The Times, July 1 2011
Geoff Brown
Nina Stemme/ Jonas Kaufmann: Fidelio
There’s an impressive depth and glow about the music-making in this live Fidelio, recorded at the Lucerne Festival
Jonas Kaufmann’s first note alone is a good reason to buy this new recording of Beethoven’s stirring opera. The note arrives early in Act II, when the hero Florestan, a political prisoner, is introduced chained in his underground dungeon. “Gott!” the wonder German tenor sings, unaccompanied, in a remarkably piercing and forceful crescendo, the musical equivalent of a widening chink of light suddenly thrown into the prisoner’s dank gloom. The effect makes your jaw drop, your pulse pause, your hairs stand on end.

What becomes before and after Kaufmann’s eruption isn’t for the dustbin, either.
From the start there’s an impressive depth and glow about the music-making in this live Fidelio, taken from the two concert performances at the Lucerne Festival last August. Claudio Abbado conducts with magisterial but selfless understanding. In the overture alone (Beethoven’s punchy fourth version is used) you feel electricity and humanity in every jabbing rhythm and lyrically sculptured phrase; while the tone of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, horns and woodwinds especially, is always lustrous. There’s beauty too in the confident ease of some of Abbado’s tempos: the great Act I quartet, Mir ist so wunderbar, spreads before us like a banquet from heaven.

Kaufmann’s colleagues don’t make the jaw drop as much or range so thrillingly between despair and joy. But none proves a blot on the landscape. Nina Stemme was making her role debut as Leonora, Florestan’s disguised wife; she sings with much thought and character, though for touching beauty in the aria Komm, Hoffnung she’s beaten by the orchestra’s horns. Falk Struckmann, as the prison governor Pizarro, avoids being a caricature baddie; while Christof Fischesser’s Rocco pointedly suggests the jailer’s cold fears and warmer sympathies. And I mustn’t forget the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, so softly moving as the prisoners in Act I, briefly tasting fresh air.

Celebrating freedom’s victory over tyranny, Fidelio always carries a contemporary resonance. It’s the opera that Syria and Libya desperately need. Lucerne’s concerts, hastily semi-staged by Tatjana Gürbaca, suggested modern times by draping singers with the ominous bulk of military greatcoats, draped as if hung out to dry. But we’re better off absorbing this performance, joyous and thrilling, just with our ears.

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