Conductor: Leonard Bernstein
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Stage director: Otto Schenk
Cast = Leonora/Fidelio: Gundula Janowitz; Florestan: Rene Kollo; Don Fernando: Hans Helm; Don Pizarro: Hans Sotin; Rocco: Manfred Jungwirth; Marzelline: Lucia Popp
Studio: DGG, 2006
Video: 4:3 full screen NTSC Color
Audio formats: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.0, Dolby Digital 5.0
Running time: 147 minutes
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, and Chinese
Extras: Documentary, Synopsis, Cast listing, Note booklet
At last here is the 1978 production of ORF that was broadcast for television in Europe. Bernstein first did this opera in Vienna in 1970, and all accounts are that it was a powerhouse production. But this 1978 version, tastefully directed in a traditional and highly effective manner by Otto Schenk, has surely remained the last word in video productions, and it will take some doing to unseat it. Fidelio has always been a problem child for any conductor or director due to its numerous reworking and many issues with dramatic continuity. For instance, we get a heavy overdose of Marzelline and her love interest with Jaquino in the first act, something that never really gets resolved by the end of the opera, and she sort of fades to black upon the ascendancy of Florestan, whom we don’t see until Act II. And I have always felt that Beethoven overdid the celebratory mood at the end of the opera, going on and on about the virtues of his wife who saved him—it’s just a little too long for me.
But yet, this is a masterpiece, his only opera, and near and dear to a subject close to his heart all his life—the freedom of man from political oppression. No other composer was as concerned as he, and no other filled his music with references to it as he did. In Fidelio he is able to express in a forthright and concrete manner these beliefs and some of his most profound and moving music has to be found in the dungeon scene in Act II. (When Leonora pulls a knife on Don Pizarro, the moment is electrifying.) Schenk takes him at his word, and creates sets that faithfully reflect the mood of the work, and the despair and dark despondency that are felt by Florestan and Leonora at the former’s seemingly inescapable fate. No doubt the fact of a TV broadcast weighed heavily on some of the decisions made in stage direction, but by and large this production lacks nothing in emotional content and fervor.
The cast is superb—Leonora played by a Gundula Janowitz at her height, and a young Rene Kollo then on the ascent as one of the leading heldentenors in the world. Lucia Popp sings with her characteristic lightness and grace to fill out the incomplete role of Marzelline. Hans Sotin is feverishly menacing as the evil Don Pizarro and Manfred Jungwirth equally off-setting as his nemesis Rocco, who is played with gentility and a sense of reluctant action.
Bernstein is all ablaze in this work, encouraged by the absolutely adoring crowd at the opera that night, who give him an extraordinary greeting when he comes into the pit. The one exception I take to his interpretation is the inclusion of the Leonora No. 3 Overture at the end of the dungeon scene, omitting the opening timpani thud and picking up on the note “G” that ends the scene. Musically it is amazingly effective, but dramatically the overture lengthens the opera and stalls the action. To top it all off, the audience wants to adore the conductor some more at the conclusion, further wrecking the mood. But when things finally get underway, the results are fabulous and the opera concludes in an appropriately festal and heroic manner.
The sound is offered in DTS 5.0, and I found that the preferred means to listen, but the strings are just a tiny bit on the tinny side. This seems to get better as the opera goes on, but don’t expect the normally polished sound of the VPO that you hear on recordings; there are a couple of horn clams (minor) and other orchestral mishaps common to live performances, and the capturing of the orchestra is more clinical than you might expect. This hall is large, with a decay time longer than many cathedrals; you get more of a you-are-there feeling than in most videos. Nonetheless, this is a fabulous performance that has acquired legendary status, and deservedly so.
— Steven Ritter