Fidelio: More flaws than masterpiece?

Fidelio: More flaws than masterpiece?


norman lebrecht

March 07, 2020

Welcome to the 42nd work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Fidelio, op 72

There are two reasons Beethoven wrote only one opera. The first was that it took him eleven years of intermittent revisions. The second is that he was still dissatisfied with Fidelio when it reached its final form. ‘This opera will win me a martyr’s crown,’ he said upon seeing the fourth and last version, referring to it as ‘what was saved from the shipwreck’.

Opinon has divided ever since. Hector Berlioz extolled its ‘energy, grandeur, originality and a deep feeling’ (he went on to compose a problematic opera of his own). Leonard Bernstein called the opera ‘a celebration of life,’ and went on to say, in a televised lecture, that ‘everyone will admit that, as operas go, Fidelio has its weaknesses.’ Bernstein wrote it down as ‘a flawed masterpiece,’ itself an unsatisfactory dismissal since the flaws come thick and fast in the opera before one can begin to suspect that it might be a masterpiece.

The story, for starters, strains credulity. Based on a true incident during the French Revolution when a young woman dressed up as a man to spring her political-prisoner husband from jail, the opera wants us to believe that Leonore’s disguise as the young man ‘Fidelio’ is so effective that the jailer’s sexy daughter, Marzelline, falls in love with her. On discovering her gender confusion, Marzelline pledges to help the cross-dressing Leonore/Fidelio to get Florestan out of the dungeon.

In two words, the opera is about love and freedom but you have to get to the final reconciliation before its disparate, barely functional elements cohere in an ending that overwhelms all doubts in a rush of human compassion.

Bernstein, who conducted one of the finest performances on record, blames the faults in the story on its playwrights, but Beethoven cannot be exonerated from the muliple lapses of this uneven masterpiece, demonstrating time and again his inaibility to cover up the gaps with music that defeats all doubts. Gustav Mahler, a genius at redeeming misshapen operas, accentuated the power of the final scene by preceding it with one of several discard overtures, lating almost quarter of an hour. Mahler gave Fidelio a lasting reputation as ‘a conductor’s opera’, but the truth of the matter is that only an exceptional cast of singers with great acting ability can bring off a triumphant Fidelio.

Bernstein, in his 1978 DG recording has a near-dream cast in Gundula Janowitz as Leonore, René Kollo as Florestan and the subtle, cool-voiced Lucia Popp as Marzelline in a Vienna production that won endless ovations. The trouble is that Kollo is no match for these strong women and you wonder why Popp is wasting her sweet voice on either of them. Hans Sotin is an appropriately terrifying jail boss. There is an alternative 1970 Bernstein recording from Rome with a less slick orchestra and chorus, but with Helen Donath and Birgit Nilsson giving their all as the female protagonists.

The problem with most productions is the interjection of spoken text, which make Fidelio more Singspiel than opera. Many opera singers are uncomfortable declaiming German text of no singular poetic beauty. The listener is even more uncomfortable. One recording gets around this dilemma by employing actors from the spoken theatre to deliver the prosaic lines. Ferenc Fricsay’s 1958 interpretation has other transcendent beauties. Check track 4 for the ‘wunderbar’ quartet and you will be swept away by a perfect ensemble of Irmgard Seefried, Leonie Rysanek, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Ernst Haefliger.

In Tom Stoppard’s new play ‘Leopoldstadt’, one of the characters helpfully points out that, to reopen the bombed-out Vienna State Opera in 1955, the newly reconstituted Austrian Republic put on a production of Fidelio – the great liberation opera – conducted by an avowed Nazi. The conductor was Karl Böhm, who in 1938 had exhorted players in the Vienna Philharmonic to vote for union with Hitler’s Germany. A recording of Böhm’s 1955 staging survives; the singing of Irmgard Seefried and Martha Mödl is above reproach.

Wilhelm Furtwängler was prone to say that ‘Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician of the theatre.’  Aware of those deficiencies, and equipped with a celestial cast – Sena Jurinac, Rudolf Schock, Mödl, Gottlob Frick, Wolfgang Windgassen – the wily concudctor covers the cracks with slick dexterity. Of the four Furtwängler recordings, this is superior in all respects.

