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5.0 out of 5 starsBeautiful Production of Fidelio

Reviewed in the United States on February 7, 2017

This is, among all the Fidelios I've sampled on film, one of the best-if not THE best available. It is even more engaging than the Met's Mattila / Heppner version, from the same record label-a rendition of this opera I still have great respect for! I won't spend any serious time breaking down the particulars of one performance vs. another (individual singers' strengths / weaknesses, staging, conducting, etc.), as that can make for a very long, drawn-out review, and really , my main focus here is just on this ONE performance. We already know that one or two roles have arguably been better sung by this or that person, and others acted with more nuance by artists on competing versions, etc., etc. Everyone with a few strong opinions on this subject has their own idea of what the "Dream Team" could ultimately be for Fidelio, and it's probably safe to say that such a lineup has, and will never exist on film-at least in the foreseeable future.

Back to the Fidelio in this review. I have to say, without reservation, that I LOVE this version, and probably always will. For one thing, it's got Gwyneth Jones as Leonore. Now it bears mentioning that Jones enjoyed a relatively short prime as a singer, and hearing her at her best requires that you aim for that 10 year sweet spot between the '60's and early' 70's. As luck would have it, this production catches her at her absolute vocal peak, and the rewards are absolutely stunning. Beethoven's writing for the soprano voice can be quite punishing, and to be able to enjoy the all the colorful and exciting writing / composition that went into the music for the role, you can't be distracted by a singer who's struggling to make all the notes-even if she otherwise manages to pull off the bulk of the part. Along comes Jones, who not only achieves this and more, but with such a superhuman facility, that she makes it all seem almost easy. In effect, the writing and the dramatic content come out front and center in the purest, most unforced manner possible, with singing that is full, powerful and rich, reminding us of just how inspired Beethoven's music for Leonore really is, when delivered by someone of Jones' amazing gifts. The famous "Abhoricher" aria is about as good as it gets!

James King is a very good Florestan, doing some of the best singing I've heard from him on recording. His acting is also quite convincing, especially throughout the dungeon scene. He may not make you feel the same amount of pathos as, say, a Kaufmann, but he is still very believable and sympathetic. Gustav Neidlinger, is, of course, a powerful villain-absolutely unforgettable. Really, all the singers are exceptional, down to the smaller parts. I won't go through the entire rest of the cast at this point, but suffice to say, all do a great job.

The great conductor Karl Bohm takes a rather unique approach to conducting this opera. It is not the thick and heavy style a lot of us might be used to from conductors like Klemperer (who I love), or similar guys behind the podium. In fact, I was worried at first, that a slightly 'airier "style might rob this piece of its gravitas and power. But the fact is, it actually works very well! The music breathes and flows in a way that reminds one of how Bohm conducts Mozart, or even Von Weber; a kind of music-making and 'Classical' phrasing that sharpens the musical lines and gives them a real 'lift', showcasing the brilliance of Beethoven's score throughout.

This of course helps give the opera a kind of up-close intimacy, musically-speaking. As well, this intimacy is even further highlighted by the cinematic style, and the general stage direction, emphasizing an 'up-close and personal' view of the characters and sets, as if you were right there in the room with them. This approach makes for ideal filming of the production as a "movie", with sound stage sets and lighting, filters, direction, etc.-the whole works. Of course, that means the characters lip-synch everything. Some here, have definite reservations about such a practice, and find the results to be less than perfect. But all in all, it is for me a small quibble, and not unduly distracting, especially if you're accustomed to seeing the same kind thing in other movies, musicals, music videos and the like. That factor aside, all the cinematic techniques are really well done-especially the cross-fading that occurs during the famous quartet in the first act, where the individual characters' thoughts and fears are highlighted brilliantly in concert with the music and dramatic flow of this wonderful piece.

Fidelio, as we know, is a rather static opera, dramatically-speaking. Any forward momentum that this drama has largely depends on how it is being presented by the conductor, cast, and direction. The brilliance of the music helps a lot of course, but the rest is up to the forces involved in the production. In the end, we can only go so far-do so much to make up that difference. I believe this filmed production does an amazing job of just that, and more; and reminds us of why this work still matters so much in our world, even throughout the centuries since its debut. Fidelio is a diamond in the rough, as far as operas go, but WHAT a diamond! Check this production out, and see if you agree.