BayAreaReporter, 7.7.2011
by Tim Pfaff
Faith in marriage act
Like George Orwell's 1984 – even now, a quarter-century past its scare-by date – Beethoven's Fidelio of 1814 seems both more timely and more prophetic at its every outing. The stunning, game-changing, just-released live recording of opera's greatest one-off, conducted by Claudio Abbado and taped at last August's Lucerne Festival (Decca), would have arrived to resonant headlines whenever it appeared.

Every day brings news that recalls one aspect of the story at the heart of Fidelio – the unjust, torturous incarceration of political dissidents. Yet, as music sage Michael Steinberg pointed out, the opera's other heart is its delirious exaltation of married love and its power to rescue, heal, and ennoble. Like the opera's source, all the versions of Fidelio up to the one of 1814 bore the subtitle Or marital love. Throughout the opera, but particularly in its blazing C Major climax, there's no mistaking Beethoven's full-throated championship of a love he would never know.

From Handel to Mozart, fortuitous marriages announced as happy endings, in the manner of Jane Austen novels, are an 18th-century opera commonplace. But there are few great operas between Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria in the 17th century and Smetana's Dalibor at the end of the 19th that portray the power of conjugal love throughout. Fine as those two are, Fidelio towers over them. And this new Fidelio – radical in its extremes of tempo, dynamics and feeling, yet ideally balanced due to Abbado's penetrating, unifying vision of the work – elevates it another step in the ranks of the greatest of operas.

I don't anticipate many gay couples will be marching down the aisle to "O namenlose Freude" ("O unnamable joy") – though it's a pity, because it would work – but the release of this recording, at its best in that marital love story, is a fitting echo of the "I [Heart] New York" sentiment (and promising signs elsewhere) seizing our community and, in ways Beethoven would have appreciated, merging the matter of conjugal love with issues of political justice and freedom.

If that weren't enough, the set arrives in the nick of time for Ring crazies looking into a harsh, Nina Stemme-less future. The woman who tore up the War Memorial as Bruennhilde is Abbado's Leonore, and she lays claim to being Hildegarde Behrens' natural successor in the role. She needn't worry about getting typecast as the husband-rescuing (or, in Wagner, husband-redeeming) woman, unless she's also got her eye on either of the plum soprano roles in Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten. But maybe now's the time to point out that, on the evidence of Behrens' example, Stemme might be wise to keep singing Leonore (and an Aida or two) between the Bruennhildes she's likely to be booked for throughout the rest of her career.

But in this recording, where her acting in the dialogue is almost better even than her singing, she's the consummate team player in what turns out to be the consummate team. Fidelio has been well-served on recordings, but this one launches it into a new dimension. It's like a Rorschach, or a mirror. You don't just hear something new in it every time, you hear something different in it each time you venture in, and venture is exactly what you do.

It's easy to allege that too much has been made of Abbado's scrapes with death from cancer over the last decade and more. But there's really not a better way of explaining music-making as free as his. Abbado's Fidelio is so true to the work that you could miss its genius if you didn't give yourself to it completely. But if you do, as fully as Abbado, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Lucerne Festival Orchestra, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and an unbeatable lineup of soloists do, it's like visiting a land with different gravity and atmospheric gases.

More than any other conductor working, Abbado has taken the insights of the historical performaniacs and fused them with the best of what modern musicians and their very advanced instruments can do. The revelations abound and astound. You start to pick up the whirling energy – beyond time signature, beyond tempo marks – that carries this urgent music as if on a single breath.

Time stops as it always does, and must, in the "Mir ist so wunderbar" quartet, and speeds out of control (per Beethoven's direction "with a calm rapture, which nevertheless verges on madness") in Florestan's cabaletta, "I see a rosy-haloed angel." But the wonder is the way music taken to such extremes by these highly advanced musicians also so effortlessly dovetails back in on itself, not just cohering but shuddering with the biology of this protean score.

The pitch of ecstasy tenor Jonas Kaufmann achieves in that music – after opening his big aria with a swell on the word "Gott" that goes from the inaudible to full howl – is in an instant (or an eternity, if you prefer) balanced by the extraordinary breadth and slowness of the orchestral chords at the end of the passage. It's dizzying, elemental and so deft you almost miss it.

So don't.

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