(read the introduction here). Our own Wiener Staatsoper has an old Schenk production of Fidelio that would make a nice counterpoint to Calixto Bieito's new one, but they haven't programmed it this season. But it is on DVD, so I checked it out of the library. This performance was recorded in 1978 and probably maintains its high status because of Leonard Bernstein’s conducting. Then, Schenk’s production was new. That was 32 years ago.
Musically there’s a lot to like and some things to not like as much. Productionwise, meh. Whatevs. In all fairness, that was probably the reaction Schenk was shooting for.
If you want an ultra-traditional Fidelio, that’s what you’ll get here. Visually, everything is realistic, dreary, and gray. This includes the final scene to far too great an extent. This DVD is very much directed for the camera, with many different angles and the kind of acting that is more for close-ups than the audience in the theater, who probably couldn’t see much of the detail due to the monochromatic color palette.
Schenk’s sense of Werktreue is selective. While slavish to scene-setting, he shows flexibility with the spoken text, cutting and rearranging it every which way (I was comparing to this critical edition). If we’re going to consider the set and stage directions so inviolate, why are other details of the text so flexible? (Not that the text is very good, it isn’t.) But I doubt Schenk had any choice about the insertion of the Leonore No. 3 after “O namenlose große Freude,” so I’m not going to blame him for that.
Bernstein conducts a very orchestral performance where the voices often take a backseat to the profile of the instrumental parts. It’s majestic and grand but also very tight and controlled, there’s not a lot of breathing space or lyricism. The recording is dry, giving things a constrained quality. But it is powerfully done, with wonderful rhythmic vitality and phrasing and timing. It’s only occasionally marred by a bassoon player who was having a really bad day (over and over and over, the bassoons are out of tune and time).
As a production it is perfectly OK, but never interesting. I would prefer something with more character and ideas.