes. In a way he seems more human – but so do Franz Crass in the Böhm recording and Kurt Moll in the Naxos.

The scoundrel in this company is of course Pizarro, and I have to say that Johannes Martin Kränzle, whom I have greatly admired in both operatic roles as well as a lieder singer, is one of the nastiest of this breed. His entrance aria (CD 1 tr. 7) is one of the most horrifying I’ve experienced. It’s formidable and surpasses even Theo Adam’s horrible version in the Böhm recording, not least for his cleaner delivery, compared to Adam’s more rusty and grainy singing.

Most readers are probably waiting for my reaction to the young Norwegian comet in the dramatic soprano department, Lise Davidsen. Her calling card was a superb Wagner/Strauss recital not long ago, where she seemed equipped to shoulder the armour of Brünnhilde and Isolde as a follower of her Scandinavian predecessors Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson – Recommended review. Leonore/Fidelio is not exactly on the Brünnhilde level, but both Flagstad and Nilsson were successful in this role, and I think Ms Davidsen is set to fulfil the expectations. In her big scene (CD 1 tr. 9) she turns out to be powerful and dramatic but also sings beautifully with excellent legato in the lyrical moments, which are just as important in her aria. She has the power and intensity of both Flagstad and Nilsson without reminding much of either. The glorious final note is certainly spine-chilling.

For comparison there are separate recordings of this scene by both her predecessors and also complete recordings – Flagstad only in a live recording from the Met with Bruno Walter conducting in 1941 but well worth hearing, not only for her singing (West Hill WHRA6008, 4 CDs). Judging from Lise Davidsen’s first recital (I’ve yet to hear her second -  review: Recommended) and the present Fidelio she is already in the top layer of dramatic sopranos and I will be eagerly waiting for her next recording.

In Act II we also meet Florestan, the tortured spouse of Leonore, and his opening aria is one of the most gripping moments in this opera. Christian Elsner, today in his mid-fifties, started as a lyrical tenor, and was a fine lieder singer. But some fifteen years ago he changed over to heroic roles and in this capacity he has also been successful. His Florestan is still primarily a lyrical character, and he is actually rather close to Ernst Haefliger, who sang the role for Fricsay to great effect. He is nuanced, lyrical and sings In des Lebens … truly beautifully. He still has enough heft for the dramatic outbursts and he expresses the poor prisoner’s pain very convincingly. In the finale his voice is strained to the limits, but for dramatic truth this is not unbecoming. Dramatic tenors like Jon Vickers and James King may have been more convincing in this respect, but the vulnerability in Elsner’s reading is utterly touching.

Near the end we also encounter the Prime Minister Don Fernando who, like a Deus ex machina, arrives at the last moment and saves the hero and the heroine. Günther Groissböck, another rising German bass-star, has the nobility and expressivity needed for the role – even though he can’t quite erase the memory of Martti Talvela’s monumental Minister in the Böhm recording. It has also to be said that the choral forces are magnificent in the final scene, which becomes a jubilant homage to freedom. The excellent recording contributes a lot to the impact of the performance.

The spoken dialogue has been adapted by Katharina Wagner and Daniel Weber, and it is well delivered by the German-speaking cast. The only non-German member, Lise Davidsen, is utterly fluent and idiomatic but her speaking voice is curiously thinner and more girlish than her singing self.

Perhaps this new recording doesn’t exactly sweep the board, considering how many excellent recordings from yesteryear exist, but it is highly competitive and no one investing in it will regret the purchase.

Göran Forsling

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