Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 25
Beethoven: Fidelio, or Conjugal Love (original
Koussevitzky Music Shed, August 5, 1967
Erich Leinsdorf, conductor
Florestan - George Shirley, tenor
Leonore - Hanne-Lore Kuhse, soprano
Don Pizzaro - Tom Krause, bass-baritone
Rocco - Ara Berberian, bass
Marcelline - Mary Ellen Pracht, soprano
Jacquino - Nico Castel, tenor
Don Fernando - Harold Enns, bass-baritone
First Prisoner - William Brown, tenor
Second Prisoner - Charles Van Tassel, bass-baritone
Narrator - Alfred Ryder
Tanglewood Choir, Berkshire Chorus
Available for purchase starting July 15, 2012 8:30 AM
Background on the Music
Mozart, it is said, composed everything in his head before writing it down. Writing music was more of a struggle for Beethoven, and his notebooks show how hard he worked to make everything seem inevitable. Some of his works gave him a great deal of trouble, and noting caused more difficulties than his only opera, Fidelio. The process of creating it, he said, earned him a "martyr's crown." "Of all my children," he said, "this is the one that cost me the most powerful birth-pangs and the most sorrows." It took him ten years, two revisions, and four famous overtures to arrive at what he wanted.
In 1803, Beethoven started work on an opera commissioned by the Theater an der Wien, but the libretto was hopelessly bad, so he cast it aside and started anew, this time using a German translation of a French libretto by J.N. Bouilly that had already been set by three other composers. It was a "rescue" story, a thrilling tale of a last-minute rescue of the kind that became popular in the years after the fall of the Bastille. The story may have its basis in a historical incident in which a woman disguised herself as a man in order to rescue her husband from a political prison. Whether or not this is so, the archetypal story is stirring, and Beethoven imbued his characters with profound humanity through his music.
The 1805 premiere of the first version of Fidelio - which had its American premiere in this performance at Tanglewood - was not a success; there were only three performances. Napoleon had occupied Vienna, so Beethoven's aristocratic audience had fled the city; the last thing the officers of an invading army were interested in seeing was an opera about the overthrow of tyranny. So Beethoven over two revisions arrived at the opera that is known today, usually working in the direction of greater concision and more powerful dramatic effect; he also revised some of the more strenuous and impractical vocal lines.
Listening to the first version is full of surprises. There are additional musical numbers that Beethoven later cut; the dramatic layout is different because Beethoven later rearranged three acts into two; many vocal lines are quite different.
There is no doubt that the final version of Fidelio is more practical and effective than the first one - after all, it has held the stage for nearly two hundred years, and in the 20th century it became an icon, a work often chosen for ceremonial occasions, like the reopening of the Vienna State Opera House in 1955 - it had been bombed during World War II.
On the other hand, Beethoven reconfigured and even discarded some first-rate music in order to arrive at his final version, and hearing the first version helps us understand more about how Beethoven's creative process worked. And if the first version of Fidelio is not "better," it has an integrity, imagination, and power all its own, and in the 20th century has enjoyed a number of successful performances - it is generally programmed as Leonore to differentiate it from the familiar Fidelio.
This download documents one of the great nights in Tanglewood's history - the American premiere of the original version of Beethoven's Fidelio, and therefore a first opportunity for the musical public to hear some glorious music by Beethoven for the first time. The performance also found the orchestra and conductor at their best. Leinsdorf is sometimes too hastily dismissed as a "cold'' conductor because he knew what he was doing and was efficient about securing the results he wanted. But here he summons a white-hot performance from the orchestra and an impressive cast of singers, a performance not only with passion, but also with something rarer, warmth.
Interestingly, Leinsdorf himself may not have conducted Fidelio before this 1967 Tanglewood performance. He did conduct a revival of the opera at the Metropolitan Opera in 1990, and he also led a concert performance for RAI, the Italian radio, in 1970.
Several of the singers came from the Met, or would later enjoy significant careers there. George Shirley was the first African-American tenor at the Met, where he sang 265 performances, mostly in leading roles, between 1961, when he won the Met's National Auditions, and 1977. He also sang in many of the leading international opera houses and made some notable recordings, including a complete Così fan tutte under Erich Leinsdorf and a complete Pelléas et Mélisande under Pierre Boulez; he also sang in the premiere of Leon Kirchner's opera Lily. He was particularly admired in Mozart, and later in this Tanglewood download series we will hear him as Tamino in a concert performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute. At the Met, his role in Fidelio was as the First Prisoner, but here he shows himself fully capable of singing Florestan. Today Shirley is the head of the voice department at the University of Michigan.
