Gramophone 6/2005
Alan Blyth
Beethoven: Fidelio
A taut and tense traversal of a familiar work, very personally conducted
Alfred Muff Don Pizarro ; Camilla Nylund sop Leonore ; Elizabeth Magnuson sop Marzelline ; Jonas Kaufmann ten Florestan ; Boguslaw Bidzinski ten First Prisoner ; Christoph Strehl ten Jaquino ; László Polgár bass Rocco ; Günther Groissböck bass Don Fernando ; Gabriel Bermúdez bass Second Prisoner
Zurich Opera House Chorus; Zurich Opera House Orchestra/Nikolaus Harnoncourt TDK New DVD DV-OPFID (134 minutes)
Although I have reservations about the staging, this is by and large a consistent and engrossing experience, especially on the musical side. Harnoncourt, as he showed in his CD version (Teldec, 10/95), has – as always – decided views on the work in hand as regards tempi and texture. This predominantly light but dramatic reading harks back to the 18th century rather than forward to the 19th, with romantic feeling at a premium. The orchestra foretells the rest in its crisply accented rhythms, clean sound and sense of the impending drama: they play splendidly.

Once the curtain is up, we realise that Jürgen Flimm is to offer a fairly minimalist production, one set more-or-less in period and concentrating – rightly – on the characters of the principals. Marzelline (the bright-voiced Elizabeth Magnuson) and Jaquino are preparing guns and ammunition for the troops. She is bossy, he slightly sadistic. By contrast, Rocco – a wonderfully moving, warm and eloquent performance from László Polgár – is kindly, cowed by his surroundings, and alert to every nuance of feeling in those around him. His body language and his eyes tell us everything about the jailer’s torment.

Leonore, in the arresting figure of Camilla Nylund, is slim and appealing, truly believable as a young man. At first she presents Leonore as matter-of-fact, but that is a cover for true emotions, and she becomes more and more tense as the first act proceeds. Her singing, in the modern way, is lighter than one would have expected of yore. Every note is well placed, united into a real legato projected on a compact, firm tone. ‘Abscheulicher’ has practically all the sense of anger and longing for release it should have, wanting only a little of the warmth of Sena Jurinac or Hildegard Behrens on CD. Alfred Muff’s Pizarro, more conventional, is always a hateful presence, as he should be.

Act 2 introduces us to Jonas Kaufmann’s Florestan, again a portrayal more youthful than one has become accustomed to – truly he is still in his spring days as he recounts in his Scena – singing with accuracy and feeling, though he may find more in the words and notes in years to come. He and Nylund make ‘O namenlose Freude’, taken at an extraordinarily slow tempo, more an inward expression of release than the usual excited one. In the finale, Don Fernando looks far too inexperienced to be Minister.
The simple, somewhat geometric sets, sensitively lit, house a direction that sometimes becomes fussy in detail. At too many points, essential lines of dialogue have been omitted and key moments in the action are mistimed. That seldom matters when the characters relate so movingly to each other, especially in the dungeon scene.

In support, the Zurich Opera forces sing and play with well-prepared assurance under Harnoncourt’s concentrated and elevating direction. For all these advantages, I sometimes felt that the thrust of Beethoven’s universal message goes missing by comparison with some of the many great accounts on disc or with the Dohnányi version on DVD from Covent Garden: more weightily played and sung, it has different, though equally valid, virtues to this newcomer. The sound could be a bit more immediate; the video direction is for the most part perceptive.

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