Erich Kleiber recorded Fidelio in Cologne a few days before his death in Zurich, in January 1956, apparently by his own hand. Kleiber, who could not put a beat wrong in Beethoven, never recovered his status in post-War Europe after returning from South American exile. His Fidelio is at once humane and precise, an attempt to extract the best from this oddball opera before time runs out. The cast includes , Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hopf, Ingeborg Wenglor and Gottlob Frick.

Leading conductors of the recording age – Karajan, Solti, Haitink, Maazel, Masur, Colin Davis – all had a go at Fidelio without leaving a lasting mark. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, always so sound in Beethoven, lacks dramatic daring. In the next generation, Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle led the line, but the production that stands out from the end of the record album age is Claudio Abbado‘s in 2010. Abbado had led a golden age at La Scala and a more turbulent decade at the Berlin Philharmoic before struggling in his final years with an emaciating stomach cancer that, rather than disabling him, seemed to liberate a freedom of interpretation and fantasy.

His Lucerne Festival performances survive as a monument of courage and hope. In Fidelio he had Nina Stemme and Jonas Kaufmann. The penultimate duet is studiously undersung, as if the relationship between Leonore and Florestan will now have to be rebuilt from scratch and might not survive. Having been freed by his wife, will he acquire the humility to defer to her? The finale sweeps all critical reservations to the bin where they belong. Abbado’s Fidelio would be my first choice – were it not for an unassailable classic album….


To be discussed tomorrow.


  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    That would have to be Klemperer.

    • John Soutter says:

      I was going to comment on the article’s omission of the epiphanic Klemperer …

      • YoMa says:

        The Klemperer is so dull and boring. It completely lacks the dramatic intensity required in this work. An amazing cast, no doubt, but I have never understood the applause this recording gets. It’s just so boring. I’ll take Karajan over Klemperer here any day. I’ll take Jacobs’ Leonore recording over the lot of the available Fidelio/Leonore recordings.

  • A millenial says:

    Why the obsession with whether a work by a celebrity composer is a “masterpiece”? Is this blog the “Closer” of classical music?

    Fidelio will clearly be performed for years to come because it was composed by Beethoven and, whether a “masterpiece” or not, is worth hearing because it’s Beethoven’s only opera.

    You would do well to write a little more about other works and composers, ancient or modern, which may not be in consideration as “masterpieces” (your term and subjective) or composed by celebrity composers. Time on earth is limited and is the best use of it to listen to 100 slightly differing recordings of the same work?

    There are plenty of works which deserve more frequent performance. I commend to you the series “Revisiting the repertoire”.

  • fflambeau says:

    It’s a nice historical review. Abbado was a Godsend in more ways than one; one of the greats of all time. My choice still remains: Klemperer.

  • Leporello says:

    Beethoven was in thrall to Cherubini (‘the greatest living dramatic composer’ he said), and the craze for ‘rescue operas’ in the wake of the French Revolution. The fact is though that Beethoven was unable to conceive of an original form of music-drama. Dramatic music, on the other hand, was quite another matter.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I’m sure that if B had found a libretto which would fit his imaginative sense of organic development, he would have jumped upon it and write the opera he would love to write. The plot of Fidelio moves much too slow and has not enough variety.

      • Leporello says:

        Brahms spent many years looking for a suitable opera libretto too, and even advertised in the newspapers. Many were offered but he rejected them all. I don’t see him as an opera composer either. It wasn’t a question of the absence of librettos (they could have written or shaped their own); neither was cut out for the form. They were wise to concentrate on what they did best.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    My choices in Fidelio are the great Klemperer EMI commercial recording, Fricsay’s beautiful performance on DGG (possibly my favorite), and Furtwangler’s on EMI (I have had this forever on a Seraphim LP set, and it sounds great, and it IS great). Moedl: if she was in front of me right now, I would give her a big kiss – with her permission, of course.
    I don’t agree with your assessment of Abbado; his performance sounds dispirited and weak to me.
    Bernstein, naturally, conducts Bernstein’s Fidelio, not Beethoven’s. Janowitz, however, is expectedly superb.
    Knappertsbusch, who survived that Nazi regime of bastards, put down a Fidelio for Westminster Records back in the old LP days. I have this on LP. Yes, it is slow, and Peerce is no Wunderlich, but the performance seems to resonate with some sort of “rightness”. Call it a sentimental attachment….
    Toscanini: again, Peerce is the tenor, but he does not get in the way of an emotional, stirring, and dramatic performance. Bampton is awesome. Toscanini is channeling Beethoven here, as is his wont. The fly in the ointment is the usual complaint in many of the Toscanini broadcast recordings: the tempos can be a bit pushed because of the limits set by the broadcast times. Fie on you, NBC!
    Boehm, fervent and dedicated Nazi that he was, is the absolute last person I want to hear conducting Fidelio.

