Naxos seems to have an uncanny knack for choosing the right artists for its operatic ventures. On this occasion, perhaps on account of its growing reputation in the genre, four of the singers are among the better known in the field, each judiciously cast. Halasz, who has already conducted an excellent Zauberflote for the company (7/94), now adds this Fidelio, a performance that strikes to the heart of the matter. The Overture already tells us that this is going to be a taut reading of a desperate story, strongly and purposefully accented, with orchestral forces well balanced and every detail heard.
In what follows, the conductor projects every facet of the score, so inspiring his forces to live every moment of the plot in words and music, making it seem new-minted. This isn't an interpretation in the romantic, quasi-philosophical mode of Furwangler or Klemperer, rather one that alerts the mind and ear to the human agony of it all. In those respects it challenges the hegemony of Maazel's forceful mid-price set on Decca, the admired, early-stereo Fricsay, also at mid-price and, most recently, Mackerras at full price, the last-named vocally outclassed in almost every case by this super-bargain Naxos.
Nielsen follows her exciting Salome on Chandos (3/99) with an equally impressive assumption of the very different character of Leonore: what the two readings have in common is a close identification with the character in hand. This Leonore is no projection of subservient femininity but a tormented wife seeking to save her husband, her plight expressed in every key phrase, most notably exaltation at 'Nur heute', determination at 'Ich folge dich' and, in her scena, inner conviction at 'Des Mitleids Ruf'. She doesn't provide the heroic sounds of a Nilsson (Maazel) or all the warmth of Rysanek (Fricsay), but her slimmer, more compact tone exactly fits this performance as a whole, although nothing at all is shirked at the role's climaxes. This Leonore's conviction is best epitomized in the duet with Rocco, just after the Prisoners' Chorus, itself a marvel of precision and feeling, when she, so vulnerable, and Rocco plan their dungeon visit. When they reach the depths, both are just as vital. Throughout, Moll's experienced gaoler is a tower of strength, and his voice seems to be defying time's claim on it.
Winberg is a Florestan equal to his Leonore in vocal and interpretative assets and one certainly worth rescuing. Not even Heppner (Davis) or Seiffert (Harnoncourt), among modern interpreters, sings the role better. His voice poised between the lyrical and the heroic, his tone warm, his technique firm, Florestan's scene can seldom have been so satisfyingly sung and enacted. In the ensuing ensembles, he is just as convincing, his voice ringing forth joyously in the finale.
Evil is represented arrestingly in the powerful declamation and imposing tone of Titus (Wotan in the new Ring at Bayreuth next summer) as Pizarro, Goodness by the sympathetic but seriously unsteady Don Fernando of Glashof. As Marzelline, Edith Lienbacher is something of a discovery, catching the eagerness, also the sense of nerves a-jangle predicated by the part. The Jaquino, Herwig Pecoraro, is more than adequate. The dialogue, rather drastically foreshortened, is well spoken by all and intelligently directed.
As I have already implied, the orchestral playing by a hand-picked chamber orchestra, drawn from the Hungarian State Symphony (listen to the expressive oboe obbligato, representing Leonore, in Florestan's fevered vision) and choral singing (superlative in the finale) need fear no comparisons, and the recording has plenty of presence, no tricks. So this is undoubtedly a performance that fulfils almost all the exigent demands made on its principals and - at the price - should be eagerly sought after. Even in absolute terms, its most notable predecessors are matched, if not surpassed, by this daring newcomer.'