My love-hate relationship with Fidelio by Beethoven

I have a love-hate relationship with ‘Fidelio’. On the one hand, I think it is a whole lot of rubbish, but on the other hand, I love the overture. And the quartet in the first act – a heavenly piece of music, if performed well.

Harnoncourt (Teldec 4509-94560-2)

Fidelio Harnoncourt cd

I particularly like the recording Nikolaus Harnoncourt made in 1995 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Charlotte Margiono is a fantastic Leonore and Peter Seiffert (Florestan) sounds like a young god. Also the young (yes, make no mistake! Don Ferrando is young!) Bo Skovhus sings the noble minister in a very natural way. Sergei Leiferkus (Don Pizarro) is also much more at home here than in Verdi’s operas.

I become a little sad when I see the names of László Polgár (Rocco) and Deon van der Walt (Jaquino) again: Polgár, a much beloved singer (not only in Amsterdam), died suddenly in September 2010. And Deon van der Walt was shot dead by his own father in November 2005 (who says life is not like opera?). The orchestra is very transparent and wonderfully light-hearted, something I enjoy very much.

Barenboim (Teldec 3984-25249-2)

fidelio barenboim

Now you may say: Fidelio light-hearted? I want thunder and lightning! In that case, your choice should be Daniel Barenboim. Here, not only is the orchestra (Staatskapelle Berlin) of almost Wagnerian proportions, so are the singers: Waltraud Meier (Leonore), Plácido Domingo (Florestan), Falk Struckman (Don Pizarrro), René Pape (Rocco), Kwangchul Youn (Don Fernando).
On the other hand the roles of Jaquino (Werner Güra) and Marzelline (Soile Isokoski) are wonderfully lyrical (although more heavily cast than usual). The tempi are solid but never punishing, and Barenboim conducts with verve.

Elder (GFOCD 004-06)

Fidelio Eldet

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the 2006 performance, recorded live in Glyndebourne for the Festival’s own label. Anja Kampe made her enthusiastically received debut there as Leonore. And rightly so. Rarely, if ever, has this role been sung with such beautiful lyricism and such fragility, making Leonore even more deserving of our respect for her heroic actions. In the spoken dialogues, moreover, Kampe shows herself to be an outstanding actress.

I am not a big fan of Torsten Kerl (Florestan), but the way he sings his great aria is outstanding. Lisa Milne (Marzelline) has stolen my heart with her lovely soprano and the rest of the cast is also fantastic. Mark Elder conducts the beautifully playing London Philharmonic Orchestra with great intensity.
It is a great pity that the production has not appeared on DVD, because all the reviews praised Deborah Warner’s direction. But even without seeing it, there is still a lot to enjoy.

The packaging is also very attractive: the two CDs are enclosed in a kind of booklet with a hard cover, with, besides the libretto, many rehearsal and performance photographs.

Harnoncourt (Arthouse 107111)

Fidelio kaufmann

On DVD the choice is also quite large and out of necessity I will limit myself to two recordings.

Already in 2004 (!) Jonas Kaufmann sang Florestan, in Zurich, conducted by Nicolaus Harnoncourt. The conductor has changed his vision audibly and the orchestra sounds heavier than on Teldec. He conducts with a firm hand and starts very quickly, only to calm down afterwards. I find it all too measured, too tight … At least it is for me.

Jürgen Flimm directed the film and he gives us, for him, rather realistic images, sometimes maybe even ‘too’ realistic. A fun fact: Flimm also directed and supervised the dialogues for the 1994 Teldec recording.

Lászlo Pólgár is a wonderful Rocco. I doubt if he is a perfect match for the role (physically then), especially with a (very weak) Elisabeth Magnus as his daughter, but just to be able to see that man again!

Camilla Nylund is a rather unemotional Leonore, but Kaufmann is an irresistible Florestan.

Haitink (Opus Arte BD OA7040)

Fidelio Haitink

Again in Zurich, but four years later in 2008, a new production of ‘Fidelio’ (they apparently love it there) was presented. The orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich is conducted very affectionately by Bernard Haitink, but then again – he has pretty much identified himself with Beethoven’s works.

He has also really thought about it: he finds the ideas behind the music much stronger than any political labels. He doesn’t care about updating, because the music itself is translucent, transparent and warm.

Harking back to the Mahlerian tradition, he puts “Leonore III” in the second act. However, he is a bit on the slow side.

Katharina Thalbach’s direction and Ezzio Tofolutti’s furnishings are very realistic, which is in line with Haitink’s ideas, but the costumes are a bit of everything. The dialogues are somewhat abbreviated, which I do not really consider a lack.

Lucio Gallo is a misfit for me. He portrays Don Pizzaro as an Italian mafia boss, but as the sort you’ll only see in the cinema. It is  all very exaggerated and his voice does not have the right timbre for the role.

Alfred Muff is better suited as Rocco than as Pizzaro four years earlier, but he too has had his day. Melanie Diener (Leonore) sings very adequately, and I have little to say about her acting, but she is not at all convincing as a man!

Robberto Saccà  is a great Florestan. More lyrical than we are used to, but I do not mind that at all. And although he does not look gaunt, his fantastic acting skills are enough to suggest his great suffering. I have also come to appreciate this singer more and more.

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