It hardly seems surprising that the metaphorically rich libretto (Joseph Sonnleithner, based on the French text by Jean Nicholas Bouilly which found life in two other operas: Pierre Gaveaux’s Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal and Ferdinando Paer’s Leonora) for Fidelio found its way to become Beethoven’s only opera. Florestan, the unjustly imprisoned, god-fearing seeker of truth is easily transferrable to the composer locked in the cell of deafness. The story’s rescuer is a disguised Leonora—Florestan’s bride who is so successful in her duplicity that prison worker Marzelline is smitten with the beautiful young man, dashing the amorous hopes of colleague Jaquino whose unflinching love forms the basis of the opening scene.
Much has been made of Beethoven’s ever-mysterious “Immortal Beloved.” Few could or would imagine that in the quest to unmask her (in many films and books—cross-reference below) that the master’s never-found partner could have been a male. Reading his personal correspondence with Stephan von Breuning lays the seeds for that equally plausible hypothesis. Re-hearing the opera and contemplating that perspective could very well explain why the work took so much effort, revision and angst.
The 1971 Salzburg Festival production has been well-captured by the Angel recording engineers. Perhaps the male chorus could be a touch more present, but the placement and balance of solo voices and orchestra gives a marvellous “you are there” feeling to the music.
Herbert von Karajan turns in a typically sonorous view of the score which works especially well in the overture and the opening of Act II but his reluctance to let the strings in particular really deliver true staccati gives too much of a sameness to the arias and ensembles (notably the Trio “Gut, Söhnchen, gut”). The nagging pulse dilemmas (famously, Act I’s march of the soldiers, but also Rocco’s first aria) are not addressed, producing a few moments of uncomfortably vague lines. The oboe and flute are miracles of sound production and, whether on their own or interweaving with the cast, constant pleasures with every utterance.
As for the voices, the entire recording is worth having just for Jon Vickers’ first mighty “Gott!” which instantly captures two years of injustice, despair and hunger. With exemplary diction, superb rhythm (an absolutely exact duple—“grauen”—serves to remind how much better the music sounds when the composer’s intentions are realized), and flawless legato, it’s hard to imagine anyone improving on this spectacular result. Even his dialogue is dramatically informed—far beyond the basic declamations of the desperate prisoner. If Beethoven ever wanted a voice, this is it.
The two sopranos (Beethoven pairs his lovers in the same register, all the better to reinforce the gender-fluid undercurrents: perhaps the two women might have shared a personal moment in another, less homophobic society) work easily together. Helen Donath’s supple tone personifies Marzelline ideally; Helga Dernesch as Fidelio/Leonore uses her strength to great advantage for the characterization but the quick vibrato and lack of complete focus in the upper register produce an unwelcome edge that is too masculine by half.
Horst Laubenthal’s much lighter tenor is the perfect contrast to his jailed counterpart. Rocco has a most capable proponent thanks to Karl Ridderbusch’s wide vocal and—particularly—dynamic range, giving the father-with-a-conscience an air of total believability: his plea in the name of the King’s day is unforgettable and a highlight of the Act I Finale.
As the evil Pizarro, Zoltan Kélémen oozes through the role with villainous art that readily foils the honesty and patience of his enemy. José van Dam delivers the smallish part of Don Fernando with customary aplomb.
Karajan keeps the pace moving steadily forward; nary a moment drags in the nearly two-hour playing time. The Act II Finale pulls out all of the stops, both orchestrally and vocally, becoming at times somewhat raw but never in doubt that a courageous deception has released another tormented soul from its real and unseen shackles. The composer likely longed to have his own personal rescuer—of any sex—himself, but settled to share his plight in spectacular musical fashion. JWR