Given the renowned perfectionism of Herbert von Karajan, one wonders what the great Austrian conductor would have had to say about the decision to release this live, first-night recording of Fidelio at the Wiener Staatsoper on 25 May, 1962. With an untidy opening to the overture, a mistaken early entry by the First Prisoner in the famed 'O welche Lust' (the Prisoners' Chorus), and intermittent contributions from the throat-clearing public, one imagines that the maestro's opinion would have been less than favourable. However, nothing can rival the thrills and spills of a live occasion, and Deutsche Grammophon has aimed to capture something of the very unique atmosphere moulded on that evening nearly half-a-century ago, with some intriguing results.
Much was riding on this performance for Karajan, who was solely responsible for both the aural and the visual experience (this was his own stage production). The control he exerts over this account produces an attractive overarching sense of unity about the opera, something that can easily be lost in studio recordings. By the same token, however, Karajan's 'give and take' relationships with the soloists exude plenty of the latter and little of the former. This is particularly true with Christa Ludwig. Singing the title role, she is second to none in terms of sheer presence and intensity, guiding the listener through a torrent of emotions with compelling studies in anxiety ('Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?') and jubilant relief ('O namenlose Freude!'). Her spoken dialogue is extremely effective as well. However, there are instances, often at the apex of a phrase, when one feels that Ludwig desires – and needs – the flexibility to add an extra soupçon of expressivity, only for her to be denied by Karajan's somewhat unrelenting approach ('Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern' and 'Euch werde Lohn in bessern Weltern' are both cases in point).
Gundula Janowitz, in the role of Marzelline, is much more at ease with Karajan's method, resulting in an absolutely marvellous performance that is perhaps the finest on offer here. Her unforced, deeply focussed tone is ideally suited to the role, making its mark early on with a stunning account of 'O wär ich schon mit dir vereint'. What is more, Janowitz compliments Ludwig's Leonore superbly, which provides us with a riveting rendition of 'Gut, Söhnchen, gut' later in Act One.
Somewhat peculiarly, as if to prepare the listener for disappointment, Gottfried Kraus' booklet notes declare that tenor Jon Vickers 'was evidently indisposed at the present performance, thereby lessening the impact of his aria at the start of Act Two'. Yet, what may be lacking in terms of sheer force (the end of Florestan's 'In des Lebens Frühlingstagen' is something of an anticlimax) is replaced by restless dramatic fervour and handsome musical expression. Ironically, Vickers' alleged condition brings him closer to that of his character (who has been wasting away in a prison cell for two years). This heightened level of verisimilitude, though not ideal, is employed effectively by Vickers during the rest of Act II in what is, ultimately, a persuasive performance.
Of the other male leads, most striking is the voice that doesn't appear until the opera's finale - that of Eberhard Waechter's Don Fernando. His delectable tone is perfectly suited to the nobility of the role, though one wonders what he might have achieved as Rocco, played instead by Walter Kreppel. Though he takes time to get going, Kreppel hits his stride in the foreboding exchanges between him and Fidelio in 'Noch heute!'. Walter Berry excels as a sinister, megalomaniacal Don Pizarro (his fiery temperament in 'Er Sterbe! Doch er soll es wissen' is especially gripping), whilst Waldemar Kmentt is a reliable Jaquino.
Whilst the opening orchestral overture fails to impress prior to its riotous coda, Leonore III receives a controlled and beautifully paced account as a prelude to the opera's finale, again capped by thrilling dash to the finish. The aria accompaniments, though a tad stringent at times, are exquisitely measured. The orchestra's woodwind department are exceptional throughout; their delicate contributions in Marzelline's and Leonore's first-act arias are particularly fine examples of their vivid, gleaming timbre. Adequately recorded and elegantly presented, this CD might not be first-choice Fidelio, but it certainly makes for an absorbing alternative.