The Metropolitan Opera – Fidelio [Nilsson, Vickers, Uhde, Czerwenka, Böhm; 13 February 1960; Sony Classical]

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0 of 5 stars

Beethoven
Fidelio – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Joseph von Sonnleithner with revisions by Stephan von Breuning & Georg Friedrich Treitschke [sung in German]

Leonora – Birgit Nilsson
Florestan – Jon Vickers
Don Pizarro – Hermann Uhde
Rocco – Oskar Czerwenka
Don Fernando – Giorgio Tozzi
Marzelline – Laurel Hurley
Jacquino – Charles Anthony
First Prisoner – William Olvis
Second Prisoner – Calvin Marsh

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Karl Böhm

Recorded 13 February 1960


Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: June 2011
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
88697853092 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 8 minutes

In 1970 Deutsche Grammophon issued a Beethoven Bicentennial Edition, which included Karl Bőhm conducting the complete symphonies and Fidelio. The symphonies – apart from a justly celebrated ‘Pastoral’ – were pretty uninspired and yet Fidelio is probably the most blazingly dramatic ever recorded. Unfortunately though, it was compromised by some variable singing. A decade earlier at Metropolitan Opera, Bőhm had a seemingly near-ideal cast, led by Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers with the heroic-baritone Hermann Uhde and the young Austrian bass Oskar Czerwenka as Rocco.

In comparing these two Böhm versions, looking first at the minor roles, the DG set is superior. Edith Mathis and Peter Schreier make a dream coupling as Marzelline and Jacquino, and the First and Second Prisoners are much more secure than their Met counterparts. Don Fernando only appears in the final scene – cantata! – but as the voice of liberty and compassion, he must have power, authority and humanity. In both performances Bőhm quite rightly insists on a full bass and here Martii Talvela is well-nigh definitive, combining presence, weight of tone, nobility and Lieder-like attention to detail that Giorgio Tozzi can’t quite equal.

Pizarro is portrayed by two great Wagnerian bass-baritones, Theo Adam (DG) and Hermann Uhde (Met), and both are superb. They radiate power and malevolence and Bőhm’s fast tempos cause neither singer any discomfort (although at “In seinen Herzen wühlen” Uhde is slightly breathless at a marginally quicker speed) even if Adam’s tone is less focused. In the following duet with Rocco, both use vivid word painting, but when Pizarro reveals his identify to Florestan, at the start of the thrilling Act Two Quartet, “Steht nun als Rächer hier” must be delivered in one long rising line, and Adam does this quite brilliantly – he exults. By comparison Uhde is imposing, but lacks the younger man’s sweeping power. Thankfully both artists manage to avoid hamming the spoken links.

Rocco is always a problematic role. He is a weak, venal man who might refuse to pull the trigger, but he would stand by and watch his master murder Florestan. His is a classic example of ‘I was only following orders‘. Fidelio (the opera) is after all about symbolism. Pizarro represents tyranny and the abuse of power, Florestan and the prisoners the oppressed victims of such abuse, Leonora loyalty, strength and courage, Fernando humanity and benign power and Rocco vacillating indifference and weakness. Oskar Czerwenka was thirty-four in 1960, yet he sounds a lot older. There are problems with intonation, and unsteady tone, but he does offer a warm, generous portrayal of Rocco, with plenty of attention to detail. For Böhm’s DG version Franz Crass (another great Wagnerian singer) was in perfect condition and there is more steel in his portrayal. This Rocco knows exactly what he is doing and doesn’t seem greatly bothered by Florestan’s impending execution. Indeed in his dungeon duet with Leonora he sounds like a budding Pizarro, as he orders her to get a move on when digging the grave.

