Cher Public

Prison riot

Herbert von Karajan once said listening to some of his old recordings made him envy painters who could simply burn the pictures they disliked. He’d quite possibly be stacking kindling for Myto’s 1962 Fidelio from Vienna, a hard-driving, impulsive performance that reveals the maestro to be anything but an august stickler and stands out mostly for what it is not.  

Invidious comparisons are hard to avoid because the formidable trio of Jon Vickers, Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry featured here recorded the same work earlier that year under Otto Klemperer, producing what many still regard as the finest Fidelio on disc. If that performance was all about structure and grandeur, Karajan’s relies on insistent pacing to build a dramatic arc over Beethoven’s unusual assortment of strophic numbers, larger scale arias and action ensembles. The orchestra is the storyteller, the scale more epic than human.

Oddly, the formidable collection of talent doesn’t quite pull it off. Though there are thrilling moments—Ludwig’s “Abscheulicher!” is a model of control and keen dramatic sensibilities, culminating in a blazing high B—Karajan’s forceful orchestral accompaniment simply overwhelms his singers at other moments. As Pizarro, Berry is drowned out in spots and left spitting out his lines as the music explodes out from under him in “Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick!” The climactic prison scene hurtles by like a trash can lid in a windstorm, leaving even Ludwig sounding overdriven and off pitch.

Such a hell-for-leather approach sounds committed and uncompromising on first hearing and delivers the kind of rush you typically only experience live in a theater. Yet one also senses a certain lack of faith in the material’s ability to push the narrative forward, and no shortage of ego on the rostrum (Karajan’s not inconsequential cuts claim some of the spoken dialogue and all of Rocco’s first act aria “Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben.”)

Vickers is in especially rough voice, shouting through the rising passages of Florestan’s opening aria and sounding wan and unsteady in the Act 2 trio “Euch werde Lohn in besseren Welten.” Even if the anguished sound is dramatically appropriate for a character who’s been locked away for two years, the overall effect is jarring for a tenor who turned out elemental performances in this role for Klemperer and Karajan’s 1971 recording. It’s unknown whether illness, insufficient rehearsal time or some other distraction prompted such a mediocre outing.

The singer who fares best here is a young Gundula Janowitz, who sparkles as Marzelline in the early ensemble scenes opposite the Jaquino of Waldemar Kmentt and Walter Kreppel’s Rocco. While not the most deeply expressive of singers, Janowitz is Karajan’s kindred sprit when it came to legato, with a warm upper register that shows little of the strain that would become evident when she took on heavier roles. Eberhard Wächter brings great dignity to the final scene in the brief but important role of Don Fernando.

The Vienna State Opera Orchestra veers from outright sloppy in the opening chords of the overture to positively stirring in the Leonore Overture No. 3, which both brings down the house and saps the final scene of some momentum. Balances among sections and with the stage are hard to judge since the microphones are placed too close to the basses and timpani and distort the high strings during the loudest tuttis. The chorus is quite moving in the prisoners scene and bracing in the finale, rigorously following Karajan’s kinetic beat. The only prominent slip up comes from the first prisoner, sung by Kostas Paskalis, who jumps the gun and comes in a measure early.

Listeners who prize Karajan’s early work for its vigor and spontaneity may gravitate to this set looking for the same advantages found in his live 1952 Tristan from Bayreuth. Overall, it’s a comparatively weak entry in a catalogue filled with more convincing, better-rounded performances.

  • Ouf

    This was available on DG years ago.

  • Buster

    Thanks for the review, Adriel. I’d be interested to hear Janowitz -- not that many Marzellines have moved up to Fidelio (Malfitano, Merbeth, Jurinac).

    Will see Christa Ludwig on Saturday -- she gives a few masterclasses at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague with Jard van Nes.

    • Bill

      Schwarzkopf sang some Fidelios in Concert Form in Basel, Geneva and Zurich with the Vienna Symphony
      conducted by von Karajan in )ctober 1953 -- 3 Fidelios
      on consecutive nights having previously sung Marzelline in Vienna, Salzburg, Covent Garden the last being in Vienna also in kkine zeline.

      • Bill

        the last Marzelline being sung also in Vienna in 1953 under Karajan. She never sang Fidelio on the stage.

        • Feldmarschallin

          She also said it was a mistake and that she solely did it to please Karajan. But her Marzelline is certainly one of the best if not they best and on singing the role in Salzburg Flagstad said she never heard a more beautiful voice.

          • RobNYNY1957

            Norwegians are very polite. I tend not to like wiry voices that alternate between straight tone and jiggly vibrato. Add sloppy coloratura and meaowing attacks and I am out of there. Jurinac was was such a great singer, but always in the shadow of the overrated one.