    • BrianB says:

      You are right about the conditions of the Toscanini performance. There is a surviving shortwave aircheck of part of a Salzburg performance (with Lotte Lehmann–would that we had a complete with her) and the tempi are much more spacious and expansive.
      Last time I heard the Knappertsbusch Westminster, I quite liked it, having made the adjustment that this was going to be his take on Fidelio and that was that.

  • I am guessing it’s Klemperer…

  • We privatize your value says:

    Janowitz has one of the most beautiful voices of all time and one could listen to hear endlessly. But it must be said that she is physically very credible as a woman trying to pass for a man. Vocally, Popp and her could have switched the parts – but not visually.

  • Una says:

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating. These eminent experts can all have their more justified opinions from a wealth of practical experience as well as musicologically, more so than the usual armchair experts and self-made critics. Vocally a tough work to sing but I just love the work – end of story! Don’t like the production? Close your eyes and just listen to the music! Don’t like the music? Then don’t go! But ROH Fidelio was sold out before tickets ever went on sale to the general public, and my local cinema alone in a small town the north of England with a live and an Encore performance, both sold out well before Christmas. Opera rarely gets sold out up here.

  • A.L. says:

    Ultra fine Fidelios that were not released commercially but should have been:

    Klaus Tennstedt leads the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, with Eva Marton, Jon Vickers,

    Georg Solti leads the Vienna Philharmonic, with Cheryl Studer, Ben Heppner,

  • Mike Schachter says:

    I have tried on several occasions live and on disc to like as well as admire Fidelio, unsuccessful so far. It does seem an unavoidable conclusion that some great composers did not even try to write opera (Brahms) or did but not very well (Haydn, Schubert). Mozart could do it all, of course.

    • Maria says:

      No one is expected to like every single work or opera.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Mozart had the luck of an excellent librettist, who could combine both variety and dramatic movement of the plot, both being characteristics exactly meeting Mozart’s talents.

  • ira says:

    i certainly hope it will be klemperer [although the substitution of ludwig for jurinac who led the cast in the live opera production still bothers me].

  • msc says:

    As usual, a quick survey like this is bound to overlook some very good recordings. I’d like to add to the shortlist Knappertsbusch from 1961 with Jurinac and Peerce, Bohm from 1969 with Jones and King, and Davis in 2005 with Brewer and MacMaster, which I would a truly great performance even though Brewer — like so many Leonore’s — could never be mistaken for a man.

  • Dear Mr. Lebrecht, could you please list the previous articles about Beethoven on this series at the end of the next ones? It would be lovely to access them from the new ones.

  • Melisande says:

    Besides the above mentioned performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio I came across these in my discography.
    The soloists are: Leonore, Fidelio and Marzelline.

    Arturo Toscanini – NBC Symph. Orch. and chorus – Rose Bamton – Jan Peerce – Eleanor Steber
    1944 CD (broadcast recording)

    Otto Klemperer – Philharmonia Orch.& Choir – Christa Ludwig – Jon Vickers – Ingeborg Hallstein
    Record and CD

    Wilhelm Furtwangler – Wiener Philharmoniker – Staatsoper Choir – Kirsten Flagstad – Julius Patzak – Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
    Live Salzburger Festspiele 1950

    So curious how the Pappano performance will make this masterpiece shine. Lise Davidsen is perhaps the youngest Leonore ever!

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Hi Melisande,
      Nice list, and as you can see from my above comment, you are on my wavelength.
      I have not heard the live 1950 Furtwangler; I’m familiar only with the EMI commercial set, which I’ve loved since college days (I’m of the retired age now).
      Could you write another comment describing what you feel are the differences between the live and the studio sets?
      Thanks in advance….

  • Richard Cumming Bruce says:

    The unassailable album to be discussed tomorrow presumably being Klemperer’s rightly lauded version with Vickers and Ludwig. To me, one of the great discoveries that fuelled my love of opera more than 30 years ago.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    And who might be conducting this “unassailable classic album”?
    Something tells me it might be Otto the Great.

