The Major Interpreters & Recordings of Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’

By David Salazar

Ludwig Van Beethoven turned 246 on Friday, Dec. 16. Upon his death in 1827, the composer left behind veritable masterpieces of classical music. His most famous works are his nine symphonies, his piano sonatas and concertos and his string quartets.

There was also one opera, “Fidelio.” The composer is said to have struggled to create this singular work, creating three different versions of it with the first version appearing in 1805 and the final one in 1814. Today “Fidelio’s” status in the opera world is a unique one. While it is undoubtedly popular in some areas of the world, it is largely neglected in others. The work has received numerous audio recordings by a multitude of major interpreters. To pick single recordings it a bit tricky, so here is a look at the great interpreters of the opera and the recordings to choose from.


The female protagonist has attracted some of the greatest singers of the German vocal tradition, though perhaps no singer has been more associated with the work than Christa Ludwig. The German mezzo soprano committed the opera to audio on four separate occasions between 1962 and 1969 with two different tenors and three different conductors. Jon Vickers plays her Florestan in two 1962 recordings, albeit one is a studio piece with Otto Klemperer while the latter is a live recording under the baton of Herbert Von Karajan. She also has two live recordings with Karl Bohm and James King as her Florestan. One of these recordings is also available on video while another 1963 live performance with King under the baton of Artur Rother is also available on video.

Dame Gwyneth Jones has two audio recordings and a film version, all with James King as Florestan. There is a studio recording with Karl Bohm, a live performance with Leonard Bernstein and a 1970 film with Karl Bohm at the podium.

Gundula Janowitz appears on four recordings of the work, though she only plays Leonore in one audio recording from 1978 under Bernstein and appears in two video performances. The first from 1977 comes under the baton of Zubin Mehta with Jon Vickers as Florestan while the second is from 1978 with Rene Kollo as her leading man and Bernstein at the podium.

Birgit Nilsson also has three recordings, including one recently released Metropolitan Opera live performance from 1962 alongside Vickers, under the baton of Karlm Bohm. Her other recordings include a 1964 version with James McCracken and Lorin Maazel and and an early 1956 version under Erich Kleiber alongside tenor Hans Hopf.


James King is the king (no pun intended) of Florestan recordings, appearing on a whopping eight, of which many have been covered in the above section. It is worth noting that he appears in recordings from 1963 through 1978, including five audio performances and three video recordings. He appears with Dame Gwyneth Jones three times and with Ludwig four times. He also has a late recording from 1978 with Hildegard Behrens.

Jon Vickers has seven recordings as well, five audio versions and one on video. His most common Leonore is Christa Ludwig (2 recordings), but he appears with six other sopranos, giving his discography a lot more variety for the listener.

Julius Patzak is one of the early famed interpreters, putting together three interpretations between 1948 and 1957. He has three different Leonore’s, including Erna Schluter, Kirsten Flagstad and Gladys Kuchta. His first two recordings are particularly popular because they are under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwangler.

Jonas Kaufmann earns a spot on this list, if only because he has been a massive proponent of this work in modern times. The tenor has a CD recording with Nina Stemme and Claudio Abbado and has 2 video recordings that was recently re-released.


Wilhelm Furtwangler is the favorite Beethoven of many music connoisseurs, for his deeply introspective interpretations and overall brilliant musicianship. He has three recordings of the work in 1948, 1950 and 1953. His first two feature Julius Patzak as Florestan while his final one showcases Wolfgang Windgassen and Martha Modl. That last one is the only one that is not a live recording, perhaps one of the definitive studio recordings of the opera.

Karl Bohm’s extraordinary career saw eight recordings of the work spanning from as early as 1943 all the way through 1978. In that span he made three studio recordings of the work, left behind three live audio productions and two video recordings, including a film.

Herbert Van Karajan has committed three accounts of the work to recordings, including two live performances and a studio version that includes Helga Dernesch, Vickers and Jose Van Dam among others. Vickers is also his tenor of choice for a 1962 version with Ludwig and Walter Berry.

The opera will be showcased at the Metropolitan Opera during the spring of 2017.



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