Fidelio is an interesting piece. The music is great and it has a powerful, very straightforward, plot. There are no convoluted subplots here. But there is a lot of spoken dialogue which slows things down. Is it necessary? Claus Guth doesn’t think so and in his 2015 Salzburg production he replaces the dialogue with ambient noise and also doubles up Leonora and Don Pizarro with silent actor “shadows”; the former using sign language in the manner of the narrator character in Guth’s Messiah. It works remarkably well. The ambient noise sections are quite disturbing and the “shadows” add some depth, especially the frantic signing in the final scene. Perhaps worth noting that the “noise” contains a lot of very low bass and precise spatial location. It may need a pretty good sound system to have the intended effect.
Guth’s dramatic take on the work is interesting too. He strips it down to basics. The set is a large white room with a raked stage and a black object set in the floor. It can be moved to suggest transitions of place. In Act 2 there’s also a sort of trench which, presumably, symbolizes Florestan’s potential grave. After O namelose Freude! the curtain comes down and the stage is reset to a ballroom while the orchestra plays Leonora No.3. Why not if you’ve got the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit? Within this framework Act 1 is pretty conventional. It’s Act 2 that disturbs and it’s Guth’s take on Florestan that does it. He’s played as severely damaged. He barely seems to know what’s happening and the noise of rejoicing in the final scene is unbearable to him. It’s not even clear whether or not he’s alive at the end. The frantic signing of Leonora shadow through this scene adds to the effect. I found it highly effective, and affecting, and the audience in the house was most enthusiastic but, as so often, perhaps not one for strict conservatives.
Central to realising this concept is the Florestan of Jonas Kaufmann. His ability to look utterly vulnerable, even mad, while singing with great beauty and power is remarkable. It’s a very fine performance. Adrianne Pieczonka’s Leonora is a really good foil. It’s a straightforward dramatic, rather masculine, take perhaps more convincing as Fidelio than Leonora. Her singing is powerfully noble and fully matches Kaufmann. The voices blend beautifully in the big duet. Hans-Peter König is genially attractive as Rocco. There’s no great sense of moral conflict. It’s more an ordinary, decent guy doing a dirty job. Thomas Konieczny’s Pizarro is a bit Dick Dastardly but that, I think, is Guth’s intent. Olga Bezsmertna makes an attractive and sweet toned Marzelline. Sebastian Holecek and Norbert Ernst are perfectly adequate as Don Fernando and Jacquino. The real star though may be the Vienna Philharmonic. There is some very fine playing especially in the two overtures. Franz Welser-Most on the podium certainly gets some exciting sounds out of them.
Video direction by Michael Beyer is a bit quirky. Perhaps he’s not sure what to do with Guth’s simplicity. In any event he feels the need to film from odd angles at times and, inevitably, there are more close ups than I might prefer. Still, it’s perfectly possible to see what Guth is doing. On Blu-ray, picture quality is excellent and the DTS-HD sound copes well with the considerable challenges of the added sound world. There are no extras on the disk and the booklet is restricted to a track listing and a very brief synopsis. This one really needs at least director’s notes and preferably rather more than that. Subtitle options areEnglish, French, German, Chinese and Korean.
This may be the most interesting modern recording of Fidelio and is a must for Guth fans. The 2008 Zürich recording may be a better bet for the Regie averse though.