  • BrianB says:

    The greatest Fidelio I know is Bruno Walter’s Metropolitan Opera broadcast performance of February 22, 1941 with Kirsten Flagstad and the Belgian Rene Maison as Florestan. Against the background of a Nazi-dominated wartorn Europe, it is a fervent, almost consecrational profession of faith and ultimate triumph. Walter also clearly believed in the potential of Fidelio as genuine music drama and serves it up to us in a white hot performance that builds from strength to strength until we get to the undeniable drama of the second act. The performance nearly obliterates the opera’s undeniable flaws. Flagstad triumphs not only over Pizarro but over Beethoven’s awkward vocal writing like nobody else. It’s superhuman and transformative unlike any other protagonist on record. The entire cast is effective under Walter’s compelling baton, especially Kipnis as Rocco.
    If you haven’t heard this performance (preserved in remarkably good sound in the best sources) you simply have not heard or I should say experienced Fidelio.

  • Robert Roy says:

    Let’s be honest – we don’t really go to opera for situations that are in any way realistic!

  • Monsoon says:

    It’s certainly not a masterpiece, and only gets as much attention as it does because Beethoven wrote it.

    Looking cat the Met’s performance archive, it’s their 37th most performed opera with 237 performances (compare that to “Tosca,” which was first performed at the Met 17 years later, and has been performed 978 times). Two me, 37 feels about right, and that puts it in the same company as “Don Carlo” and “La Forza del Destino.”

    • Mike Schachter says:

      Don Carlo, or preferably Don Carlos, is also flawed but is a truly great opera. I think most non-Wagnerians would agree.

      • John Borstlap says:

        One does not have to be a non-wagnerian to agree with this assessment of Don Carlos. But the plot has enough to offer Verdi his dramatic and expressive talents.

        The best operas, in terms of how well the plot and music are integrated and of their sustained musical qualities, are Monteverdi’s Poppea, Mozart’s Da Ponte operas, Verdi’s Otello and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Most other famous operas have some flaws, which are easily forgiven because of their qualities. Perfection has never been the main aim of the genre.

  • David Boxwell says:

    My desert island Fidelio is Klemperer live in ’62. Vickers sounds like a wounded steer. Which is perfect casting.

  • Fredby says:

    The Wunderbar quartet in the Fricsay version is sung by Gottlob Frick not DFD.

  • Bruce says:

    I like my Davis and Haitink recordings very much. They may not have left a “lasting mark,” but they’re good.

    I don’t feel compelled to go back through the decades, convinced that what’s in the past must be better. Voigt and Heppner in their prime make a pretty darn good pair.

  • Paul Dawson says:

    “Gustav Mahler, a genius at redeeming misshapen operas, accentuated the power of the final scene by preceding it with one of several discard overtures, lating almost quarter of an hour.” Far be it from me to take Mahler to task, but at the Garden in the 80s, tossing in Leonore 3 in the second half was a massive disruption of the dramatic flow.

  • David says:

    No mention of my favourite: Böhm live from the Bavarian State Opera in 1978 (his last recorded performance), with an amazing Hildegard Behrens.

    • Heldensopran says:

      Amazing David that you are the only one mentioning “the amazing” Hildegard Behrens! who commanded not only the glorious voice of uplifting radiance that the role demands, but had an intellectual understanding of the role that remains, and likely will remain unrivalled!
      This extraordinary interview should tell you everything about why she was so magnificent as Leonore!

    • Heldensopran says:

      And some Londoners may recall the stunning Behrens Leonore at Covent Garden with Jon Vickers under Goodall in 1976, and also with Vickers at the Met in 1980, both available on Opera Depot in great stereo sound!
      And of course the studio recording with Solti and the Chicago Symphony on Decca.

  • Donald Hansen says:

    Just curious – does anyone have the January 1950 Oceanic Records recording of the opera? It was recorded after eight days of rehearsal by the choir and symphony orchestra of the Mitteldeutsche Rundfunk, Leipzig, under Gerhard Pfluger. Heinz Sauerbaum was
    Florestan, Margarete Baumer was Leonora, Manfred Hubner was Don Pizarro, and Adolph Savelkouls was Rocco (I won’t name the rest of the cast). I don’t think I’ve played the LPs in over 50 years but at the time thought it was quite good.

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    ==Time on earth is limited and is the best use of it to listen to 100 slightly differing recordings of the same work?

