BEETHOVEN Fidelio • Leonard Bernstein, cond; Gundula Janowitz (Leonore); Lucia Popp (Marceline); René Kollo (Florestan); Hans Sotin (Don Pizarro); Manfred Jungwirth (Rocco); Vienna St Op O & Ch • DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 073 4159 (DVD: 147.00)Read more
This January 29, 1978, live performance from the Vienna State Opera is not the same as Bernstein’s DG studio recording on LP and CD, which has a similar but not identical cast. Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets are superb. Act I is a large, plain prison courtyard partially covered by dark iron catwalks; as the Second Prisoner warns “eyes and ears are on us,” we see armed soldiers patrolling the shadows above. Otto Schenck’s direction is simplicity itself; indeed, a good deal of the singing mimics the old “stand and deliver” mode. It works well here; fussy direction can blunt the power of this dramatic blockbuster. Leo Bei’s costumes are always appropriate: Florestan’s once-fine coat is filthy, worn, frayed, and perhaps nibbled by rats.
The promising cast delivers vocally most of the time, but none are fine actors. Jungwirth is the best, expressing the many contradictions that plague Rocco’s life. Sotin struggles to be villainous, but he may be too nice a man for the role. Kollo is an excellent Florestan, stretched a bit by Bernstein’s slow tempo in his opening scene, but convincing in his near-madness. Popp would seem to be luxury casting, but her Marzelline is no better than many others. Which leaves us with Fidelio/Leonore. Janowitz sings smoothly, avoiding the potential pitfalls of the role, but she does not even attempt her high Bs in “Abscheulicher!” or “O namenlose Freude!” Nor does she create a convincing character; we get little sense of the desperation of Leonore’s situation. Her speaking voice is poor, and she is a wooden actor.
Bernstein was 59 at the time, cutting back tempos but still projecting his magic touch. The overture is so ideally realized that we barely notice how slow some of it is. The March is wonderful, with just the right balance of lilt and swagger. This being a live performance, and in Vienna, Bernstein segues directly into Leonore No. 3 at the close of the dungeon scene. Appropriate or not, the performance is so potent that the audience goes wild, demanding bow after bow until even Broadway Lenny wants to get on with the show.
The finale is musically, dramatically, and visually magnificent. As the curtain rises, we see the backs of the prisoners as they watch a huge drawbridge (half the stage) being lowered, across which their women swarm into their arms. Bernstein sets a reasonable tempo (unlike so many conductors who rush the whole scene), holding steady up to the Presto molto, so that every detail of music and drama may be savored. For once, Don Fernando is not a letdown—the Staatsoper typically finds quality for secondary roles, this time in the voice and noble bearing of Hans Helm. Even Janowitz is more convincing than in earlier scenes, although she still ducks her high note. Chorus and orchestra are fine throughout, although perhaps not as exceptional as we have heard from Vienna on other occasions. Vienna’s black-tie audience thunders and screams for eight-and-a-half minutes of curtain calls as the credits roll.
The video direction (also by Schenck) is as straightforward as his stage direction. Close-ups are limited and sensitively chosen, except that some of the prisoners ham it up a bit. The video quality (available only in a 4:3 ratio) is very clean, the audio not quite so fine. I listened in Dolby Digital 5.0, which sounded better than either PCM Stereo (do I even know what that is?) or DTS 5.0 on my surround-sound SACD system. Balances are good, but the orchestra can sound a bit tinny at both extremes of the spectrum. The stage has a few dead spots; Janowitz sounds weak as she begins “Absheulicher!” but as soon as she moves a few feet into the position where she will sing the bulk of the aria, her voice blooms. Even though the scenery has changed, one notices that the reunited couple clasp each other at exactly the same spot for “O namenlose Freude!” Subtitles are offered in German, English, French, Spanish, and Chinese. There are two extras: a trailer for a DVD of the 2005 Salzburg La traviata—a slick, silly modern production that is spectacularly well sung by Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón—plus a seemingly endless catalog of Deutsche Grammophon DVDs.
Despite some dramatic lapses and a few vocal ones, this is a strong presentation of Fidelio, anchored by Bernstein’s unmatched feeling for the score and his orchestra’s fine playing. In many ways, this production is preferable to James Levine’s recent DVD from the Met, but it is soft at its core, lacking the sterling Leonore of Karita Mattila.