There was a time when Decca and the other major record labels
would issue important new opera recordings almost every month.
How long ago those days now seem! A new opera issue from Decca
is therefore unusual but this new Fidelio is of such quality
that it’s a major event in itself.
The recording is taken
from two concert performances at the 2010 Lucerne Festival. One
great benefit of that is that we have on the podium Claudio
Abbado, surely one of the fairly few conductors currently active
who justifies the use of the adjective ‘great’. In the pit is a
band made up from members of two stellar, hand-picked – and
interwoven - orchestras, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the
Lucerne Festival Orchestra. I should say straightaway that the
orchestral playing in this recording is of uncommon distinction.
The cast, which hasn’t a weak link, is dominated by
two exciting singers. The Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, whose
recording credits include Isolde in EMI’s Tristan (review) is a
wonderful Leonore while the German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, who
impresses me hugely every time I hear him, excels as Florestan
We have to wait until Act II to hear Kaufmann but when we do
hear him, what an impact he makes! At the very start of ‘Gott!
Welch Dunkel hier!’ he starts the word ‘Gott!’ almost inaudibly
and expands the sound to forte through a long and meticulously
controlled crescendo. Without access to a score I can’t say if
this is authentic; it’s a very different approach to the loud
cry with which Jon Vickers (for Klemperer) utters the word but
Kaufmann’s approach is just as effective – arguably more so – as
an anguished cry of despair. It’s an arresting moment. He goes
on to give a formidable account of the aria ‘In des Lebens
Frühlingstagen’, deploying a flawless technique and delivering
an emotionally charged reading. Just before ‘Und spür’ ich nicht
linde, sanft säuseinde Luft?’ the stage direction translates in
the booklet as “with a calm rapture, which nevertheless verges
on madness”. To my ears, Kaufmann follows this dictum splendidly
in the passage that follows.
As Leonore, Nina
Stemme has a much longer role to sing. Her voice seems very well
suited to the part. She has a gleaming top and yet there’s also
roundness and body in the lower register of the voice, enough to
remind us that several mezzos have been notable exponents of the
role. ‘Abscheulicher!’ is powerfully projected and then ‘Komm,
Hoffnung’ is movingly sung as she convincingly portrays
Leonora’s fears and courage. Later, in Act II she’s magnificent
in the confrontation trio with Florestan and Pizarro.
I said, there isn’t a weak link in the cast. Falk Struckmann is
a menacing, sinister Pizarro, though sometimes the vibrato he
deploys may be a little too much for some tastes. He conveys his
menace without recourse to any excessive histrionics; with a
stage presence such as this it’s no surprise that Rocco is in
thrall to him. As Rocco, Christof Fischesser is very convincing
as a fundamentally decent man obliged through fear to obey
Pizarro. Rachel Harmisch excels as Rocco’s daughter. She’s a
very fine Marzelline; her opening scene opposite Christoph
Strehl’s Jaquino is very well done by both singers. Towards the
end of the opera Peter Mattei gives a dignified portrayal of Don
The men of the Arnold Schoenberg Chor deliver a
superb Prisoners’ Chorus. Their hushed singing at the start
makes a tremendous impression. They are really believable as men
coming out into the light with a mixture of delight and
trepidation. The tenor section is particularly impressive, as it
is when the full choir is deployed for the finale.
mentioned the orchestral playing near the start of the review.
It’s absolutely marvellous. A dramatic and finely shaped account
of the overture sets the tone for the playing that’s to follow.
Under Abbado’s wise and inspiring direction the playing is full
of life and there’s conspicuous attention to detail. The horns
and woodwind give particular pleasure but the whole band is
magnificent. Unlike some conductors, Abbado does not interpolate
the Leonora No 3 overture into Act II. That’s absolutely the
right decision in the context of this performance but with an
orchestra of this calibre on hand to play it one feels a tiny
bit of regret for what might have been. The hushed orchestral
introduction to the Prisoners’ Chorus is breathtaking,
establishing a real tension, which the singers then take over.
And then again at the end of Act I the quiet ending is superbly
delivered by this first rate orchestra. As Act II opens they are
inspired by Abbado to suggest the oppressive surroundings of the
dungeon almost tangibly.
Abbado’s direction seems to me
to be flawless. He has the surest possible feel for the drama;
the pacing is consistently ideal. Although he ensures that all
the detail is brought out you never feel this is at the expense
of the flow of the music; he always has the Big Picture in view.
Coordination between pit and stage is excellent at all times. In
short this is conducting of the very highest order.
are several highlights in the opera, to which I’ve referred
above. However, one passage caught my ear so firmly that when I
first played through the set I stopped the disc and repeated the
passage immediately. It’s the section near the end of Act II,
immediately following Leonora’s ‘O Gott! - Welch ein Augenblick’
and Florestan’s response ‘O unaussprechlich süsses Glück!’ –
both lines movingly delivered. Then comes the short, subdued
ensemble (Track 8, 6:34 – 9:40), a stroke of genius on
Beethoven’s part as the singers express rapt joy. The quiet
dynamics and the wonderfully lyrical writing, not least in the
orchestra, make this a profound and affecting passage. It is
superbly conducted by Abbado and marvellously sung and played -
all very moving. It’s an ideal demonstration of the high
pedigree of this recording. The jubilant final pages, with
Kaufmann in ringing voice, are all the more effective as a
result of the way that this preceding passage has been handled.
This magnificent performance has been captured in first-rate
sound by Decca. Because it’s a concert performance there are no
distracting stage noises. Furthermore, I could detect no
audience noise at all, even when listening through headphones.
There’s no applause.
With magnificent singing and playing
and a great conductor on the podium this set is a winner. I’ve a
great admiration for both of Klemperer’s recordings – the studio
traversal (EMI - review) and the live Covent Garden version
(Testament). However, I’ve never felt so drawn in to Beethoven’s
drama before, nor so convinced by it. The arrival of this
Fidelio in the catalogue is an event of major importance and
surely this will be one of the most important releases of 2011.
I urge you to hear it.