30 December 2015

RECORDING OF THE MONTH / December 2015: Ludwig van Beethoven — FIDELIO (É. Marton, J. King, A. Haugland, L. Watson, T. Moser, T. Adam, T. Krause, H. Hiestermann, K. Rydl; ORFEO C 908 152)

CD REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven - FIDELIO (ORFEO C 908 152)LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): Fidelio, Opus 72Éva Marton (Leonore), James King (Florestan), Aage Haugland (Rocco), Lillian Watson (Marzelline), Thomas Moser (Jaquino), Theo Adam (Pizarro), Tom Krause (Don Fernando), Horst Hiestermann (Erster Gefangener), Kurt Rydl (Zweiter Gefangener); Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsoper; Wiener Philharmoniker; Lorin Maazel, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during the Salzburger Festspiele in the Großes Festspielhaus on 5 August 1983; ORFEO C 908 152; 2 CDs, 138:20; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), and major music retailers]

Whether presented in concert or in fully-staged form, whether in the guise in which it was first performed in 1805, the final version of 1814, or any other conflation of surviving materials, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio makes demands upon conductors, musicians, and singers that, in the two centuries since the composer’s final thoughts on the score were introduced to the public in Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater, have only occasionally been met with complete success. Since its inception in 1920, the Salzburger Festspiele has often witnessed momentous performances of Fidelio, including those in 1936 with Lotte Lehmann in the title rôle, unforgettable evenings in 1949 and 1950 on which Kirsten Flagstad’s Leonore donned Fidelio’s trousers in order to liberate Julius Patzak’s Florestan, and nights in 1957 and 1958 when Christel Goltz’s formidable voice resounded in the Felsenreitschule. To the document of the 1957 production already in the label’s catalogue ORFEO now adds a good-quality Österreichischen Rundfunks broadcast recording of the Salzburg Fidelio performance of 5 August 1983. Preserved in slightly boxy sound that faithfully reproduces the impact of large voices in the Großes Festspielhaus, the performance heard on ORFEO’s discs surprises by legitimately meriting inclusion among the preeminent Fidelios of the Festspiele’s distinguished history. The 1982 and 1983 Salzburg productions of Fidelio were conducted by Lorin Maazel, who presided over a DECCA studio recording of the opera with Birgit Nilsson and James McCracken nearly two decades before the performance on this ORFEO release. At Salzburg, Maazel clearly approached Fidelio not as an operatic warhorse with more than a century-and-a-half of accumulated performance traditions but as a still-evolving, still-relevant work of timeless, untiring sensibilities. The technical brilliance with which the Wiener Philharmoniker and Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsoper meet the formidable demands of Beethoven’s music is expected, of course, and there are remarkable feats of virtuosity in this performance, especially from the horns. Both the Ouvertüre and Leonoren-Ouvertüre No. 3 (Opus 72a), inserted before the Act Two finale as perpetuated by Mahler during his tenure with the Wiener Staatsoper, are impressively played, and the choristers make ‘O welche Lust!’ and ‘Heil sei dem Tag’ the awe-inspiring passages that they should and must be. Personally and institutionally, the Viennese musicians and choristers had by 1983 experienced the Fidelio interpretations of many renowned conductors, but they here adopt Maazel’s concept as their own, playing and singing with concentration and straightforward dramatic focus that complement Maazel’s unsensationalized concept. There are recordings of Fidelio from both stage and studio to suit virtually every taste, but this Fidelio offers many felicities that are unique to this performance.

A frequent enticement of Salzburger Festspiele performances is the opportunity to hear major artists in minor rôles, and this Fidelio fulfills that implicit promise by featuring acclaimed singers as the two prisoners who emerge from the throng of inmates to sing solo lines in the sublime scene for chorus in the Act One finale. German tenor Horst Hiestermann voices the lines for the Erster Gefangener with steady, silvery tone and verbal acuity. In addition to singing the Zweiter Gefangener, Austrian bass Kurt Rydl alternated as Rocco in both the 1982 and the 1983 Fidelios. In this performance, he dispatches the second prisoner’s cautionary words with compelling gravitas. As Don Fernando, Finnish bass-baritone Tom Krause (1934 – 2013) wields a voice worthy of an eleventh-hour savior. Don Fernando’s part in the drama is small but significant, and the character’s magnanimity is all the more compelling as Krause enacts it. Hiestermann, Rydl, and Krause all enhance enjoyment of this performance. Of how many Prisoners and Fernandos can that be said?

