SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio (Complete Opera) – Christine Brewer (Leonora/Fidelio)/ John Mac Master (Florestan)/ Kristinn Sigmundsson (Rocco)/ Sally Matthews (Marzelline)/ Juha Uusitalo (Don Pizarro)/ London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Colin Davis – LSO Live

A fresh and vital take on an old opera that has surprisingly few great readings

Published on March 13, 2007

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio (Complete Opera) – Christine Brewer (Leonora/Fidelio)/ John Mac Master (Florestan)/ Kristinn Sigmundsson (Rocco)/ Sally Matthews (Marzelline)/ Juha Uusitalo (Don Pizarro)/ London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Colin Davis – LSO Live
BEETHOVEN: Fidelio (Complete Opera) – Christine Brewer (Leonora/Fidelio)/ John Mac Master (Florestan)/ Kristinn Sigmundsson (Rocco)/ Sally Matthews (Marzelline)/ Juha Uusitalo (Don Pizarro)/ Andrew Kennedy (Jaquino)/ Daniel Borowski (Don Fernando)/ London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Colin Davis, conductor – LSO Live Multichannel SACDs (2 discs) LSO0593, 71:59 & 48:50 *****:

It is a very strange phenomenon that Fidelio, unlike other great operas, has not been that well-served on records. It is true that there are some great ones, but certainly not a lot of great ones, and even the greats are not so exalted as to be free from the nagging chops at the heels that a fine new recording may offer. To review a few of may favorites, one is practically charged with heresy for omitting the classic Klemperer (EMI), and it is certainly deserving of the accolades it has garnered over the years. But low and behold, when the relatively new Testament recording came out many abandoned ship and embraced it, mono sound and all. But Klemperer, in either recording, deserves the allegiance of every Fidelio fan.

There have been three Fidelios since 2002 that have found their way onto best of the year lists for this website—Furtwangler (Naxos), Fricsay (Gebhardt), and Rattle (EMI). I have not heard the Fricsay, but the Furtwangler (on my old EMI CD) is to me perhaps the most transcendent reading ever recorded (in great mono sound), though I would perhaps object to the Rattle (on period instruments) along with the newer Haitink, Dohnanyi, and older Davis recordings—all had problems that the truly best recordings don’t.

Bohm has to be listed with the best and even the Bernstein—despite his ill-advised Mahlerian insertion of the Leonora III Overture that completely halts the dramatic action before the final scene—brings insights that no other has, as only he could. So we have by my count only about a handful of Pantheon-bound recordings. And yes, I am discounting the readings of Maazel, Karajan, Mackerras (despite Benackova’s lovely singing), and a spattering of other lesser-knowns that have tried their hands at this. (Please note that the original Leonora, for all its interest, does not count here—peace to Blomstedt and Gardiner.)

Colin Davis had a go at Fidelio on RCA with a stellar Ben Heppner at his side in a truly marvelous performance. But Fidelio is after all about a woman, and Deborah Voigt unfortunately fell short of transcendent in the role. So what of this new Davis? Well, he has solved the title role for sure, as Christine Brewer, an up and coming superstar, sings with all of the sensitivity and fragrant color that the role needs as Leonora goes through her heroic transformation. Perhaps the coaching of Davis, a master opera conductor, helped solidify her interpretation, already given a preliminary hearing under David Parry on a Chandos opera in English issue. I cannot say that John Mac Master in the critical role of Florestan matches the likes of Heppner and Vickers, just to name two, but he is very solid and steady, and seems to have the intricacies of the role down pat. 

Kristinn Sigmundsson is a marvelous Rocco, one of the best, and Sally Matthews handles the lighter role of Marzelline with confidence and intelligence. Even though this is a concert performance the dialogue is given, and the London Symphony—playing for all the world like one of the greatest orchestras in the world, which they now certainly are—performs the work like they live in Vienna. Davis has been accused of letting tempos flag, and undermining the pace in many of his opera recordings, but Fidelio is not an opera that needs the supercharged injections that someone like Bernstein, for all his merits, brings to this work. Klemperer was free of such eccentricities, and Davis seems to view the work as an heroic love story instead of a grand pronouncement on freedom and oppression as so many others do. Hence the incredible lyricism of Davis’s account.

The SACD sound here is exactly what we have come to expect from LSO Live—broadly spaced with good clarity and volume, and just a tad on the dry side. But to me this version sounds fresh and compelling and fully worthy to mount the steps to the temple of the few greats we have. This may not be your only Fidelio, and I am certainly not recommending it as such, but with this, Klemperer, and Bernstein, your triumvirate is complete.

– Steven Ritter
 




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