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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fidelio, opera in two acts, Op 72 (1814)
Florestan (political prisoner) – Christian Elsner (tenor)
Leonore (his wife - a noblewoman of Seville - disguised as Fidelio, a prison guard) – Lise Davidsen (soprano)
Rocco (chief jailer) – Georg Zeppenfeld (bass)
Marzelline (his daughter) – Christina Landshamer (soprano)
Jaquino (assistant to Rocco) – Cornel Frey (tenor)
Pizarro (prison governor) – Johannes Martin Kränzle (baritone)
Fernando (king’s minister) – Günther Groissböck (bass-baritone)
First prisoner – Aaron Pegram (tenor)
Second prisoner – Choo Deng (bass)
Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, Male Voices of MDR-Rundfunkchor Leipzig
Dresdner Philharmonie/Marek Janowski
rec. June and November 2020, Kulturpalast Dresden, Germany
Libretto with English translation provided
PENTATONE PTC5186880 SACD [66:10 + 43:09]

In April 2020, a series of live concert stagings of Fidelio by the Dresdner Philharmonie led by chief conductor Marek Janowski were to be recorded in the Kulturpalast in Dresden. The concerts were withdrawn due to the closure of concert halls and opera houses. A month later almost all of the cast became available for a studio recording at the same venue, under social distancing measures. The result is this recording, widely advertised as featuring soprano Lise Davidsen in the role of Leonore.

In addition to Davidsen, Janowski’s cast features Christina Landshamer, Christian Elsner and Georg Zeppenfeld. He conducts a commendable performance – I certainly enjoy it – and the star singer Davidsen as Leonore is in fine form. One would be remiss, however, not to compare any new Fidelio against the stiffest competition: Otto Klemperer’s legendary 1962 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus. Klemperer’s producer at Kingsway Hall in London was the incomparable Walter Legge, and the stellar cast included Christa Ludwig, Jon Vickers, Gottlob Frick and Walter Berry. The original Columbia UK (EMI) release on three LPs was remastered and reissued on CD by EMI Classics (review); my recommendation is Paul Arden Taylor’s 2013 remastering on Alto. Both CD sets include the Leonore Overture No. 3 recorded in 1963 at Kingsway Hall.

Marek Janowski conducts the Dresdner Philharmonie at a pace that feels somewhat cautious, but they respond commendably. Klemperer’s nearly ideal tempo produces impressive intensity and drama which begins with a striking Fidelio Overture.

Marzelline, the jailer’s daughter, is in love with Fidelio, her father’s new assistant. In her aria O wär' ich schon mit dir vereint (I wish we were married), she dreams of a happy life with Fidelio. Soprano Christina Landshamer, born and bred in Munich, sings brightly but rather lacks in personality. Klemperer’s characterful German coloratura soprano Ingeborg Hallstein (also Munich-born) is in clear and fresh voice.

Marzelline, Leonore, Rocco and Jaquino have a celebrated ensemble number, the act-one canonic quartet Mir ist so wunderbar (I feel so wonderful), known as the Canon Quartet or Wunderbar Quartet. Everyone sings about Marzelline’s love for Fidelio from their own perspective. Christina Landshamer, Lise Davidsen, Cornel Frey and Georg Zeppenfeld sing well but hardly anyone can match the glorious effect of Klemperer’s soloists Christa Ludwig, Ingeborg Hallstein, Gottlob Frick and Gerhard Unger. Each voice of Klemperer’s quartet is clear and splendidly distinct, yet the combination conveys a hymn-like veneration.

German bass Georg Zeppenfeld sings Rocco’s aria from act one Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben (Unless you do not have gold as well). He wants to betroth Fidelio to his daughter, and sings how a happy marriage needs gold to succeed. This is most agreeable singing of the Gold aria. Zeppenfeld is blessed with a natural ease of projection and is reasonably expressive, if short on the comedy in Rocco’s character. But the German bass Gottlob Frick known as ‘The Blackest Bass’ is in a different league. His rich, characterful tones have a special authority that stays long in the memory.