    Yes, a very good point above

    • Paul Dawson says:

      Nothing wrong with getting the microscope out occasionally. I’ve got eight different recordings of Knappertsbusch conducting Parsifal. I’m still trying to work out the best way of comparing them. Act by act? Scene by scene? After that, I need to compare at least some of them with the two recordings I have by his acolyte, Goodall. That will probabbly lead on to comparing Goodall with his nemesis, Solti. But one does have time for other things in life.

  • Save the MET says:

    Despite it’s flaws, I consider “Fidelio” one of the greatest operas composed. The story is inspiring, the music is inspiring, “O welche lust” is some of the most inspired choral writing ever composed and the overtures are spectacular. Beethoven had some difficulty writing for the voice and he was not kind to singers, “Abscheulicher”, “Ha Welch ein Augenblick” and “Gott Welch Dunkel Hier” are among the most difficult arias in all of opera for a singer, however, each is truly inspired. Beethoven wrote the work on near history, at the time, with the exception of Mozart, most grand operas of the time were based on myths and religious tales, Beethoven was working in the earliest form of verismo. When you get down to it, the opera is unique, bold and frankly leaves me inspired every time I hear it.

  • Robert Slotover says:

    I’m sorry some people don’t think ‘Fidelio’ is a great opera. I think they are sadly misled. It is of course the greatest opera ever written. The problem is it has to be well performed. Not by the greatest stars but by great musicians of total integrity to whom the subject is indeed a matter of life and death. That of course is the subject matter together with freedom, the rule of law, repressive governance and of course love, heroism, bravery, women’s equality, humanity and more. It might even be the first truly political opera.

    Anyone conducting or directing this work with a view to furthering their own career or making some kind of statement is going to go against the unmistakable grain of this work and so those who know no better will think the less of the work. This is not always the case with other operas but it certainly is with this one.

    In terms of performances which might convert the doubters, I would recommend the live Klemperer one from Covent Garden over the EMI studio recording. Remember, Klemperer directed the production as well as conducting it. It has as its representatives of good and evil two of the greatest singing actors of all time, Jon Vickers and Hans Hotter. Sena Jurinac is searingly intense and Gottlob Frick the embodyment of the morally ambiguous average man.

    When thinking about the greatest libretti of all time, Fidelio might not come to mind but it has served to produce some of Beethoven’s finest music pace those who think it is not top drawer.

    Going back to Klemperer, he was an immovable rock in matters of musical integrity and he was also one of the greatest exponents of the doctrine of ‘The end is in the beginning,’ meaning that with the first chords of the overture you feel you are hitched to a non-stop train making its way to its final stop with palpable inevitability.

    There are some other great performances you might try just for interest. The Bolshoi Fidelio with the young Vishnevskaya Melik-Pashaev is fascinating; such subjects were of especial interest to Soviet audiences and I am also a fan of the Vienna State Opera’s guest performance at Covent Garden conducted by Clemens Krauss in 1947 with Konetzni, Friedrich, Schoeffler, Weber, Schwarzkopf and Klein. They sound as if the meant it too.

    I mentioned earlier the danger of putting a gloss on this particular opera but I would suggest there are two thoughts that might persuade one that this was the only opera Beethoven could have written. I am thinking of a story from Beethoven’s childhood. His father would come home at night with friends, all no doubt drunk, and haul the child from his bed to entertain them by playing the piano. Refusal would result in him being locked in the cellar (according the report of a court councillor quoted by Maynard Solomon). It is not mentioned whether he would be ‘rescued’ by his mother but that would have been the likely scenario in any family situation. Is it ‘uebertrieben’ to see a parallel with Florestan’s incarceration in his ‘untererdische Gewoelbe?’ At the very least Florestan’s plight would have spoken to Beethoven: the music suggests this in the most extraordinary degree.

    The other thought coming to mind of course is Beethoven’s lifelong search for a good woman to be his wife. His personality and circumstances were surely enough for him to be looking for someone to ‘save’ him, or is that ‘uebertrieben’? Not as far as I am concerned.

    Such considerations might help doubters look at Fidelio again. I hope they do.

  • DAvid H Sepnce says:

    Deeply flawed is Leonard Bernstein attempting to conduct Beethoven’s Fidelio. One of the most over-rated opera recordings ever around, though probably not as lousy as Solti’s, but close, and Janowitz does not have the right voice for the part.

  • Bruce says:

    Also, complaining about the credibility plot of an opera is ridiculous — even more so when you acknowledge that it is based on a true incident.