11 Nov 2007


Recorded on 29 January 1978, this performance preserves a classic production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, which involved a gifted cast.

Traditional in his setting of the opera, Otto Schenk’s period-style production has much to recommend for its solid footing in the libretto and in the performing tradition associated wit this opera. While the staging of the recent production in at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, may be a bit more dynamic, this recording includes performances by some of the equally strong singers. Of the cast, Gundula Janowitz was passionate in her interpretation of the title role.

The challenge of any production is to arrive at a guise for Leonore to seem credible as Fidelio, and Janowitz does a fine job in carrying the part. Yet her singing is – as it should be – the critical feature in this performance of the opera. She delivers the role with an appropriate intensity, without overcompensating or otherwise exaggerating her characterization of Leonore. Her emotional pitch is evident from the start, where quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar” shows Janowitz and her colleagues, Lucia Popp (as Marzelline), Manfred Jungwirth (Rocco), and Adof Dallapozza (Jaquino) wholly in character. If Janowitz is, perhaps, a bit more lyrical than some singers’ interpretations of “Abscheulicher,” it is not without effect. Janowitz is worth hearing in this role, as is Popp with her portrayal of Marzelline. Kollo is a fine Florestan, a role that he delivered well in this performance. His tone and bearing at the opening of the second act is remarkably effective in conveying Florestan’s plight, and Kollo himself is a fine counterpart to Janowitz.

In fact, the cast is nicely balanced throughout in what resembles a festival-style production of the opera. Yet that is almost to be expected of a performance of Fidelio in Vienna, where this opera seems to hold a special place in its repertoire. As the work with which the Staatsoper reopened in 1955, Fidelio may be regarded as a kind of signature for the house. This particular performance also benefits from the attentive leadership of Leonard Bernstein, whose conducting is crisply and effective. Without deviating from the spirit of the opera, his interpretation brings out some of the details from the score. With a light and somewhat dramatic touch, the sometimes banal characteristics of the first-act “Prisoners’ Chorus” disappear. Likewise, the adherence to Gustav Mahler’s introduction of the third “Leonore” Overture to the middle of the second act is notable for its quiet opening that allows the music to blend into the scene effectively. The applause that Bernstein receives at the ending of the Overture reflects the warm reaction of the audience to his interpretation. In fact, the choral scene that follows in the final part of the opera is also impressive.

As a film of a single take of Fidelio, rather than a compilation from multiple performances, as sometimes occurs, this video is laudable for its sharp images and excellent sound. Unlike some other DVDs of operas, the subtitles appear in the original language, as well as English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Chinese. While the camera can sometimes move a little quickly within a scene, it can also withdraw a bit into long shots, as at the conclusion of “Abscheulicher.” The blocking is suited to the stage, with the film crew having done its best to capture the performance from some relatively limited angles within the Staatsoper. Despite these reservations, the close-ups offer some glimpses of the singers in character and working together on stage. The drama remains prominent throughout the performance, including the sometimes static final scene, which retains a tension that leads to the music with which the work ends. This is a solid, traditional Fidelio that preserves performances by some of finest musicians of the day. Moreover, it remains an excellent choice among the available DVDs of this opera.

James L. Zychowicz