, February 2010
This enjoyable 1991 live performance of Fidelio from Covent Garden has been available before, on Home Vision VHS and, several years back, in DVD format. It’s worth encountering, though its considerable parts don’t add up to a fully satisfying whole. To some extent, that comes with the territory: Beethoven’s blazingly great yet uneven opera always seems to resist an “ideal” incarnation, live or on recordings.
Adolf Dresen’s staging, while utilizing late-nineteenth-century costuming (Don Fernando sports a Dickensian top hat), is fairly traditional, rattling no cages. It alternates hyper-realistic detail (Marzelline keeps a caged canary, Rocco lowers shovels into the trap door representing the dungeon entrance) with somewhat awkward uses of a drop curtain representing a worn, frescoed angel. Erich Falk’s lighting of the tricky dungeon scene succeeds notably. Dresen saw fit to do major revisions on the dialogue, both cutting and adding; some key informational, theatrical and emotional points (such as the wonderful exchange before the lead couple’s “O namenlose Freude”) thus vanish in the interest of logic. Orchestral standards under Christoph von Dohnányi are high, yet little tension accumulates; the two finales in particular lack this score’s potential emotional impact.
Gabriela Benacková’s Leonore is much better sung here than in her later studio recording under Charles Mackerras. She brings remarkable beauty of tone to much of her music, particularly when she can unfurl her clarion upper register, and she commands most of the part’s technical hurdles. What’s lacking is the sense of burning immediacy that a Jones, Behrens or Mattila can bring to this iconic role: Benacková is sincere yet conventional dramatically. A very handsome woman, the Slovakian soprano, as the jailor’s assistant, wears lipstick, blue eye shadow and little ringlet curls.
Like many Florestans, Josef Protschka looks less like a longtime prisoner on half rations and more like P.D.Q. Bach. Not much of a visual actor, he sings the difficult music with skill, feeling and an aptly scaled tenor. Marie McLaughlin and Neill Archer make a fine second couple. The Scottish soprano, a frequent Met Marzelline, acts enchantingly; her singing is artful even if her dark lyric instrument lacks the beauty of a Popp or Donath. Archer brings welcome metal to his task. Robert Lloyd, not the “black” bass of tradition but a fine vocalist, gives Rocco a completely thought-out, credible characterization. It’s good to have a souvenir of the late Monte Pederson in performance; directed to snarl and strut pretty broadly as Pizarro, he does it with panache and reasonably nuanced, secure vocalism. Hans Tschammer’s tall, resonant Fernando outclasses anything I heard him sing in New York or San Francisco.
The choral work is highly commendable. The prisoners are realistically filthy; as so often on today’s opera stage, the younger, fitter male choristers appear in skimpier outfits. Derek Bailey directed sagely for broadcasting purposes, with only occasional puzzling editing choices.