Prison governor Pizarro sings his act-one aria with chorus Ha! Welch' ein Augenblick! (Ha! Time has come now!). Pizarro has illegally imprisoned Florestan and is slowly starving him to death. Accusations of cruelty at the prison persuade minister of state Fernando to arrange an inspection, so Pizarro decides to murder Florestan to avoid the exposure of his brutal actions. Bavarian-born baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle sings well, with satisfying indignation, yet his characterisation lacks the wickedness expected of a tyrant. This time, Klemperer’s Pizarro Walter Berry, the Vienna-born bass-baritone, also falls a little short on villainy.

Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, our Leonore here, has quickly gained international recognition, and has been compared to the great Scandinavian sopranos Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson. Davidsen is excellent in Leonore’s magnificent if daunting act-one aria Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? Komm, Hoffnung (You brute, where are you rushing to? Come, hope); the aria has horn accompaniment in the Adagio section. Leonore is reacting emotionally after hearing that Florestan will be cruelly killed. She resolutely promises that love and duty will drive her to intervene and save him.

This key aria is one of the highlights of the opera. The talented Davidsen's singing is high on dedication and sincerity. She can project her substantial and durable voice with seemingly little effort. But despite her mid-range remarkable breath control and level of expression, I am not quite convinced she gets inside the character. Does she communicate emotion here? Probably, but only to a point. As she advances through her top register, her vibrato becomes increasingly noticeable under pressure, and can become more trying than enriching. It does not help Davidsen’s clarity that her voice seems to partially sink into the downy string sound on the recording. Klemperer’s Leonore is Christa Ludwig, a mezzo-soprano who also sang dramatic soprano roles. In 1962, the Berlin-born Ludwig was in her prime. Leonore’s range may not have entirely suited her, but she manages the challenges of the role adeptly, especially the characterisation.

The best-known moment of Fidelio may be the famous Prisoners’ Chorus from act one. The wretched band of prisoners emerge from the terrible conditions of the cells. They respond to the joy of light and fresh air with the words O Welche Lust! (O what a joy). The Staatsopernchor Dresden and male voices of the MDR-Rundfunkchor sing effectively, although the sound of the voices has not been caught with the level of focus that I prefer. Klemperer’s Philharmonia Chorus, led by renowned chorus master Wilhelm Pitz, makes quite an effect; they sing movingly, with a hymn-like gratitude and sincerity.

Florestan’s recitative and aria Gott! Welch Dunkel hier (Oh God! What darkness here), known as the Dungeon aria, opens act two. Unjustly deprived of freedom, held in solitary confinement and chained to the dungeon wall, the suffering Florestan performs a cheerless soliloquy as he ponders his fate. In the aria’s second section In des Lebens Frühlingstagen (In the spring days of my life), he begins to reflect on his life before the incarceration. He experiences a glorious visitation by an angel representing Leonore, who will rescue him, restore his liberty and guide him to heaven. German tenor Christian Elsner does not shine. It is an unremarkable performance of this crucial aria. I have seen Elsner perform live in concert when he was at his best, but on this evidence his vocal qualities are waning. Klemperer’s Florestan, the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, has a substantial voice of notable power. He gives his all to the role, communicating Florestan’s despair and torment in boldly dramatic manner.

Elsner with Davidsen in the duet O namenlose Freude! (Oh, what boundless happiness!) are a welcome improvement. They give a credible portrayal of Leonore and Florestan’s heartrending yet inspiring reunion. Ludwig and Vickers excel in the same aria. They convey persuasively a sense of relief and joy.

