Marek Janowski’s Great New “Fidelio”

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BEETHOVEN: Fidelio / Cornel Frey, ten (Jacquino); Christina Landshamer, sop (Marzelline); Georg Zeppenfeld, bs (Rocco); Lise Davidsen, son (Leonore); Johannes Martin Kränzle, bar (Don Pizarro); Christian Elsner, ten (Florestan); Aaron Pegram, ten (1st Prisoner); Chao Deng, bs (2nd Prisoner); Günther Groissböck, bs-bar (Don Fernando); Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden; Male voices of MDR-Rundfunkchor; Dresden Philharmonic Orch.; Marek Janowski, cond / Pentatone Classics PTC5186880

Marek Janowski is a conductor I respect and admire for two reasons. First, in the mid-to-late 1980s he decided never to conduct live stage performances because he was thoroughly fed up with Regietheater productions; and second, he is generally a very intense conductor who gets under the skin of the works he conducts.

But there is one thing that bothers me with most of his opera recordings, and that is—possibly due to condition No. 2—he normally doesn’t get the first-class singers for his recordings that others are able to procure, and when he does occasionally get them, as on his Tristan und Isolde recording, they are past their prime and wobble all over the place.

Happily, on this new Fidelio, scheduled for release this month at pentatonemusic.com (in July elsewhere), there is only one really defective singer, and oddly enough that is the Marzelline, Christina Landshamer. Considering the fact that Marzelline, like Jacquino, is fairly easy to cast compared to the Leonore and Florestan, I really do think he should have done better, and Christina should be Landshamed of herself for her uneven wobble in a role that’s really a piece of cake for a light lyric-soubrette. But hey, Toscanini had a really dreadful Rocco (Sidor Belarsky) and a Florestan (Jan Peerce) who just belted everything and had no feeling for the part.

Otherwise, this is a surprisingly excellent performance. Originally scheduled as a live concert performance in April of 2020, it had to be cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but, as explained in the liner notes, because none of the singers could perform anywhere else for the same reason, they were all available in June of that year. As a result, Janowski recorded the opera in the studio with everyone appropriately socially distanced, and this is the result.

The three singers on whose shoulders rest the success or failure of any Fidelio performance are all very good to excellent. I’m not really crazy about Lise Davidsen’s timbre—it’s a bit wiry and has a flutter—but she controls it pretty well, sings all of her high notes without strain, and really digs into the character (far better than Gwyneth Jones on the old Karl Böhm recording). Christian Elsner has a somewhat light tenor voice, similar to that of Ernst Häfliger on the Ferenc Fricsay recording (which until now was my favorite stereo Fidelio) and equally into the character, which is excellent. And Pizarro is sung by one of the most underrated baritones of our day, the great Johannes Martin Kränzle. I was introduced to Kränzle’s singing nearly a decade ago by Joe Pearce, president of the Vocal Record Collectors’ Society via a lieder recital that blew both of us away, and I have never been disappointed by him in anything I’ve heard since. In fact, he probably has an even more appropriate-sounding Pizarro voice than did Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the Fricsay set. As for the other principals, Cornel Frey is a pretty good Jacquino (again better than Fricsay’s choice, a second-rate comprimario named Friedrich Lenz). Interestingly, our Rocco, Georg Zeppenfeld, has a really beautiful but light bass voice. This means that he is an excellent singer, but to my ears it makes Rocco sound as young as his daughter…musically good, but dramatically a bit askew. Yet he certainly can sing.

Davidsen-Elsner

Lise Davidsen & Christian Elsner, singing their love duet with social distancing.

Janowski’s shaping and pacing of the opera is really exemplary. From the very opening of the overture you know you are in for a treat, and he does not disappoint. His first act is not as briskly performed as that of Fricsay, but then again, once you reach “Ha! Welch ein Augenblick” the mood and the temperature change dramatically from light and bouncy to dark and sinister. And I’ve never heard those inner voices in the lower strings during “Mir ist so wunderbar” as clearly as in this recording. Oddly, however, the first part of “Gut, sönchen, gut” is taken slow than normal. Kränzle’s “Welch ein Augenblick” is really menacing, and if the male chorus in the background sounds just a bit too much like a Bach choir, they certainly sing the music more cleanly and clearly than you’ve ever heard it.

By this point I started to “get” this Fidelio. Although it lacks the theatricality of the live performance conducted by Klemperer (Testament), it is a compromise between a theatrical feeling and an almost 3-D X-ray presentation of the score. Just imagine a more relaxed version of the Toscanini performance in good stereo instead of boxy mono, and with a better cast, and you’ll get the idea. The dialogue is kept to a minimum, as is usually the case in commercial recordings of this opera, just enough to keep the drama intact without boring the listener. In the “Komm hoffnung” section of the “Abscheulischer,” for instance, you’ll hear cross-rhythms in the orchestral part that are in the score but generally inaudible in a stage performance. And of course, this is a good thing. Why else would you bother to re-record a standard opera like this unless you have something different to offer in the performance of it?

The Act I finale is—and I say this as a veteran of dozens of Fidelio performances and recordings—the best I’ve ever heard. And interestingly, Janowski takes the opening orchestral section of “Gott! Welch dunkel hier” at a pace very close but not identical to Toscanini’s, yet is able to impart a bit more drama to it (not to mention that Elsner is a far more involved tenor than was Peerce). The drama in Act II builds up beautifully, and—again much to my surprise (and approval)—“O namenlose Freude” is taken at a sane pace, allowing the singers to articulate their lines without sounding as if they’re scrambling for the notes (shades of Klemperer).

When you put it all together, then, this is a Fidelio that works very well (if not perfectly) on many levels. It is certainly head and shoulders above the grossly overrated Claudio Abbado Fidelio, on which only Jonas Kaufmann’s Florestan is really excellent. Nina Stemme, who at that time had a somewhat firm voice, simply doesn’t get as much under the skin of her character as Davidsen does, and for some reason the normally-excellent Falk Struckmann presents us with a cool, not-so-menacing Pizarro. On top of all that, Abbado’s conducting sounds light, airy, and disconnected from the drama, all of which works against the performance as a whole. Our Don Fernando, Günther Groissböck, has a rich-sounding bass voice reminiscent of Hans Sotin. So all is well on that count.

If you want a mostly-ideal stereo studio Fidelio, I still say the Fricsay is your choice (despite Lenz’ punk-sounding Jacquino), but if you insist on a digital recording, this is clearly your first choice. No other version even comes close, although there is the live 1984 Metropolitan Opera broadcast (alas, this was still in their pre-digital age) with Eva Marton, Jon Vickers, Franz Mazura, Roberta Peters and Paul Plishka, conducted at white heat intensity by the late Klaus Tennstedt (see my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide for a hyperlink to this recording) if you don’t mind broadcast sound with stage noise and audience applause.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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