Mary Ellen Pracht sang more than 300 performances at the Met between 1961 and 1977 (the same period as George Shirley). In roles large and small she was an attractive performer; in 1966 she sang eight performances of Marzelline in Fidelio at the Met. The distinguished Finnish baritone Tom Krause did not make his Met debut until a few months after this performance, and sang there only until 1973, but his career in Scandinavia and Europe was long and prominent - he appeared in opera, oratorio, and recital for 50 years and now is a sought-after voice teacher. In 1963, he sang in the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at Tanglewood, at the suggestion of the composer. Bass Ara Berberian made his operatic debut in 1958, but did not arrive at the Met until 11 years later; once there, he sang 334 performances between 1970 and 1997. He continued to perform until not long before his death in 2005. He was an accomplished character actor and a vivid musical personality. It is interesting to hear Nico Castel as the young jail keeper Jacquino. He sang nearly 800 performances at the Met between 1970 and 1997. His role in Fidelio there, like Shirley's, was the First Prisoner. Long before he retired from singing, Castel became a much sought-after diction coach, in which capacity he remains active at the Met today.
The most astonishing performance was by the East German soprano Hanne-Lore Kuhse (1925-1999), and her singing remains as amazing to the listener today as it was to the Tanglewood audience 45 years ago. Kuhse had sung only one performance in this country at the time of this concert, and only a small number of American appearances followed - a reengagement with the BSO for a concert performance of Act I of Wagner's Die Walküre, Verdi's Macbeth with Sarah Caldwell and the Opera Company of Boston, and Strauss's Four Last Songs with the Little Orchestra Society in New York. A combination of political circumstances and personal priorities kept her behind the Iron Curtain for most of her career, so she was almost completely unknown to the general international musical public in 1967, and this is still true. In East Germany, however, she sang a wide repertory ranging from Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven through Verdi and Wagner to Alban Berg. She was also a marvelous singer of Lieder.
Kuhse had one of the great voices of the 20th century - voluminous, opulent, and radiant, heroic yet womanly, and she was also a splendid musician and communicative interpreter. She made only a few recordings - a program of arias conducted by Kurt Masur; Wagner's Wesendonck Songs, Strauss's Four Last Songs, and Berg's Seven Early Songs; two albums of Lieder. Most of these recordings are superb, and although they were originally issued on LPs that were exceptionally difficult to find in this country, most of them are now easily available as downloads. But nothing in her recorded legacy conveys the full range of her vocal and artistic qualities as fully as this magnificent Fidelio from one summer night at Tanglewood.
Technical note: Unfortunately, the stereo master tapes of the first half of this performance of Beethoven's 'Fidelio' could not be located. Nevertheless, given the many strengths of this interpretation, it was decided that this concert should be included in Tanglewood's 75 streams and downloads, despite less-than-ideal sound.
"The point [of comparing the two versions of Fidelio] is that while the later score may replace the earlier one in the practical life of our theaters, it does not render the original one obsolete or invalid. The 1805 Fidelio is a work of surging vitality with a life all its own, full of strokes whose loss cannot represent Beethoven's uncompromised artistic conviction . . . [Hanne-Lore Kuhse] is the most wonderful new singer heard in this country since the debut of Birgit Nilsson . . . She has a dramatic gift: her performance was remarkable before she had sung a note, by virtue of her concentration and stillness as she stood waiting for her entrance in the quartet. Her voice is a rich, warm, evenly textured soprano of great amplitude. For splendor and radiance, I have heard nothing to equal the 10 high Bs and the two C's in the 'O namenlose Freude!' duet. As an interpreter, she gives everything words and music demand, everything they imply, and nothing in excess. Her work is as free of mannerism and of externally imposed dramatics as her voice is free of forcing and pushing. That makes her a great artist, and the operation of her exceptional word sense, of a remarkable, warm femininity, make her a great Leonore, by miles the greatest in my experience. Her aria got Frau Kuhse an immense ovation, the duet an even bigger one, with Mr. Leinsdorf himself leading the applause. George Shirley contributed distinguished singing as Florestan . . . Erich Leinsdorf, except for a few under-characterized numbers early in the first act, led a strong and intelligent performance, one in which he had access to a certain emotional energy which, when it is in action, can make him a most gripping conductor. The Boston Symphony played beautifully . . ."
-Michael Steinberg, Boston Globe
"The performance was excellent. A major factor was the playing of the Boston Symphony. This kind of brilliant orchestral sound and technical accuracy is seldom encountered in the opera house. Erich Leinsdorf, whose idea it was to resurrect the original version, kept the singers and players under strict control, but he was not above whipping up an orchestral storm whenever suitable."
-Raymond Ericson, New York Times