Various artists, "Fidelio" (Decca)
With more than a dozen commercial recordings of Beethoven's only opera already available, why buy this new one? The reasons begin with Jonas Kaufmann.
The German tenor brings to the role of the unjustly imprisoned Florestan the same qualities that have made him an international superstar — a keen understanding of the text joined to a powerful, exceptionally beautiful voice that is capable of the subtlest dynamic shadings. His is a carefully thought-out interpretation that still sounds fresh and spontaneous. It's a thrilling performance, worthy of comparison with such great Florestans of the recent past as Jon Vickers and James King.
As his wife, Leonora, who has disguised herself as a young man named Fidelio in order to rescue him, Nina Stemme is also extremely impressive. The Swedish dramatic soprano creates a thoroughly sympathetic portrayal of a courageous wife and makes easy work of the role's vocal hurdles, including a gleaming high C. In her extended aria, "Abscheulicher!" she smoothly switches gears from righteous anger to tenderness, and finally, to heroic determination.
Among a strong supporting cast, baritone Peter Mattei almost steals the show as the benevolent minister Don Fernando. Though he appears only in the final scene, Mattei imbues his few phrases with a melting beauty and nobility. Bass Christof Fischesser is sympathetic as the jailer Rocco, baritone Falk Struckmann snarls with appropriate menace as the evil Don Pizzaro, and Rachel Harnisch is charming as Marzelline, her lyric soprano contrasting nicely with Stemme's fuller sound.
This recording was made from live performances at the Lucerne Festival in the summer of 2010. Claudio Abbado conducts the forces of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in an energetic reading of the score that's often brisk but never merely businesslike. The streamlined recording omits much of the spoken dialogue often heard between the musical numbers. In the great choral scenes for the prisoners and populace (well sung by the Arnold Schoenberg Choir), Abbado slows down the tempo just enough to allow us to savor the grandeur of Beethoven's vision.
CHECK OUT THIS TRACK: The beginning of Act 2 introduces Florestan with an aria that begins, "Gott! Welch dunkel hier!" ("God, what darkness here!") Many tenors attack the opening word, sung on the note G natural, full-out like a stab of pain. But Kaufmann begins it in a whisper so low your first impulse may be to check your volume control. Then, in one sustained breath lasting 11 seconds, he gradually increases the volume until the word becomes a fortissimo cry of anguish. It's a daring and stunning effect.