Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
SETTING: A Spanish fortress, near Seville, 18th century
CHARACTERS: DON FERRANDO, King’s minister (bass); DON PIZARRO, governor of the prison (bass); FLORESTAN, a prisoner (tenor); LEONORE, his wife, disguised as a man under the name of Fidelio (soprano); ROCCO, a gaoler (bass); MARZELLINE, his daughter (soprano); JAQUINO, assistant to Rocco (tenor)
Leonore, opera in three acts. Libretto: Josef Sonnleithner, after Léonore ou l’Amour conjugal, libretto by Bouilly. First performed Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 20 November 1805, conducted by Ignaz von Seyfried. Revised 29 March 1806. CAST: Johann Michael Weinkopf as Der Fernando; Sebastian Mayer as Don Pizarro; Carl Demmer as Florestan; Anna Milder as Leonore; Joseph Rothe as Rocco; Louise Müller as Marzelline; Joseph Caché as Jaquino.
Fidelio, oder die eheliche Liebe, opera in two acts. Libretto revised by Georges Friedrich Treitschke. Performed Kärntnertortheater, Vienna, 23 May 1814, conducted by Michael Umlauf. CAST: Ignaz Saal as Don Fernando; Johann Michael Vogl as Don Pizarro; Julius Radichi as Florestan; Anna Milder as Leonore; Carl Weinmüller as Rocco; Anna Bondra as Marzelline; Joseph Frühwald as Jaquino.
Beethoven’s only opera was one of the most esteemed operas of the 19th century, placed in a select group that included Don Giovanni, Guillaume Tell, Der Freischütz, and Les Huguenots. But perhaps it is only after Auschwitz and the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth century that we can appreciate its message of liberty, love, and courage versus tyranny.
Fidelio comes at the start of Beethoven’s ‘heroic’ period. The first version, Leonore, in three acts, appeared in 1805, the same year of his mighty Eroica. This version was a failure; it premiered in a Vienna occupied by Napoleon’s army, and the first night audience consisted largely of French soldiers. That version only lasted three performances. Conductor René Jacobs, though, considers it the best version. Beethoven revised the opera in 1806, but the version most often performed today wasn’t completed until 1814.
Several composers had already set the story of the courageous wife who dresses as a man to rescue her husband from prison, based on an incident in the French Revolution. Gaveaux’s Léonore, ou l’amour conjugal (libretto by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, himself a Revolution era politician) appeared in 1798; Berlioz thought it extremely feeble, and Clément deemed it without interest, but the work was resurrected in Washington in 2017. Ferdinando Paër’s Italian version Leonora appeared in Dresden in 1804; according to legend, Beethoven quipped: ‘Your opera pleased me; I’ll set it to music.’ This, too, has been staged a couple of times since the 1970s.
Fidelio is a classic – but an uneven one. One imagines Fidelio as a sublime hymn to freedom and justice, composed by BEETHOVEN! This consists of the overtures, the quartet, the Prisoners’ Chorus, the prison scene, and the choral finale. All are magnificent. But not the first act (or two, in Leonore): a tuneful but trivial Singspiel about Marzelline who discovers she’s really a lesbian; the turnkey who loves her; and her jailer dad. This subplot doesn’t go anywhere, and is dropped halfway.
Marzelline’s aria (‘O wär’ ich schon mit dir vereint‘), the duet (‘Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind wir allein’) and the trio (‘Ein Mann ist bald genommen’) (cut from Fidelio) are attractive, somewhat in the style of Mozart, but tread water. The andante canon quartet ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’, though, is superb and justly famous. Next come Rocco’s aria in praise of gold (‘Hat man nicht auch Gold beneiben’) and the elaborate eight-minute trio (‘Gut, Söhnchen, gut’) – originally the Act I finale of Leonore.