Fidelio’s pair of young lovers—Beethoven’s equivalents of Wagner’s Magdalena and David—are portrayed by singers who combine youthful timbres with genuine ability to sing their music—in reality, as rare a combination as there is in opera, no matter which composer’s name is on the score. A native Londoner, soprano Lillian Watson [there is seemingly considerable disagreement about whether the lovely lady’s first name is spelled with one or two l’s at the center: ORFEO’s materials accompanying this release prefer the single-l spelling, but many other sources, including the websites of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Royal Academy of Music, where she has been on the vocal faculty since 2007, cite the double-l form] is a sweet-toned and equally sweet-spirited Marzelline who sounds thoroughly and endearingly besotted with Fidelio. In the duet that opens the opera, Watson’s depiction of Marzelline’s annoyance with Jaquino's amorous persistence stops short of rendering her truly unkind to her ardent admirer, and she sings beautifully. Equally alluring is her singing of Marzelline’s aria, ‘O wär’ ich schon mit dir vereint,’ and she is pert without seeming saccharinely precious in the subsequent quartet, ‘Mir ist so wunderbar.’ Watson soars to the top C in the trio with Leonore and Rocco, ‘Gut, Söhnchen, gut,’ and achieves the rare accomplishment of being heard—and, rarer still, being heard with genuine pleasure—in the finales to both acts. With her impeccably-vocalized and thoughtfully-acted portrayal in this performance, Watson joins Irmgard Seefried, Sena Jurinac, Lucia Popp, and Edith Mathis among the finest Marzellines on disc. It is only natural that a student of Lotte Lehmann should excel in Fidelio, and Virginia-born tenor Thomas Moser’s singing of Jaquino in this performance would not disappoint his celebrated tutor. He joins his Marzelline in the opening duet, ‘Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind wir allein,’ with the good-hearted single-mindedness of a young lover who hears only ‘Ja, ich liebe dich’ no matter what the object of his affection actually says. Moser’s Jaquino is more robust than most, vocally and dramatically, his singing in the quartet in Act One and in both finales never lost among the powerful sounds produced by his colleagues. [It should be noted, too, that Moser returned to Salzburg in 1990 to sing Florestan opposite Gabriela Benačková’s much-admired Leonore.] Jaquino’s tenacity is ultimately rewarded, of course, and Moser’s stylish, lovingly-molded performance yields a Jaquino who truly deserves happiness with Marzelline.

A veteran of rôles as dissimilar as Wagner’s Wotan and Berg’s Wozzeck, bass-baritone Theo Adam is in this performance of Fidelio on splendid form as the malevolent Don Pizarro, a part in which singing almost as unpleasant as the character himself has sadly become the benchmark. Adam was an imaginative artist but rarely one to whose performances listeners refer as models of conventionally beautiful singing, but his traversal of Pizarro’s extroverted music in this performance impresses with its solidity and accuracy of pitch. It is no exaggeration to cite Adam in this context as one of the most musical Pizarros on disc, and he is all the more effective as a homicidal tyrant because his tones appeal: even in the awkwardly-written but bracingly effective aria ‘Ha! Welch ein Augenblick,’ Adam compels complete concentration on what this slyly conniving Pizarro fellow is plotting. Moreover, Adam sings the aria rippingly, with almost no evidence of the wobbling that sometimes affected his singing at this juncture in his career. In the duet with Rocco, ‘Jetzt, Alter, hat es Eile,’ this Pizarro plans Florestan’s demise with sadistic delight, again conveyed in firm, ingratiating tones. Even when raging in the Act One finale and throughout Act Two, Adam’s Pizarro is characterized by vocalism of a kind considerably above the recorded average, an average to which he contributed by singing Pizarro in several recordings of both Fidelio and its earlier incarnation, Leonore. It was Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that the best governments are those which govern least: a musical man, perhaps he might have modified that logic for the opera house by suggesting that the best antagonists of the lyric stage are those who bring their parts to life with the fewest tricks and distractions. Adam actually sings Pizarro’s music, and the character’s volatility is markedly more interesting for it.

Dutch bass Aage Haugland (1944 – 2000) is a worthy would-be partner in crime for Adam’s Pizarro, but his Rocco is so audibly a gentle soul that the notion of him participating in the assassination and disposal of Florestan seems ludicrous. As recorded here, Haugland’s voice is a tremulous, slightly dull instrument, but the care that he takes with words is very eloquent. His is a Rocco who seems to truly love and care not only for his daughter’s wellbeing but for Fidelio’s, as well, feelings that are unmistakable in his singing in the quartet in Act One. His performance of the aria ‘Hat man nicht auch Gold daneben,’ often treated by basses solely as an opportunity to display their voices, is unexpectedly circumspect, his message more paternal than pragmatic. In the trio ‘Gut, Söhnchen, gut,’ Haugland reaches heartening depths of good-natured humanity even when the actual vocalism is not wholly first-rate. There are no foolishness or cheap stock gestures in the duet with Pizarro, and the duet with Leonore, ‘Nur hurtig fort, nur frisch gegraben,’ and trio in which they are joined by the condemned Florestan in Act Two are sung with unwavering sincerity. In the opera’s penultimate scene, Haugland does not portray Rocco as a Leporello distancing himself from his punishment-bound master: he is a tired, traumatized man eager to return to a state of peace. Though there are uncertain pitches and moments of fallible singing, so benevolent is Haugland’s Rocco that one almost expects to hear him summarize Leonore’s and Florestan’s reunion with an aptly Biblical ‘Und es ward so.’

