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In our Grand Opera: The Story of the Met (University of California Press, 2014), we lean on contemporary reports for this evocation of what is arguably the single most memorable performance of Fidelio in Met history. The star on that occasion, the evening of February 14, 1941, was by all accounts, the conductor, Bruno Walter.
“Walter made his way to a podium that sat high on the raised floor of the pit. Conductor and players were visible throughout the performance. The Leonore Overture No. 3 provoked an outburst that lasted more than a minute; at the opera’s conclusion, the ovation for the cast was punctuated by shouts of ‘Walter.’ European audiences knew him as a conductor of opera as well as symphony; America had known him only in concert, never in the opera house. He first appeared in the United States in 1923 with the New York Symphony Orchestra. He returned frequently as guest from coast to coast. No conductor, with the exception of Arturo Toscanini, had more cachet.
Walter’s Fidelio belongs to that rarified theatrical category in which history, work, composer, and performer come together to inscribe a single narrative. Here was a moment in which the grave issues confronting the nation converged with those engaged by the masterwork. These same issues intersected with the biographies of the lionized artists. Uncompromising, defiant, Beethoven and Walter were conflated in a common profile whose prominent feature was the massive cranium of genius. The deteriorating situation overseas—an all-too-present story of oppression and persecution--reverberated in the ardent libretto and score. As the conductor put it some years later, ‘In the first act of Fidelio . . . we witness the hand of the tyrant. In the second, we observe the victim, bent but unbroken. In the finale, we see the Minister of State, representative of goodness, and share in the glorious apotheosis of brotherhood.’
The media blitz surrounding Walter’s debut imbricated the Fidelio scenario and the exemplary life told and retold in the national press, in newsreels, and on the radio: an illustrious musician of German-Jewish origin, having escaped religious and political persecution by fleeing first Germany, and then Austria, and finally France, takes refuge in the United States, and for the first time in his long career conducts an American performance of a magisterial work by one of nineteenth-century Europe’s titanic composers, a fierce champion of freedom. Fidelio’s place in the Walter mythology was further privileged by the fact that the first work he conducted at the Met was also the last he chose to perform in Munich and then in Berlin. Had Walter not left, like so many who shared his liberal views and/or Jewish heritage, he might have suffered a fate much like that of Florestan, the idealistic hero of Fidelio, imprisoned by order of a tyrant. There the parallel ends. Leonore, Florestan’s loving wife, disguised as the eponymous youth, rescues her husband from the political prison of the villainous Don Pizarro.”
Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad was the Leonore of Bruno Walter’s debut. She first appeared with the company in 1935. Her success was such that the management sought to showcase her Wagnerian voice in as many roles as possible. Fidelio was a logical vehicle for her second season, an uncomfortable choice for general manager Edward Johnson. Less than a year prior to Flagstad’s initial New York appearance, Lotte Lehmann had made her own thrilling Met debut. Lehmann was celebrated for her Leonore. The Austrian soprano was understandably miffed when she was passed over in favor of the newcomer.
We, however, are fortunate to hear them both. And they offer their markedly different temperaments and strengths to Leonore’s great aria “Komm Hoffnung (Come hope)” in which the character, disguised as a male turnkey, manifests her determination to save her husband, a political prisoner, from death. Flagstad’s version, from a 1950 Salzburg Festival performance conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, includes the powerful introductory recitative “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? (Monster! Where do you go?) addressed to Don Pizarro. If the soprano, late in her career, is ill at ease with rapidly articulated passages, and if her highest notes are too hard-rimmed, the beauty and size of her voice and her commitment to the heroine’s courage compensate for these shortcomings.
The Lehmann rendition, from a 1927 recording, unfortunately lacks the recitative. The aria demonstrates the soprano’s irresistible intensity, her exemplary diction, her unforgettable timbre, and her skill at turning her short-breathed vocal technique to expressive advantage.
The Florestan of the 1941 Walter performance was Belgian tenor René Maison, frequently heard at the Met in French opera and as the lighter Wagnerian heroes. His plaintive sound is suited to the anguish of the shackled Florestan, despairing in the outcry of his opening recitative “Gott, welch ein Dunkel hier! (God, what darkness here!),” ecstatic at the vision of his beloved Leonore at the aria’s end (“Ein Engel, Leonoren, Leonoren der Gattin so gleich (An angel, Leonore, my wife so like [a fragrant rose]).”
On April 1, 2017, the Met’s most recent edition of Beethoven’s only opera will be broadcast via radio.