The Classical Review, 18 July 2011
By Richard Whitehouse
Having traversed almost the entire cycle of Mahler symphonies, it was inevitable that Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra turn their attention elsewhere. Fidelio seems a good choice, not least because it is a new addition to the conductor’s varied discography but also because its innate idealism finds a conceptual parallel in his ‘orchestra of soloists’. Indeed, the instrumental component is surely the most notable aspect of this undertaking: seldom can Beethoven’s symphonically conceived score have been rendered with such textural transparency – laying bare all manner of detail normally absent on recordings, let alone in the opera house. Interpretively, matters are rather more equivocal.

An incisive though rather low-key approach to the overture is a foretaste of a First Act which, particularly in its opening scene, gives but minimal indication of the drama to follow – not least in the quartet ‘Mir ist so wunderbar,’ which unfolds here as a sequence of subtly differentiated vocal lines with little delineation of character. Tension increases thereafter, but the fateful duet ‘Jetzt, Alter, hat es Eile!’ feels almost too understated while the prisoners’ chorus (‘O welche Lust’) is overtly passive in its rapture.

Come Act 2, and the dungeon scene builds to an impressive climax – offstage trumpet calls ideally distanced – though the final scene of reconciliation, while lacking nothing in dynamism, ties up the theatrical loose ends with insufficient sense of the emotional (and, in consequence, social and political) issues that are being addressed: qualities that have made this a perennially relevant opera in the two centuries since its near-disastrous premiere.

There are no significant weaknesses among the soloists. Nina Stemme is an ardently committed Leonore, rising to the challenges of her horn-led scene in Act 1 (‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?’) with palpable resolve, while a hint of strain in Jonas Kaufmann’s Florestan is put to productive use in the fraught emotions which define his comparable aria at the beginning of Act 2 with its no less spellbinding oboe obbligato, though neither singer sounds wholly at ease during their ecstatic duet ‘O namenlose Freude!’.

Falk Struckmann’s Don Pizarro is nastiness rather than evil incarnate, witness the bravura handling of his Act 1 aria ‘Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!’, while Christof Fischesser’s bluff though by no means insensitive Rocco is evident from his solo contribution, ‘Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben’. Rachel Harnisch and Christoph Strehl are well matched as the destined-to-be lovers Marzelline and Jaquino, while Peter Mattei makes a gallant if not ideally authoritative Don Fernando.

The Arnold Schoenberg Choir handles its appearances as soldiers, prisoners and townsfolk with conviction while, as already indicated, the playing of the Lucerne Festival forces (augmented by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra) can hardly be faulted. Nor is the recording – made during semi-staged performances in August 2010 in the KKL venue favored by this orchestra – other than admirable in clarity and sense
of perspective. The booklet has an informative introduction by The Classical Review’s Thomas May and well-chosen illustrations, along with libretto, (English and French) translations and synopsis.

Those coming to Fidelio afresh will find this an excellent way into the opera, though it cannot be denied that a number of other recordings yield greater theatrical impact: Otto Klemperer (Testament) remains unsurpassed in this regard, while Leonard Bernstein (DG) overcomes inconsistencies in casting with his sheer dynamism of direction, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Warner) offers an account of comparable scale but appreciably greater intensity. By comparison, Abbado’s is a reading to live with, but not to die for.

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