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Ludwig van Beethoven

Klemperer’s ‘Fidelio’, Covent Garden 1961

1961. Royal Opera House, London
Sir David Webster lured Klemperer back to the opera house in 1961 with an epic rendition of 'Fidelio', with Sena Jurinac and Jon Vickers.
Composer Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor Otto Klemperer
Singers Sena Jurinac, Jon Vickers
Ensemble Covent Garden Opera
Genre Opera


Otto Klemperer was a revered figure during the 1950s in London, where his
concerts at the Royal Festival Hall and recordings with the Philharmonia
Orchestra under the direction of Walter Legge became legendary, especially
his Beethoven cycles which set a gold standard for all time. But he had not
conducted opera since his three-year tenure at Hungarian State Opera in post-
war Budapest between 1947 and 1950. So, it was a significant coup for David
Webster to lure him to direct a production for the still young Covent Garden
Opera. Negotiations began as early as 1957, when several operas were
mooted before fixing on the natural choice of Fidelio. By 1959, Sena Jurinac,
already acclaimed for her Mozart at Glyndebourne, had become a Covent
Garden favourite as Butterly and Octavian and was interested in taking on
Leonore for the first time in that theatre, on condition that she was given a
new production and either Klemperer or Karajan as conductor. Thus, the
essential ingredients were in place for what was to become one of the
company’s greatest triumphs in February and March 1961.

Klemperer insisted on staging the production himself, with discreet assistance
from staff director Christopher West, in spacious and traditional sets by the
experienced German designer Hainer Hill. In his pre-war years, most notably
during his directorship of the Kroll Opera in Berlin between 1928 and 1931,
Klemperer was regarded as an iconoclast, programming new work by
Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith and Janáček and commissioning radical
productions of repertory operas including Fidelio, Don Giovanni and a mould-
breaking Flying Dutchman which anticipated the revolution wrought by
Wieland Wagner at post-war Bayreuth. The 1961 Fidelio did not aspire to be
revolutionary, but it was carefully rehearsed and utterly authentic. I saw it on
4 March 1961 and again, when revived, on 9 April 1962, and still recall the
chilling conclusion to Act 1, when Jurinac as Leonore returned to the stage with
the shovel which foreshadowed the grave digging of Act 2 and confronted
Hans Hotter’s terrifying Pizarro with quiet determination. Also unforgettable
was the Rocco of Gottlob Frick, so natural in his spoken as well as sung
delivery, only dropping his guard as a professional gaoler at the moment of
release after the off-stage trumpet (played by the future conductor Elgar
Howarth, who once told me it was a defining experience in his life) with the
outburst: ‘Gelobt sei Gott! Wir kommen, ja, wir kommen augenblicklich! Und
diese Leute mit Fackeln solten heruntersteigen und der Herrn Gouverneur

If you wished to define architecture in music, you might use Klemperer’s
Fidelio as a test case. The ominous timpani in the overture are the only hint to
expect more than the light Singspiel opening scene. The hushed strings of the
canon quartet ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ announce a different, mystical world.
Rocco’s gold aria remains light-footed, though Frick’s warm bass humanises it;
but Leonore’s first solo entry in the subsequent trio, ‘Ich habe Mut’, tightens
the tension. More foreboding timpani in the interlude march precede the
explosive fury of Pizarro’s ‘Ha, welch ein Augenblick’, and from there on the
musical narrative drives inexorably to the end of the act. Florestan’s dungeon
inhabits another, darker world, its emptiness pierced by Jon Vickers’s
elemental cry of ‘Gott! Welch Dunkel hier’. Klemperer prized the melodrama
for Rocco and Fidelio, so sensitively spoken by Frick and Jurinac, but he claimed
that the quartet from Pizarro’s arrival, ‘Er sterbe’, to Leonore’s unmasking,
‘Töt’ erst sein Weib!’, was the most dramatic music in all opera, outranking all
Wagner. But, for building a great musical arch, nothing compares with his
handling of the finale, which Klemperer saw as the embodiment of ‘Das Prinzip
Hoffnung’, the principle of hope which was the subject of the Marxist
philosopher Ernst Bloch’s treatise published during the 1950s. The summit of
his performance is the great ensemble ‘O Gott! O welch’ ein Augenblick’, its
beginning gloriously launched by Jurinac, but reaching incandescence when
the chorus and horns join in to construct the rainbow which links individuals
with humanity in Beethoven’s utopian vision.

Klemperer returned to Covent Garden for one last series of performances in
1969, with the mesmeric Anja Silja as Leonore. I was working there in a junior
capacity at the time and attended some rehearsals as well as four of the
performances. I recall his concern was for the spoken dialogue as much as for
the music, and his delight at Silja’s startling delivery of phrases like ‘Zwei
Jahre!’ It also struck me that only someone who had endured the ravages of
war and tyranny, as Klemperer had in 1930s Germany, was able fully to
embrace what Freedom meant.

Nicholas Payne
June 2024

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)


Track 1: Act 1, Scene 1

Track 2: Act 1, Scene 2

Track 3: Act 2

This recording was taken from a radio relay from the Royal Opera House on 7 March 1961.

The recording is from the Tolansky/Tschaikov Collection at Music Preserved.

  • Sena Jurinac
  • Jon Vickers
  • Hans Hotter
    Don Pizarro
  • Gottlob Frick
  • John Dobson
  • Elsie Morrison
  • Forbes Robinson
    Don Fernando
  • Joseph Ward
    First Minister
  • Victor Godfrey
    Second Prisoner
  • The Covent Garden Opera Chorus
  • The Covent Garden Opera Orchestra
  • Otto Klemperer

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