Though a number of projects engaged his interest during his career, Beethoven wrote just one opera; his deafness probably discouraged further involvement with this most collaborative of art forms. But his single example is a true masterpiece, even if it took him a great deal of trouble and three attempts (1805, 1806 and 1814) to get it right.
A Singspiel (or opera with spoken dialogue), its theme is borrowed from one of the ‘rescue’ plots popular with the post-French Revolutionary composers whose works Beethoven admired – in short, the heroine Leonore disguises herself as a prison guard called Fidelio to rescue her husband Florestan, a political prisoner kept in the dark and gradually starved.
We call the opera Fidelio, but Beethoven preferred the title Leonore now attached to its earlier versions and to three of the four overtures he composed for it at various times. It is the final (and shorter) Fidelio overture that prefaces modern performances, while the Leonore overtures are usually encountered in the concert hall.
The best recording of Beethoven's Fidelio
Otto Klemperer (conductor)
From 1954 onwards, the veteran Otto Klemperer was closely associated with the Philharmonia Orchestra – then generally considered the best in the UK – becoming the ensemble’s chief conductor in 1959. Together they made a series of recordings that quickly earned classic status, including many of Beethoven’s major works.
Klemperer also created an unforgettable impression at Covent Garden in February 1961, directing as well as conducting a new production of Fidelio with a cast including tenor Jon Vickers’s heart-stopping Florestan and the flawed humanity of bass Gottlob Frick’s rich-toned Rocco.
Taped in February 1962, the subsequent EMI set brings Vickers and Frick together with Klemperer’s orchestra and adds to them Christa Ludwig’s magisterial Leonore (a rare but not unique excursion into soprano territory for the German mezzo), her then husband baritone Walter Berry’s psychologically insecure Pizarro, and the vitally characterful Marzelline and Jaquino of Ingeborg Hallstein and Gerhard Unger respectively.
With his long and diverse career rewardingly renewed due to his special relationship with the Philharmonia, at this period Klemperer was regarded as a grand old man with unique insights into the German repertoire, and especially Beethoven; such a view is vindicated by this impeccably cast set, in which conductor, orchestra and cast members are all at their best.
Three more great recordings of Beethoven's Fidelio
Leonard Bernstein (conductor)
Janowitz, Kollo, Sotin, Jungwirth; Vienna Phil (1978)
DG E474 4202
Fidelio’s humanitarian appeal held the deepest resonances for Bernstein. In 1970 he led a powerful production at the Vienna State Opera, conducting a revival in January 1978, shortly before making this thrilling recording with an identical cast.
Including the Leonore No. 3 overture before the final scene and dovetailing the close of the previous duet into its opening chord remains controversial (Bernstein called it ‘the best idea I ever had!’), and René Kollo’s Florestan and Hans Sotin’s Pizarro both suffer from vocal flaws.
Yet this recording feels right: Gundula Janowitz’s expressive Leonore, the human frailty of Manfred Jungwirth’s Rocco, a near ideal Marzelline and Jaquino from Lucia Popp and Adolf Dallapozza respectively, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s noble Don Fernando.
Ferenc Fricsay (conductor)
Rysanek, Haefliger, Fischer-Dieskau, Frick; Berlin Phil (1957)
DG E453 1062
Gifted Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay died in 1963 at the age of just 48, cutting short an important career. Made in the summer of 1957, his Fidelio is notable in employing smaller orchestral forces than was usual at the time, giving its soundworld an almost historically informed facet.
Surprising, too, is the casting as Florestan of Ernst Haefliger, who specialised in Bach and lyric roles rather than the heroic repertoire to which Beethoven’s hero has generally been assigned: yet the decision pays dividends in the Swiss tenor’s musical distinction and dramatic sensibility.
Fischer-Dieskau makes an indelible impression as Pizarro, while Frick is again a superb Rocco. Leonie Rysanek’s Leonore will divide listeners: though she’s exciting, she’s frequently out of tune.
Herbert von Karajan (conductor)
Dernesch, Vickers, Kélémen, Ridderbusch; Berlin Phil (1970)
Warner 948 1722
Recorded in Berlin in 1970, Karajan’s studio account is founded on outstanding playing from the Berlin Philharmonic, who provide a characteristically rich underlay. Jon Vickers offers another great interpretation of Florestan alongside his version for Klemperer. With some dubious intonation, Helga Dernesch is less even as Leonore, though her impassioned manner and the grand scale of her reading are admirable.
- We named Berlin Philharmonic one of the best orchestras in the world
A favourite Karajan collaborator at this period, the Hungarian bass-baritone Zoltán Kélémen makes a vehement if gritty Pizarro, while Karl Ridderbusch’s human, full-toned Rocco offers distinguished musicianship and the Marzelline (Helen Donath) and Jaquino (Horst Laubenthal) are a distinctively memorable second couple. The acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche is a touch over-resonant.
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.