American tenor James King (1925 – 2005) sang Florestan under Karl Böhm’s baton at Salzburg in 1968, 1969, and 1970, as well as on Böhm’s Deutsche Grammophon studio recording of Fidelio released to celebrate the bicentennial of Beethoven’s birth. That he was still singing such a demanding rôle so well at the age of fifty-eight, thirteen years after celebration of the Beethoven centennial in 1970, is evidence not only of a marvelous voice but also of the good sense and training needed to use it properly. Throughout his career, King was rightly regarded as a preeminent interpreter of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and his experience with this music provided him with special qualifications for Florestan, in whose introductory scene at the start of Act Two Beethoven started a new path leading to the music of Mahler and Richard Strauss via Wagner and Bruckner. Florestan’s ‘Gott! Welch’ Dunkel hier!’ is as challenging as the stratospheric entrance music for Gualtiero and Arturo in Bellini’s Il pirata and I puritani and Radamès’s ‘Celeste Aida,’ but King tames its savageries with pointed, commendably direct singing. The tenor copes manfully with the punishing tessitura, and his top B♭s remain secure and exciting. King voices Florestan’s noble sentiments in ‘Euch werde Lohn in besser’n Welten’ with handsome tone matched by a keen sense of the words’ meaning. In ‘O namenlose Freude’ and the opera’s finale, there are just enough indications of stress in the tenor’s performance to remind the listener of what a demanding rôle Florestan is, even for a singer with King’s decades-long experience with the part. Like Maazel’s conducting, King’s portrayal of Florestan is not a facsimile of a battle-tested interpretation. King was still a thinking, feeling, transitioning Florestan, and this is among his—and any tenors’—best-sung performances of this taxing music.

The intimidating title rôle was entrusted in this Salzburg production, as well as in its outing in the prior year’s Festspiele, to Éva Marton, who in 1983 was at a vocal crossroads, the path forged with rôles like Leonore, Verdi’s Leonoras in Il trovatore and La forza del destino, and the title rôle in Richard Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helena intersecting with the road onto which she was embarking, one with Wagner’s Brünnhildes, Strauss’s Elektra and Färberin, and Puccini’s Turandot as notable destinations. A 1984 Metropolitan Opera broadcast in which she was partnered by Jon Vickers’s Florestan and Paul Plishka’s Rocco preserves what was clearly one of the finest performances of Marton’s career, but this Salzburg performance is in some ways superior. After she moved into heavier repertory, Marton’s singing seemingly lost a measure of the involvement displayed by her Leonore in this performance, the necessity of maintaining vocal potency outweighing the development of individualized characterizations. In the Act One quartet with Marzelline, Rocco, and Jaquino in this performance, though, her singing is confident and nuanced, Leonore’s reluctance to unjustly cause Jaquino pain nobly imparted by Marton’s careful management of her voice and unaffected enunciation of text. There is even a suggestion in the trio with Marzelline and Rocco that this Leonore, not unlike Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, feels that the game has been carried too far, both Marzelline’s and Jaquino’s future contentment being jeopardized by her actions. Aside from a final top B that lands a hair’s breadth short of the mark, Marton’s account of ‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?’ is incredible. Hers is not a voice suited to filigree, but she sings the fiorature capably, mastering the runs in the aria with greater ease than many Leonores have brought to the music. Throughout Act Two, Marton is nothing short of ideal, combining Flagstad-like femininity and projection with the unstoppable power and stamina of a young Gladys Kuchta. She interacts with Haugland’s Rocco not with the indifference of using him as a means to an end but with the affection of one who has come to respect the man’s honesty and honor. Finally able to meaningfully defend Florestan, her cry of ‘Töt erst sein Weib!’ would stay the hand of the deadliest Pizarro, and her near-ecstatic singing in ‘O namenlose Freude,’ of which she and King deliver an effervescent performance, would gladden the soul of any husband. In the opera’s final scene, Marton gives generously of both voice and heart, phrasing ‘O Gott, o Gott, welch ein Augenblick!’ with great expressivity. Listeners familiar only with Marton’s Wagner recordings must be forgiven for any initial skepticism about the lady singing Leonore in this performance being the same singer later heard on disc as Ortrud and Brünnhilde. Along with her stunning 1981 Bayerische Staatsoper Ägyptische Helena [available on CD here] and performances in her native Hungarian in works like Ferenc Erkel’s Bánk bán, this Salzburg Fidelio wonderfully broadens appreciation of Marton’s artistry at its best.

Taking for granted that no one sets out to perform Fidelio badly, the bounty of poor singing and playing of Beethoven’s sole opera on stage and on disc confirms that the score remains as challenging for today’s practitioners as it was for those who first brought it to life in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century. Laden with spirituality and symbolism, Fidelio has often been utilized to celebrate milestones in humanity, service epitomized by the staging of the opera in 1955 for the ceremonial reopening of the Wiener Staatsoper after the devastation of World War Two. Its festival setting notwithstanding, this 1983 Salzburg performance proves that Fidelio works equally well on a more intimate scale. In this Fidelio, the heroics are those not of archetypes but of ordinary people subjected to extraordinary hardships. These are the travails of people one might encounter anywhere, but the folks in queue with you at the supermarket probably do not sing like Éva Marton and James King.