Beethoven: Fidelio. Andrew Kennedy, Lisa Milne, Brindley Sherratt, Anja Kampe, Peter Coleman-Wright, Nathan Vale, Anthony Cleverton, Torsten Kerl, Henry Waddington; Glyndebourne Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder. Glyndebourne. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Wagner: Lohengrin. Kwangchul Youn, Johan Botha, Adrianne Pieczonka, Falk Struckmann, Petra Lang, Eike Wilm Schulte; Prague Chamber Choir, NDR Chorus, NDR Radio Choir Cologne and WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne conducted by Semyon Bychkov. Profil. $50.99 (3 SACDs).
In one of those ironies with which the operatic world is rife, the greatest surviving example of French rescue opera is in German. Beethoven’s Fidelio follows its formula closely, and in the wrong hands comes across as rigid: Leonore, disguised as Fidelio, is perfectly pure and the epitome of wifely duty; Florestan, imprisoned for boldly stating some never-identified beliefs that put him at odds with authority, is perfectly put-upon and a supremely devoted husband; Don Pizarro, Florestan’s enemy, is evil simply because he is evil; and Don Fernando represents mercy from the king because kings are supposed to be merciful. It takes really committed performers to break through these emotional straitjackets, and the new, live Glyndebourne recording is fortunate to have that sort of commitment at all levels. Anja Kampe brings fire and fervor to the role of Leonore/Fidelio – and also shows a touching vulnerability that is missing in other sopranos’ handling of the role, notably when she thinks she recognizes her chained and emaciated husband but is not quite sure. Torsten Kerl is appropriately distraught and subject to moments of alternating hope and fear as Florestan, although his voice is too strong to be that of a long-imprisoned, nearly starved victim (a flaw more in the role than in his handling of it). Henry Waddington is a forceful, upstanding Don Fernando, and Brindley Sherratt makes Rocco a far more human and humane jailer than in most productions – he is not merely following orders; he is trying to figure out why he must. The one significant weakness here is Peter Coleman-Wright’s portrayal of Don Pizarro, and this seems to be more a flaw in the recording than in his singing. There is something pinched in the audio when Coleman-Wright sings – his boasts and his hatred of Florestan sound as if they are being sung well but are curiously muffled, as if he is placed farther from the microphones than any other solo singer. Indeed, there are other recording oddities, such as sound effects that are much too loud for the music (knocking on a door during the overture, stage movements during the march in Act I). Nevertheless, this Fidelio packs an emotional punch, and the Glyndebourne Chorus is particularly good. Mark Elder has an excellent sense of pacing, making the opera into a unified whole rather than a series of episodes through well-chosen and well-contrasted tempos. And kudos to Glyndebourne for including the complete libretto, with translations into English, French and Italian side-by-side with the original German.
The full libretto is included with the new Profil recording of Lohengrin, too, but it is arranged oddly: the entire German text is offered, followed later in the booklet by the entire English translation, and still later by a version in French. This makes following the opera’s progress line by line difficult if you are not fluent in German – but it is one of the few flaws in an otherwise excellent production, presented in really top-notch SACD sound. Lohengrin is a rescue opera in its own right, but formulaic it decidedly is not. There is considerable complexity in this story, even though Wagner was just 35 when he wrote it. It requires multiple levels of suspension of disbelief: the audience must, among other things, accept trial by combat as an accurate way to assess truth, and move willingly into a world in which perfect obedience and restraint are the only ways to ensure what has the potential to be an ideal marriage. Preventing Lohengrin from seeming a mere fairy tale is by no means easy, but Semyon Bychkov’s knowing conducting goes a long way toward doing so by letting the music sweep listeners inexorably into the story. And the singers really inhabit their roles. Adrianne Pieczonka manages to make Elsa simultaneously naïve and strong, even though she fails the ultimate test that Lohengrin poses. Johan Botha sings the title role with power and majesty – his ardor seems genuine, making his necessary abandonment of Elsa at the end all the more tragic. Petra Lang’s rich mezzo-soprano turns Ortrud into a force to be reckoned with, and it is scarcely surprising that Falk Struckmann as Friedrich is badgered and ultimately overwhelmed by his wife’s sheer power. Add a stately performance by Kwangchul Youn as King Henry and some powerfully declamatory singing by Eike Wilm Schulte as the King’s Herald, and the result is a Lohengrin that rarely flags throughout its three-and-a-half hours (it is, happily, presented uncut). Excellent choral work and fine playing by the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne abet the strong solo performances to produce an interpretation that effectively mixes Wagnerian power with a very human sense of pathos.