Friday, October 31, 2008

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio - review

    Hebert von Karajan paces Christa Ludwig's Leonore in an exhilarating 1962 performance of Beethoven's Fidelio, recorded live at the Wiener Staatsoper.

    The hyper-controlling Herbert von Karajan probably would not be pleased at the material the Vienna Staatsoper has been releasing from its archives, but who wouldn't trade the glossy sheen of some of the late maestros studio-perfect wares for the blood and guts and mess of a live show? The May 25, 1962 performance of Fidelio that furnished the role debuts of Christa Ludwig (Leonore), Gundula Janowitz (Marzelline) and Walter Berry (Pizarro) never would have satisfied Karajan sonically, with its booming double basses and timpani, its poor vocal balance (especially in the Act I finale) and its occasional slipups (a wrong entrance here, some rushing there), but for the listener there is plenty of dramatic excitement generated as the singers dig into their roles, and the conductor allows Beethoven's score to roar its message of hope and freedom.
    Janowitz and Waldemar Kmentt (Jaquino) don't let the tepid reading of the overture stand in their way but invest the first scene with a sweet urgency Both bring attractive, vibrant sound to roles often cast from the second string, and Janowitzs characteristically pure, dense and full-bodied sound (she went on to become a fine Leonore) brings special heft to Marzelline's lines. The Rocco of Walter Kreppel (even without his "gold" aria) is a warm, affectionate portrayal that grows vocally as the evening progresses.
    From Ludwigs first entrance it's clear she is firmly in control, placing her speaking voice low (she's in disguise as a boy after all) yet aiming for soprano position in a high-lying, dramatic role that would later become one of her signatures. As a child, she had seen her mother perform Leonore with Karajan, and Ludwig had recorded the role for Otto Klemperer in 1961 (still one of the legendary recordings of the century). She often spoke frankly of the treacherous scene and aria "Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?" and of the final exposed high B with its difficult approach. Here, her determination to keep Karajan from dragging is evident, and to his credit, he supports her in a stunning performance; her evident relief brings a soaring vocal freedom to the rest of the evening, and Ludwigs anguished vocal asides in the prison scene are especially moving.
    Walter Berry, Ludwig's husband at the time and also part of the Klemperer recording, makes a poor first impression in the aria "Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!" in which he is nearly inaudible under the crashing orchestra. The stage director (none other than Herbert von Karajan) must have placed him too far upstage for this important moment. Otherwise Berry's dark and bitingly intense sound makes of Pizarro a nasty, terrifying tyrant.
    The program booklet warns that Jon Vickers was somewhat indisposed, and the tenor struggles through Florestans first scene. But the rest of the act catches fire and culminates in Leonores determined shout "Töt erst sein Weib!" (First kill his wife) and the superb duet "O namenlose Freude," in which Vickers and Ludwig seem to be feasting on each other's energy.
    Predictably, the orchestral moments, except for the overture, are superbly shaped, and the inserted Leonore Overture III gets the evenings longest ovation. The booklet includes a few errors of translation and some mislabeled photographs.

by Judith Malafronte, OperaNews, Nov 2008, p60.
Ludwig, Janowitz; Vickers, Kreppel, Berry, Kmentt, Wachter; Chorus and Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper, Karajan. Text and translation. Deutsche Grammophon 477-7364

No comments: