It was Abbado’s second Berlin Philharmonic symphony cycle from 2001 which thrust him more or less unexpectedly into the ranks of the immortals where Beethoven is concerned. And it was seven years after that, in Reggio Emilia in 2008, that he conducted his first Fidelio. Like Furtwängler in his 1953 studio recording, Abbado leads a viscerally charged performance that flies to the very heart of the matter, and does so in a version which, stripping away much of the spoken dialogue, recreates Beethoven’s lofty Singspiel as musical metatheatre.
The recording derives from two semi-staged concert performances, the audience happily sensed but not heard. Technically the recording is first-rate but, then, you need no sonic-stage trickery in the dungeon scene in a performance which reveals as exactingly as this how Beethoven’s own orchestrations are key. One of the many glories of this thrillingly articulated Fidelio is the playing of the basses and lower strings, sharp-featured and black as the pit of Acheron.
The revised spoken text is by stage director Tatjana Gürbaca. In Act 1 she prunes and rewrites, minimising the text’s domesticities; in Act 2 she preserves the melodrama but omits most else. There is no breathless announcement from Jaquino after the trumpet calls, no heart-stopping exchange between Florestan and Leonore before “O namenlose Freude”. After Pizarro’s entry, Act 2 becomes a choral cantata, albeit one happily devoid of an inserted Leonore No 3.
The cast is mostly distinguished. If there has been a better Marzelline on record than Rachel Harnisch, I have not heard her. The same might be said of Christof Fischesser’s Rocco and Falk Struckmann’s Pizarro; not that one forgets Gottlob Frick (Klemperer’s Rocco and Furtwängler’s) or Hans Hotter, Klemperer’s Pizarro on his unforgettable live Covent Garden performance, a true theatre Fidelio, more interestingly cast than the fabled but slightly more sedate EMI studio version.
Nina Stemme is very much the Leonore de nos jours, less human than Jurinac live at Covent Garden but apt to the newer version’s less domesticated vision. I could have done without Jonas Kaufmann’s 12-second crescendo on Florestan’s annunciatory “Gott!” – René Kollo did something similar for Bernstein (DG, 10/78R) – more vocal stunt than human utterance and offering a foretaste of vocal discolorations to come.
But that, in the end, is a trifle. This is the best-conducted Fidelio since Furtwängler’s; a joy to experience and a privilege to possess.