19 Nov 2006


While undated, this performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio is a solid performance of the opera that has all the earmarks of a radio broadcast.

The essentially German-speaking cast includes the American soprano Gladys Kuchta in the role of Leonore and the tenor Julius Patzak as Florestan. While it is difficult at times to recommend an opera recording because of two principals, in this case the casting lends itself to such a stance. The performance of Kuchta in the first act is notable, and with Florestan’s entrance in the second act, Patzak’s interpretation is memorable for its nuance and passion. While a number of fine studio recordings of this opera exist, this live, idiomatic performance has much to offer in the excitement that comes from the single take that must suffice, without the opportunity to fall back to another take in the studio.

For this recording, the interaction between the principals is exemplary, but the dialogue presumably rendered by actors sounds overdubbed. While such a detail is sometimes unclear on live recordings of staged performances, those speaking seem too close to the microphones for an authentic sound. Nevertheless, this apparent broadcast is free of stage and hall sounds. Those interested in Kuchta’s legacy in Europe should enjoy this recording, which demonstrates her finesse in this role, among the others she performed well.

The tenor Julius Patzak is also represented well in this recording for a role that he was known to have owned. Modern audiences may be familiar with Patzak for the legendary recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde he recorded with Kathleen Ferrier under the direction of Bruno Walter. In this performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio audiences can hear another aspect of his voice in an exemplary interpretation of the role of Florestan. Patzak offered lyricism, but not at the expense of drama, which emerges clearly in his scena at the opening of the second act, “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!” His enunciation of the text is a model of clarity, despite the clicking of the transfer apparently from LP to CD. In Patzak’s ensemble work with Kuchta, the two performers play off each other as if they were one, as should occur in a number like no. 15 “O namenlose Freude.” Patzak neither strains in this role, nor forces his personality on the role. Entirely in character, his passionate interpretation is a remarkable aspect of this performance.

Yet the bonus tracks included on the second CD are part of another live performance, one led by Herbert von Karajan at the Salzburg Festspiel. Recorded on 27 July 1957, that production benefits from a strong cast the includes Giusseppe Zampieri as Florestan, Christel Goltz as Leonore, and Sena Jurinac as Marzelline. In some ways the quality of the bonus tracks rivals that of the primary recording. It is a substantial selection from the work, with nos. 2, 3, and 9 from the first act, and nos. 11-14 from the second. (The excerpts end with the music that precedes Pizzaro’s entrance.) In these cuts, Jurinac’s execution of the role of Marzelline is particularly effective, and, as with the Patzak performance, Zampieri’s interpretation of Florestan is powerful. It is difficult to compare two singers like these, as each has much to recommend in recordings made around the same time. The conducting of the Karajan performance benefits from the accompaniment by the Vienna Philharmonic, which offers a bit more polished sound that is needed in such virtuosic numbers as “Abscheulicher,” where the music of Leonore must be supported by an orchestra that can allow her to resonate the way that Goltz does so well.

In the Karajan tracks, the dialogue is rendered by the singers, and while the speaking voices are a bit more distant, they are simultaneously more natural sounding than in Bamberger’s recording. Yet more than those details, it is the ensemble of the Karajan performance that merits attention. The first-act quartet, “Mir ist so wunderbar” is outstanding for the clarity that Karajan achieved and resembles, in some ways, the tight ensemble that he elicited in a famous recording of Lucia di Lammermoor from approximately the same time, when the applause was so enthusiastic that he reprised the sextet in performance, before continuing with the rest of the opera. In this recording of Fidelio no such reprise occurs. Rather, the listener may want to return to various parts of numbers like the quartet no. 14 “Es schlägt der Rache Stunde,” where the voices emerge as individually as they do in the earlier ensemble in moving forward the emotional pitch of the score.

This release offers essentially two complementary interpretations of Beethoven’s Fidelio from the middle of the twentieth century. Recent audiences who know modern productions of the opera, like the one the New York Met offered several years ago (and preserved on DVD) can apprehend the traditionally strong interpretation that this work brings. In its message of the power of love and the importance of freedom, these performances of Fidelio resonate as strongly as when they were recorded half a century ago.

As to the release itself, the sound is good, with the minor noise at the end of the first disc suggesting a transfer from LP that is dependent on the quality of the source. Yet the source is essentially fine enough to result in a successful transfer. Those unfamiliar with the LP release will not be disappointed in the interpretations that this recent Gala release makes available in this format.

James L. Zychowicz