In both performances the tenors portraying Florestan are in the heroic mould, which is not necessarily a good thing given that Ernst Haefliger for Ferenc Fricsay (also DG) makes Florestan seem even more vulnerable than James King or Vickers; nevertheless if it has to be a Heldentenor they don’t come any better than Jon Vickers. Florestan doesn’t sing until the beginning of Act Two and Vickers’s opening “Gott!” is rough and, throughout the performance, there is a suggestion that he has a slight cold. Yet, like Talvela, he sees the text as Lieder and uses a kaleidoscopic range of dynamic and tonal shading. King had a fine voice that could rise to a magnificent top C, and like Vickers he has no difficulty in negotiating the high tessitura at the end of ‘In des Lebens frühlingstagen’, but he often sounds wooden and isn’t able to portray Florestan’s desperate plight.

With regard to Leonora, the Met performance is again superior. Birgit Nilsson’s ‘Fidelio’ isn’t someone you’d like to meet in a dark alley. From her opening contribution to the sublime Act One ‘Canon Quartet’, she radiates conviction and strength and the voice is huge. This can be a problem. In the duet with Florestan, ‘O namen namenlose Freude’, she cannot equal Vickers’s subtlety of expression and sounds much louder (although some of this may be down to the recording). Sometimes the phrasing could more subtle, there are occasions where her intonation slips and in the spoken dialogue she can sound like a pantomime dame – yet, this is a great performance. If Pizarro had heard her ‘Abscheudlicher’, he would have applied for political asylum. She conveys contemptuous hatred from the start and come the ending she blazes, with the wonderful top of the voice gleaming. This is a Leonora sung and characterised without compromise. For DG Gwyneth Jones was embarking on the Wagnerian phase of her career and the voice is not under control. She can be flat or sharp rather than on the note and the tone is pallid. This really isn’t acceptable and things don’t improve as the story unfolds, and like Nilsson, her spoken dialogue is lacking in subtlety. Which is a pity because Jones makes Leonora into a multi-faceted character, mixing charm, fear and strength.

Both acts of Fidelio conclude with sublime choral scenes and the chorus – male choristers in particular – are as important as any of the principals. For DG the combined choirs of Leipzig Radio and Dresden State Opera are magnificent. In the Prisoners’ great hymn to liberty the men’s echo effects at “Sprecht leise” are breathtakingly pure and moving and throughout the final glorification of freedom and womanhood, the mixed-voices combine power and rhythmic precision in a way that the New Yorkers cannot match. Indeed the men are decidedly flat at times and the ensemble singing is less than precise. Bőhm’s tempo is so fast at the opera’s close that it’s a miracle the performance didn’t come off the rails.

In 1960 the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra had rather more character than its modern-day counterpart and the woodwind in particular phrase quite beautifully. Unsurprisingly, given Böhm’s very fast speeds, there are ensemble problems, but nothing that jars. The playing of the Leonora No.3 Overture between Act Two’s scenes is staggering (although it should have absolutely no place in the opera, a practice begun by Mahler). Bőhm in both performances brings tremendous weight and power, biting rhythms and powerful sforzandos and never relaxes his grip on the dramatic flow – and yet at the Met he could be too fast. The great canon quartet is marked Andante and in six-eight (the same time-signature for a barcarolle) and it does work at Böhm’s flowing tempo, but in 1970 it is slower and has even greater depth and spirituality. In both performances Bőhm is searing and dramatic and a world away from Otto Klemperer’s at-times plodding tempos (his EMI recording also features Jon Vickers) – after all this is an opera about attempted murder and chaos, not a stroll in the park.

The Met (mono) sound is less than ideal, being very forward, bass-light and treble heavy, which sometimes give undue prominence to Birgit Nilsson’s voice and also to the timpani. Nor are there any programme notes (other than a synopsis), text, translation, or any information on the re-mastering process. There can never be a definitive Fidelio, but in terms of conducting Bőhm in 1970 is surely just that, and as such, despite Gwyneth Jones, is preferable to the Met performance. Nevertheless this live version really has to be heard. If ever an opera performance could be counted – for good or bad – jaw-dropping, then this is it.

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