Our first opera of the evening was the only operatic work written by Ludwig van Beethoven, and it is considered to be one of his great masterpieces. Fidelio was premiered in Vienna as a three act work on November 20, 1805. Subsequent revisions shortened it to two acts, which were premiered later in 1805 and 1806, and finally in 1814. The 1814 revision, with a premiere that featured Johann Michael Vogl and which was attended by a 17 year old Franz Schubert, was a considerable success. The opera is noted for the three overtures that Beethoven wrote for it at various points in the revision process. Three of the overtures have entered the regular concert repertoire, although I believe that what we will hear tonight will be the third.
Tonight’s recording is a 1998 recording that features Gosta Windbergh, Inga Nielsen, Wolfgang Glashof, Alan Titus, and Kurt Moll. Michael Halász directs the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia and the Hungarian Radio Choir.
The next opera that we’ll hear this evening is Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Wagner based the libretto on a poem by Heinrich Heine, the same poet who inspired Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, although Wagner also found some inspiration in a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the 15th century folk ballad Das Lied von dem Danheüser, and a collection of folk legends from Thuringia called Der Sagenschatz und die Sagenkreise des Thüringerlandes. Heine published his poem in 1837, and Wagner wrote a draft libretto in prose in 1842. He began the composition of the music in the summer of 1843, and completed the full score on April 13, 1845. It was premiered on October 19 of that same year, with Wagner’s niece Johanna singing the part of Elizabeth. The opera was not initially as successful as some of Wagner’s previous works, and he spent parts of 1846 and 1847 revising it. He also produced a well known revision of the opera in 1860 for a special performance in Paris, and that revision was itself revised in 1875.
Tonight’s recording is a legendary live recording from the 1962 Bayreuth Festival. It is commonly referred to as the “Black Venus” because of the presence of Grace Bumpry, the first black singer to appear at Bayreuth. Along with Grace Bumpry (whose Venus is quite prominent in Act 1), we hear Wolfgang Windgassen and Anja Silja in the lead roles, along with Eberhard Wächter, Gerhard Stolze, Franz Crass, Georg Paskuda, Gerd Nienstedt, and Else-Margaret Gardelli. The Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra is conducted by Wolfgang Swallisch.