20 Oct 2008


Among the recent releases on DVD of Rolf Liebermann's productions of operas from the Hamburg Opera conceived for television in the late 1960s, Beethoven's Fidelio is impressive for the use of the medium of film to bring out the personal aspects of this intensive opera.

The close-ups and intimate settings that are part of the staging make visual sense and support the music well. Based on the staging used at the Hamburg Opera, this recording from 1968 is of more than historic interest. Rather, the unique perspective from this television production conveys the appropriate immediacy to the work that sometimes escapes live performances on stage. The ensemble "Mir ist so wunderbar" becomes here an aside for the principals who are able to step out of the action momentarily to reflect on the situation, and their carefully placement on stage anticipates their roles in the drama as it resumes, notably with Leonore/Fidelio in the forefront, and Rocco in the center.

The cast is uniformly strong, with all the roles cast with some of the finest singers of the day. Anja Silja created a believable Leonore/Fidelio, and her costumes suggests a plausible disguise for the wife who seeks her long-imprisoned husband. Vocally, Silja offers a strong performance in this demanding role. In the aria "Abscheulicher," though Silja's lighter touch allows for security in the upper register of this demanding number. She is, perhaps, less anxious than Karita Mattila in the more recent film of the modern staging presented at the Metropolitan Opera. Likewise, the studio-style sound is a little less immediate in this number, which benefits in stage performances from the intersection of the voice an winds in various passages of this turning point in Fidelio. Most of all, the clarity Silja brings to this aria is noteworthy in itself, and throughout the film Silja's stage presence emerges within the studio performance.

In addition Lucia Popp stands out as an intensive and smart Marzelline, the daughter of the jailer Rocco. Popp's resonant voice is memorable, and the ensembles in which she participates stand out in this recording. Those who did not have the opportunity to hear Popp in performance have the opportunity to see her interact well in this production. Likewise, Richard Cassilly delivers a fine performance as Florestan, which involves not only the vocal inflection necessary for his role as the long-imprisoned husband, but also suggests the confinement in his movements and facial gestures. His Ernst Wiemann is a solid Rocco, a role that sounds at once familiar and believable. The other cast members are fine, particularly Theo Adam, who performed the role of Pizzaro into the mid-1980s.

The production itself makes use of traditional settings effectively, and the intimacy that comes from close-ups enhances the drama. The scene with the entrance of the prisoners is particularly effective, as the ensemble emerges as a body and reacts simultaneously to the rare opportunity to be in the open air. It is unfortunate that the television production did not begin with the play of light that occurs in the middle of the number. Nevertheless, the blocking that accompanies the "O Freiheit" section creates a fine effect and the subdued intonations among solo voices are remarkably effective in this staging.

The events in the second act work well in this film, as the set design and director create a sense of depth in the scene that involves Florestan. While conventional stagings laudable present the scene in various, creative ways on stage, the medium of film allows for the illusory effect of being within the prison and removed from the more light-filled action of the preceding act. As in earlier, scenes, the camera allows a sense of intimacy such that Leonore can communicate with Florestan, even while Rocco is occupied with his task, and this contributes to the tension that leads to the dénouement, where Leonore reveals her identity and stymies Pizzaro. Silja fulfills the promise she expressed in the previous act, while never upstaging Richard Cassilly in his role as her spouse. Both performers work well together in the final scene, which is also laudable for its faithfulness to the Spanish setting of the opera.

Arthaus deserves credit for restoring and making available this and other television productions of operas from 1968 and 1969. Unlike the operas televised in the United States, which often brought the stage to the small screen, this series of broadcasts from Germany reconceived productions from the Hamburg Opera for the idiom. In a way the American broadcasts from Wolftrap aired in the 1970s owe a debt to these groundbreaking films by Lieberman. Some, like the production of Penderecki's Die Teufel von Loudon brought new works to a wide audience, while others, like this one of Fidelio, preserve a conventional staging with an excellent cast. While Arthaus acknowledges that this DVD and others are restorations, the imperfections are relatively minor and should by no means detract from appreciating the efforts. This is a fine Fidelio that deserves attention not only for historic interest, but also on its own merits.

James L. Zychowicz