Beethoven's 'Fidelio' on record: the good, the bad, and the ugly
''Fidelio,'' Beethoven's moving testament to freedom and love, has not wanted for moving performances on records. The monumental stereo recording with Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus (Angel SCL-3625 - 3 records) has remained the standard against which all other stereo performances have had to be judged. The performance features the standard-setting Florestan of Jon Vickers, Christa Ludwig's warmly projected Leonore, the pointed, vindictive Pizarro of Walter Berry, and Gottlob Frick's distinctive Rocco. This remains one of the special operatic performances in the catalog - capturing a rare warmth and sensitivity.
Herbert von Karajan's reading of the score with the Berlin Philharmonic is majestic, if a bit cool (Angel SCL-3773 - 3 records). Mr. Vickers has deepened his insights in this later recording, but he is of somewhat gruffer voice here. Unfortunately, the Leonore, Helga Dernesch, is hard pressed through most of the set.
Leonard Bernstein's recording (Deutsche Grammophon 2709 082 - 3 records) is noteworthy because Mr. Bernstein is so persuasive with the score in his effulgent fashion. His Leonore, Gundula Janowitz, lacks the vocal weight and temperament for Leonore, and Rene Kollo, the Florestan, was in thin, wobbly voice at these sessions. The rest of the singers, with the exception of Lucia Popp, are not particularly effective in their roles.
The most disappointing ''Fidelio'' on record is Sir Georg Solti's (London digital LDR-10017 - 3 records), with a notable cast including Hildegard Behrens, Peter Hoffmann, Theo Adam, and Hans Sotin. The maestro conducts his Chicago Symphony Orchestra here. The singers are generally way off form, and Solti drives everything with steely coldness. Far better is London's earlier set, with Lorin Maazel conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (OSA-1259 - 2 records). Birgit Nilsson is a thrillingly stentorian Leonore, and James McCracken is the virile Florestan.
A magnificently fresh, noble performance from Kirsten Flagstad, the reigning Leonore in the '40s and early '50s, graces a memorable set from the Met. Bruno Walter conducts a 1941 broadcast performance suffused with magic (MET- 6 - 3 records, for a $125 contribution).
Finally, Leonie Rysanek, the reigning Leonore of the '60s and '70s, is not ideally caught on an early performance of the opera with Ferenc Fricsay conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra (DG Privilege 2726 088 - 2 records), but her best moments are uncommonly moving.
''Fidelio'' will be broadcast live from the Met Jan. 7 on the Texaco Metropolitan Opera Radio Network (check local listings).