My first LP set of Fidelio was Karajan's, mainly because I'd seen Helga Dernesch perform the role of Leonore with Scottish Opera, and wanted a memento of her performance. I had always loved this set; however, when I came to replace LP with CD, I bowed to popular opinion, and purchased the Klemperer recording.
I am in a minority, I know (and I know this could well be because the Karajan was the one I'd got to know the opera with), but I was a mite disappointed with Klemperer, and a couple of years ago I replaced it with the Karajan. Returning to this performance after many years, it was exactly as I remembered; thrillingly dramatic, wonderfully played by the orchestra, and marvellously sung by a superb cast (all, mercifully, delivering their own dialogue). Many have said that they can hear the strain the role of Leonore puts on Dernesch, but I believe that they are being wise after the event (Dernesch, you will remember, retired from the opera stage for a while, after suffering a vocal crisis, and re-emerged a dramatic mezzo). To my ears, she sounds absolutely radiant, the climax to Abscheulicher!, shiningly and glowingly achieved. From her first entrance in the Act I canon, which is as a ray of light in the gloom of the prison, she is the very epitome of the faithful Leonore. I prefer her even to Ludwig on the Klemperer. Vickers is, if anything, even finer for Karajan than he was for Klemperer. Keleman's snarling bass-baritone seems to me just right for the evil Pizzaro (superbly matched by Karajan's blaring brass in his aria), and Ridderbusch makes a fatherly, kindly Rocco. With Jose Van Dam as Ferrando and Helen Donath as Marzelline (like Schwarzkopf, who sang the role for Furtwangler, an Eva of note), the cast could hardly be bettered. Karajan's tempi in the more dramatic moments of the score are usually that bit faster than Klemperer's (the moment when Leonore reveals herself is urgently thrilling), but he has plenty of repose in the more lyrical and reflective moments too.
Fidelio is a great opera, and there is no doubt the Klemperer is a great recording, but my personal preference is for Karajan, which works for me on a slightly more visceral level.
How did I miss this post, I could have written every word of it myself.
I used to have season tickets to Scottish Opera and caught all the roles Dernsch sang for them. Her Leonora was certainly world class. Then her voice was big and healthy. I recall in the last scene she pulled off her hat and her long blond hair cascaded to her shoulders, itself like a golden ray of light denoting the change from misery to joy.
I love that Karajan version, I like the way the spoken dialogue in the dungeon scene is handled, close and claustraphobic, plosive consonants within urgently whispered dialogue and above all spine tinglingly dramatic. Vickers is terrific, he overwhelms with his projection of a moral centre, suffering heroically.
Another aspect that I feel adds to the drama is that you move immediately from the joy of 'O namenlose Freude' into the triumph of the final scene without the interpolation of Leonora number III, which I feel hold up the drama a lot.
Keleman makes a terrific aggressive villain, his opening aria biting and dramatic. Don't be fooled if you happen to have the EMI Karajan box, it wrongly attributes the part to Ridderbusch! All the voices sound in prime condition and any strain detectable at the top of Dernsch's range is slight. We would be grateful these days for a clutch of singers who could inject that beauty of tone and evenness of production into the role, no wobble, no squall, no uncertain pitch, no spreading of tone.
It really is a terrific set all round from acoustic to conducting, orchestra and the voices.
Another set to consider is the Haitink with Jessye Norman, she is excellent in the part. Clearly not one she would have performed on stage. I sometimes think there is a quiet collusion to downgrade recordings where the singers have not won their spurs in the role on stage. I would prefer to consider the issue on an individual basis. Of course, catching Vickers in a recorded Otello once he has worked through and refined his interpretation is as good as it gets, but Callas was fascinating in her recorded Carmen, Norman also makes a first rate job of the part and her Leonora has all the vocal attributes one could wish for. She brings out the nobility and the anguish, her voice is in excellent condition.
Haitink is of course sane and deeply musical, the Staatskapelle Dresden sounds wonderful. There is weight, but not bloat, perhaps some grit ought to be allowed, but it is a great orchestra performing at the top of its form. The rest of the cast is very good, no weak links. Reiner Goldberg does not disappoint at his first entry, a steady clamant call. Haitink does as Karajan does with the final scenes, then the Leonora III is added as a bonus track after the end of the opera. A good solution, as it is a shame to lose such music.
Haitink can sometimes to me seem underdramatic,(his Verdi Don Carlos), but not here. I always stress that timing is but one indicator in a performance. The final scene timing is one second different from the Karajan performance across over 14 minutes of music. It has the same sweep and joy to it.
We are fortunate in having such a good selection of recordings. I also have the Flagstad Furtwangler on EMI, the Naxos set it terrific until Don Ferrando's infirm tones enter, to close, I have the same feeling about the Klemperer set as TL has. I was underwhelmed.