A march signals the arrival of the prison governor Pizarro. The first dramatic number – the first with any backbone or menace – is Pizarro’s allegro aria ‘Ha! Welch ein Augnblick!’. Beethoven unleashes the entire orchestra for the first time. This stormy aria is the model for Weber’s Freischütz and Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, among others. The governor tries to make the jailer his accomplice in a sinister duet (‘Jetzt, Alter, jetzt hat es Eile!’). Marzelline and Leonore’s allegretto duet (‘Um in der Ehe froh zu Leben’), a graceful piece accompanied only by a violin and violincello, was cut from later versions. So was Leonore’s grand aria (‘Ach, brich noch nicht, du mattes Herz!’), replaced by the recitative ‘Abscheulicher!’ and the magnificent ‘Komm, Hoffnung’, which is almost Wagnerian via Weber. (It was the model for Agathe’s aria in Freischütz.) Now comes the sublime Prisoners’ Chorus. The act ends with a quintet and chorus as the prisoner are led into their cells, and the characters prepare to enter the dungeon.
Act II opens with a grave introduction, “a slow and lugubrious symphony,” Berlioz wrote, “full of long cries of anguish, tears, trembling, heavy pulsations”. Florestan’s despairing cry punctuates the orchestra; his aria moves through despair, resignation, then in exaltation as he sees a vision of an angel: his wife Leonore. A sombre Melodrama as Leonore and Rocco dig the grave. The trio (‘Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten’) is overlong, although Florestan has a lovely phrase.
Leonore defends her husband and exposes herself in a dramatic quartet (‘Es sterbe!’); she holds Pizarro back at pistol point; at that moment, trumpets offstage herald the arrival of the Minister. (Ministers of grace, defend us!) Berlioz called the quartet a miracle of dramatic music, a long roll of thunder.
All but Leonore and Florestan leave the stage; husband and wife are reunited in a heated, rather strident duet. The finale begins with a joyful, almost dancelike, allegro chorus; it ends in a great choral ensemble, a tidal wave that looks forward to the Ninth Symphony – one of the most uplifting passages in opera, and a fitting conclusion to this remarkable, frustrating work.
Some critics, even while admiring the work, doubt its effectiveness as an opera. Clément, for instance, thought it an unsuccessful lyric drama compared to Gluck, Mozart, Rossini or Meyerbeer; the instrumentation dominates, and the melodic forms are not easy to grasp. Blaze de Bury called Fidelio an imposing and moving symphony adding human voices to instruments, where the tenor, soprano, bass and baritone play the part of oboe, clarinet, trombone and tuba, lost in a torment of harmony, the tumultuous gulf of the most formidable orchestra.
But they cannot deny the nobility of the opera. Blaze de Bury admired the grandiose and severe style, its high-mindedness; Beethoven reveals the secrets of the anguished human heart. Berlioz, wholly admiring, considered Fidelio a masterpiece. “Beautiful both as a whole and in its details; everywhere there is energy, grandeur, originality, and deep and true feeling.” He praised the opulent sobriety of the instrumentation, the boldness of its harmony, and above all the depth of feeling. Wagner (A Pilgrimage to Beethoven, 1840) raved about the Leonore of Wilhelmine Schröder (later his first Senta and Venus).
For the twentieth century, though, Fidelio attained dimensions that the 19th century seldom considered, confident in the advancement of man through science and civilization. Dictators ruled much of the globe; bureaucrats efficiently murdered millions of ‘social undesirables’; and political prisoners, enemies of the state, and freethinkers were tortured, imprisoned, forgotten or killed. After the fall of the Third Reich, Fidelio was the first opera played in Berlin – a spiritual cleansing for the theatre and the city. Half a century later, it was the last opera played in Berlin before the Wall fell. This torch lit in the darkness of the prison became a beacon of hope, symbolizing the release of a suffering people from the shackles of captivity, and a clarion call to a new world.
(But – whisper it low – do we admire it more for its great moments and its politics than as an opera?)
Christa Ludwig (Leonore), Jon Vickers (Florestan), Gottlob Frick (Rocco), Walter Berry (Don Pizarro), Ingeborg Hallstein (Marzelline), and Gerhard Unger (Jaquino), with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Otto Klemperer. London, 1962. EMI.
- Hector Berlioz, À travers chants, Paris : Michel Lévy, 1862. https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/%C3%80_travers_chants
- Henri Blaze de Bury, Le Fidelio de Beethoven, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1842. https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Revue_musicale/1842/Le_Fid%C3%A9lio_de_Beethoven
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869