This is a hybrid SACD but I listened to it on my standard CD unit. The sound required much tedious volume adjustment. The opera was recorded in studio conditions with an extended stage at Kulturpalast. The warm sound with soft focus comes at the expense of clarity, and decidedly affects the strings. The sound on Klemperer’s recording at the Kingsway Hall is remarkable despite its age: immediate, crystal-clear with plenty of instrumental detail, and well balanced. Sometimes the singing style is the only giveaway of the Klemperer recording’s vintage.

Appreciation is owed to Pentatone for its comprehensive booklet. The libretto comes with an English translation. Steffen Georgi’s splendid essay Fidelio concertante - an exceptional project considers the role of each character in turn. The Klemperer budget reissue on Alto has no libretto, just James Murray’s helpful essay with a potted history of each singer.

Neither Janowski’s nor even Klemperer’s account is without fault; no performances are. Crucially, Klemperer’s roster of main performers and (surprisingly, given its age) sound quality are far more to my taste. There is little to choose between either conductor’s outstanding orchestral and choral forces. My conclusion: this new Fidelio is a praiseworthy account but not a great one. I reserve that accolade for Klemperer’s classic 1962 recording.

Michael Cookson

Previous reviews: Göran Forsling ~ Ralph Moore

A survey of Fidelio recordings: Ralph Moore

Background to the opera
Beethoven’s revolutionary composition, sometimes known as a ‘rescue opera’, speaks against oppression and political dictatorship. The appetite for enlightenment, freedom and morality is still intense today, over two-hundred years later. A key work in the Austro-German opera tradition, Fidelio had been chosen to mark significant occasions. For example, it was the first opera staged in 1945 in Berlin after World War Two; the Städtische Oper played at the Theater des Westens. Fidelio marked the re-opening of the Staatstheater Dresden in 1948 and the Wiener Staatsoper in 1955. (I saw my first live Fidelio in 2018; I reported from Semperoper Dresden. Ádám Fischer led a Staatsoper Dresden revival of Christine Mielitz’s justly renowned staging which seems fresh and contemporary-looking thirty years later.)

Emanuel Schikaneder, the director of the Vienna Theatre-an-der-Wien commissioned Beethoven in 1803 to write an opera. Beethoven chose the German libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner; it was a reworking of a French novel/play Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal (1794) by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, based it seems on an actual incident in France. The action was moved to Spain due to political sensitivities. In the story, the tyrannical prison governor Pizarro has Florestan secretly incarcerated for his political activities, and kept in a dungeon in a fortress prison close to Seville. Florestan’s loyal wife Leonore, disguised as a male prison guard Fidelio, helps her husband escape.

Fidelio was clearly Beethoven’s response to the political instability in Europe at the time: the French Revolution and especially the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic Wars. It seems very likely that the libretto’s emphasis on an individual’s redemptive potential and heroism was a significant motivation for Beethoven.

Fidelio, oder Die eheliche Liebe (Fidelio, or The conjugal Love) was premiered in 1805 in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien. The three-act opera opened with what came to be known as the Leonore Overture No. 2. To avoid possible accusations of subversion, government censors had examined the libretto. Vienna was then occupied by Napoleon’s forces, so it was not surprising that the first audiences were disappointingly small. Many French officers were present.

Beethoven was not happy with the score. He rewrote it considerably, composed a new overture now known as Leonore No. 3, and Stephan von Breuning’s revised libretto reduced the work to two acts. This second version was introduced in 1806 as Leonore oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (Leonore, or The Triumph of marital love). The opera was better received, yet soon withdrawn. Beethoven subjected the score to more revision. He wrote a fourth and final overture, now known as the Fidelio Overture. Friedrich Treitschke modified the libretto and dramaturgy. This third version, introduced in 1814 at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, is the Fidelio we know today. (The present account uses an adaptation of the spoken libretto prepared by Katharina Wagner and Daniel Weber.)

Beethoven described Fidelio as ‘a child of sorrow’, saying that it had caused him ‘more birth pains than any other’. Despite all the trials and tribulations, Fidelio has been enduringly popular ever since.

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