      • RobNYNY1957

        It’s hard to imagine how a moderately talented operetta singer could manage Fidelio.

    • Krunoslav

      “not that many Marzellines have moved up to Fidelio”

      Only Met example:

      Metropolitan Opera House
      December 5, 1888

      FIDELIO {19}

      Leonore……………..Fanny Moran-Olden
      Florestan……………Max Alvary
      Marzelline…………..Katherine Senger-Bettaque

      Metropolitan Opera House
      December 24, 1904

      FIDELIO {35}

      Leonore……………..Katherine Senger-Bettaque


      What the hell was a baritone doing as First Prisoner?

  • basso profundo

    A young Korean soprano on a fest right now in Germany. Thoughts?

  • RobNYNY1957

    I used to have a set of LPs from the late 1960 our early 1970s of classical pops with that Czech/Greek conductor.. As transcendent as his interpretations were, he could not conduct a pizziccato. A friend of mine who worked with him said that the noted Nazi/Unternensch believed that he could communicate telepathically, and so stopped connecting at crucial moments.

    • RobNYNY1957

      Connecting =Conducting, but less different than one might think.

    • RobNYNY1957

      Oh, and in the video of the Verdi Requiem video with L. Price, when she is singing her head off to get to the spectacular high C in Libera Me, the camera is on him. That doesn’t happen by accident.

  • Porgy Amor

    Vickers’s son (or one of them, if more than one) is adamant that this is not his father singing. The identity of the Florestan has been quite a subplot in the various releases of it over the years. Every review I read notes that Vickers sounds below form or not like himself, and sometimes the reviewer speculates that he must have had a cold or something. But there are telltale pronunciation differences as well, I understand.

    If it is not Vickers, it can only be a few other people; there are records of the performances of this opera that season. Zampieri, Usunov, or McCracken.

    I have never heard it, as I have everyone in whom I would be interested in at least one other Fidelio.

    • Ouf

      Karajan only led two Fidelio performances in 1962, one with Vickers, the other with Zampieri. See links above. I believe, partly from comments above, that the Vickers was never broadcast or recorded and that the DG and Myto are one and the same. In other words, Vickers’ name should not be on these album covers.

      • Porgy Amor

        How do you know it’s from 1962, though? If one of the names is wrong, the date could be as well. The performance could just as easily be — and very probably is — this one (19 June 1963):

        Dimiter Usunow | Florestan
        Christa Ludwig | Leonore
        Eberhard Waechter | Don Fernando
        Walter Berry | Don Pizarro
        Walter Kreppel | Rocco
        Gundula Janowitz | Marzelline
        Waldemar Kmentt | Jaquino
        Kostas Paskalis | Erster Gefangener
        Ljubomir Pantscheff | Zweiter Gefangener

        One reason I suspect this is that Usunov/Usunow is by far the least well-known, least disseminated voice among Vickers, McCracken, Zampieri, and Usunov. He just seems the most likely candidate of them to be a “Who is that?” mystery. Zampieri is pretty distinctive, whether one likes him or not.

        But as I say, I have not heard the recording and probably will not unless it turns up as a free stream somewhere.

        • Ouf

          Good point. DG states “May 1962” and Myto states “25. 5. 1962,” pointing only to Vickers, whom we believe is not singing. If you believe it isn’t Zampieri either, judging from the timbre of the voice, then the year must be wrongly stated too. A job for a real sleuth! Or someone at ORF.

          • Porgy Amor

            To clarify, I haven’t heard it — it’s just that G. Zampieri is a fairly known quality, with a distinctive sound and distinctive vocal characteristics, and it’s easy to compare this to his other recordings of around the same time. I don’t think so many opera fans knowledgeable about that period would still be in doubt if it were GZ. He did a lot with Karajan (a very beautifully sung Italian Tenor in the Rosenkavalier film, Fledermaus, an earlier Fidelio, a Verdi Requiem with Price and Ghiaurov). I’ve been assured with enough confidence that it is something else that I have ruled him out without hearing it myself.

            Whoever it is not a native German speaker, but does have an accent of some European type (I take that bit of detective work from one of the reviews of the DG issue), making McCracken a bad bet. So the smart money seems to be on Usunov, by process of elimination.

        • DellaCasaFan

          Porgy and Ouf, it’s available on Spotify (for free). Just enter “fidelio karajan ludwig” in the search box and you can hear the complete DG issue. I’m afraid I am not familiar with either Usunov or G. Zampieri to recognize their voices.

      • moritz

        ORF did indeed broadcast the premiere of this new production on 25 May 1962 with Vickers, Ludwig, Waechter, Berry, Janowitz et al and re-broadcast it on 5 April 2008 to celebrate Karajan’s 100th birthday.

        The master tapes were used for the DG-set, which was released around the same time.

