The fourth release on Glyndebourne's in-house label, this performance of Fidelio dates from 2006. Deborah Warner's production was praised at the time but in this aural record, all we have are a few production shots to illustrate it. There's no description of Warner's concept or her staging, nor an explanation of stage noises which those unfamiliar with the production might well find perplexing, particular the sloshing around that accompanies some of the Act Two finale.
It's a performance that we are left to judge on musical terms and an issue that has to stand up to comparisons with the opera's illustrious back catalogue, not to mention Sir Colin Davis' relatively recent LSO Live recording, with Christine Brewer's Leonore, a release that retails at considerably less, albeit without Glyndebourne's reassuringly luxurious packaging.
However, while there's not quite that same level of experience at the head of this performance, it's the conducting and the singing of its Leonore that make it stand out. At the helm of the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Glyndebourne was Mark Elder – still a couple of years off his belated knighthood – and it's the dramatic thrust of his reading, and the feeling of idealistic verve he brings to Beethoven's score that was rightly singled out by critics at the time. Anja Kampe might not have been made a dame since her magnificent Leonore, but a recent triumphant debut in the Royal Opera's new Flying Dutchman in March has seen her join the operatic elite, in the UK at least.
Kampe leads a cast which displays all the benefits of Glyndebourne's long rehearsal periods (here surely Warner's hand is in evidence). Ensemble is tight, dialogue delivered naturally and idiomatically and each singer embodies his or her role with total conviction. Opposite Kampe is the Florestan of Torsten Kerl - Erik to her Senta, incidentally, in the Royal Opera Dutchman – who turns in a highly respectable account of this short but exacting role. He only occasionally finds an attractive bloom in the voice that one longs for, though, and shows signs of strain later in his aria where one would hope him to warm up and fill out. Nevertheless, he has all the integrity that the role requires. Kampe similarly shows a couple of signs of tiredness but hers is a performance of total commitment and her voice shines thrillingly throughout; any slight rough edges are down to her throwing herself into the role with total dramatic conviction and are a tiny price to pay for the thrills she delivers. Her performance of 'Abscheulicher!', abetted by some oustanding work form the LPO horns, rightly brings the house down.
Lisa Milne makes a very attractive Marzelline. She maybe overdoes the acting to evoke wonder at the start of 'Mir ist so wunderbar' but gives a lovely account of her aria, helped greatly by some delightfully buoyant playing from the LPO winds. As Jaquino, Andrew Kennedy is his usual stylish self but the veiled, slightly nasal quality of his voice is emphasised by the recording and affects the enjoyment of his singing. Brindley Sherratt gives us a rock-solid Rocco, an admirably straightforward potrayal that avoids undermining his nobility through the comic emphasis some basses bring to the role. Peter Coleman-Wright's Don Pizarro is full of menace but, for me, lacks the final ounce of bass-baritone vocal heft that can really help to send a shiver down the spine; he also suffers occasionally in terms of balance with the orchestra. Henry Waddington is a noble and smoothly sung Don Fernando.
Fine though the singers all are, their work would count for little without Elder's wonderful reading of the score. From the first bars of the Overture we can tell that he has the measure of music both lofty and earthy, sinister and liberating. Early in Act One the exchanges skip along beautifully, he helps drive forward Pizzaro's 'Ha! Welch ein Augenblick', while the introduction to Act Two is chillingly evocative. With the Glyndebourne Chorus also on outstanding form, both finales come off very well, expertly paced for maximum dramatic impact.
As a souvenir of these Glyndebourne performance, this set is self-recommending but it also has plenty to offer for those simply wanting a compelling recording of Beethoven's only opera. The sound itself, a little distant and augmented by a fair amount of noise from the stage, shouldn't get in the way of anyone enjoying what must have been a great night at the theatre.
By Hugo Shirley
CD Review: Live Fidelio from Vienna with Ludwig and Karajan (DG)
Opera Review: Abbado conducts Fidelio in Baden-Baden (May 2008)
Opera Review: Karita Matilla in Fidelio at Covent Garden (May 2007)
Interview: Sir Mark Elder