        • Porgy Amor

          Hmm…well, now I am curious to hear it. If it is Vickers, then a lot of people, including some close to him, have been fooled. I could imagine the voice sounding very different in the circumstance of some illness, but the musical phrasing and the German pronunciation? See Amazon reviews for the DG release (that is where his son’s review is).

        • Ouf

          Karajan’s new staging. Hmm. Odd that the second performance wasn’t until June 12. If true, of course, it is Vickers.

          Moritz, where are you getting this ORF info?

          • moritz

            Ouf, in this case I’ve asked a friend who is working for ORF to check with the archives, but they are usually quite helpful when contacted via e-mail.

            Official releases of performances at the Wiener Staatsoper come up in cooperation between label, Staatsoper and ORF. Cast information is taken from the intern records at the STOP, where a late replacement would have been noted. Apart from that it’s highly unlikely that the ORF would archive its own recordings with wrong information about the lead singers and/or date.

            Planning a re-broadcast and a release some 40 years later would result in further investigation if there were any doubts about cast and/or dates.

            I don’t have the time to check contemporary newspaper reviews in the library, but I’ve found the archives of the monthly “Merker” online. I quote from the review of the performance in question:

            Aus diesem jungen, kämpfenden, ringenden und sich sehr bemühenden Ensemble fiel leider Jon Vickers als Florestan ungebührlich heraus. Daß das Stammpublikum auf eine Reihe durch ihn verpatzter Abende in dieser Saison sauer reagierte und ihn mit Mißfallensäußerungen bedachte, ist zwar nicht nobel und auch eigentlich ganz und gar unwienerisch, aber leider nicht unberechtigt. Seine Stimme gleicht derzeit einem dünnen Bächlein, in dem die letzte Eiszeit riesige erratische Blöcke zurückgelassen hat. Es ist eine Nervenprobe sondergleichen, die Florestan-Arie in einer solchen Stimmverfassung zu singen und auch anzuhören. Aber es war ja nicht anders zu erwarten. Vickers hat mit dem Markieren italienischer Partien seinem Material derart geschadet, daß er in eine ernste Stimmkrise geschlittert ist. Man kann nur hoffen, daß dieser Künstler auch wieder aus ihr herausfindet. Wenn wir ihn nicht selbst und mit eigenen Augen und Ohren als ganz hervorragenden Florestan, nämlich auch darstellerisch, erlebt hätten, würden wir nicht glauben, was wir da sahen und hörten.

            Roughly translated: his voice resembled a thin creek and we wouldn’t believe what we’ve seen and heard, if we hadn’t witnessed him as an oustanding Florestan before.


            BTW, the following days brought a new production of Die Zauberflöte, the Ring and Parsifal, all conducted by Karajan, so it’s not that odd, that there was no time for a second performance of Fidelio until 12 June.

            • Porgy Amor

              Thanks, moritz, especially for the review quotation.

            • moritz

              You’re welcome, Porgy. I probably should have included the next sentence of the review as well:

              Er spielte nicht einen zermürbten, durch etliche Gehirnwäschen gegangenen Gefangenen, wie es Karajan vorschwebte, sondern einen hysterischen Insassen eines Sanatoriums. Nicht Beethoven, sondern Tenesse Williams. Das ging wohl etwas zu weit.

              My clumsy translation: He portrayed Florestan as an hysterical inmate of a madhouse, rather Tenessee Williams than Beethoven and going way overboard.

              Maybe that’s what Ken Vickers relates to in his statement at Amazon:

              Even more telling, perhaps, is the spoken dialogue. The inflection in the voice on every spoken word is completely different from my father’s, whether “indisposed” or not

              If I find time next week I’ll check the exact date of the initial broadcast. It might not have been live, but I doubt that they’ve waited until after the second performance with Zampieri.

            • Ouf

              Many thanks, Moritz. It would make sense that ORF would b’cast the premiere, not a later performance, and that this would be the source for the CDs.

              Jon Vickers apparently just wasn’t sounding like himself, enough so to confuse his son. And he is still alive to clarify the issue.

            • Porgy Amor

              Ouf: JV is alive at 88, but, sadly, not in a condition to provide assistance here. :-(

              I don’t know what is the worse scenario — that a recording might have been released with his name on it when it wasn’t him, or that a recording might have been released when he was struggling to get through a signature role and was almost unrecognizable even to family. Regrettable, either way. Maybe this is still of interest for the other participants, and one has numerous other Vickers Florestans from which to choose. I don’t like to talk of any singer “owning” a role, but there are times I listen to Fidelio with someone else as Florestan, even very good tenors, and when I hear a voice other than his singing “Gott!” after that orchestral introduction to II, it does not feel right.

  • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

    I just listened to the preview clips available on Amazon and it sure as hell is NOT Vickers!