Music by Ludwig van Beethoven
Libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner
A Singular Masterpiece
by Fred Plotkin
It is often asserted that Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, is the greatest first opera of all time. That certainly is true, but does not do justice to this masterpiece: Fidelio is one of the most affirming and exhilarating of all operas, one that progresses from darkness to light with a power to brighten even the most despondent souls.
Fidelio, it must be said, is a flawed, imperfect work that can be difficult to stage and raises questions among critics and audience members who contend that believability must come with a straightforward narrative and characters who behave in predictable ways. But who among us is not flawed and imperfect? Despite its structural weaknesses and challenges (traits it shares with other indisputable masterpieces such as Don Giovanni and Carmen), Fidelio triumphs because it is the most glorious depiction of how human courage and strength can be summoned in the most desperate moments to prevail over evil. It is the opera that speaks to the better angels of our nature.
The reason we have a received notion of Fidelio being a flawed work is that Beethoven famously struggled to bring it to life and left evidence—through letters and earlier drafts of the score—that he was dissatisfied with his work. The first performances were not successful, primarily because Vienna was under French occupation at the opera’s 1805 premiere and the audience was comprised primarily of French military officers, rather than local people who admired the composer. What is ironic is that the story of Fidelio has profoundly French roots.
Florestan, a nobleman with progressive political beliefs, has been jailed in the depths of a prison where he sees no light and has almost nothing to eat. His wife, Leonore, has disguised herself as a young man named “Fidelio” (as in “the faithful one”) to gain access to the prison in the hopes of freeing her husband. The jailer, Rocco, possesses an unexpected humanity and takes kindly to “Fidelio.” Rocco’s daughter Marzelline has fallen in love with “Fidelio” and does not understand why the youth does not respond in kind. At the same time, a young man named Jaquino loves Marzelline and cannot understand why she rejects him. Ultimately, Leonore liberates Florestan and, as her identity is revealed, her courage is praised by the families of other prisoners, while some characters (especially Marzelline) react with confusion or dismay. Overall, it is a happy ending and Beethoven’s musical conclusion is spectacular.
Elements of Fidelio were rooted in older styles of opera. Popular operas such as The Marriage of Figaro (with the Count/Countess Almaviva and Figaro/Susanna) and The Magic Flute (Tamino/Pamina and Papageno/Papagena) featured two couples of different classes, as does Fidelio with Florestan/Leonore and Jaquino/Marzelline. Fidelio is a “rescue opera,” in which we closely follow the actions of one character who attempts to save another, usually a loved one. This is found most famously in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Then, there is the timeless comic device of mistaken identities that was supposed to provide humor to be juxtaposed against the drama.
Beethoven’s source material was a French-language libretto by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly called Léonore, ou L’Amour Conjugal (“Leonore, or Conjugal Love”), which became an opera by Pierre Gaveaux that premiered in Paris in 1798. The story was based on events in Tours during the Reign of Terror. Several theatrical works in France at that time concerned the liberation of persons unjustly imprisoned in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
Gaveaux’s Léonore, ou L’Amour Conjugal was an opéra-comique, a style that did not necessarily contain comedy but which always included spoken dialogue as well as sung music. It was the Gallic equivalent of the German Singspiel which Mozart used in The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute and Beethoven (with less emphasis on comedy) used in Fidelio. Until the advent of projected titles in the early 1980s, audiences outside the German-speaking world found the text challenging and complained that it slowed down the performance of Singspiel operas.
Following the indifferent reception Fidelio was accorded at its premiere, Beethoven made significant revisions. The libretto was strengthened by Stephan von Breuning in 1806 and Georg Friedrich Treitschke in 1814, although the subplot involving Marzelline/“Fidelio”/Jaquino still means the opera gets off to an awkward start. The first two acts were condensed into one. By 1814, Beethoven had written four overtures. The fourth one, called the Fidelio overture, is used in the opera. The thrilling “Leonore Overture no. 3” is popular in symphonic concerts and has occasionally been inserted by conductors such as Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein between the two scenes of the second act, although this happens less often nowadays as it was not part of Beethoven’s intention.
With its somewhat archaic dramatic elements and spoken dialogue, one would think that Fidelio would have limited appeal to audiences who do not speak German. And yet it is a miraculous experience to attend a performance, and the opera becomes even more affecting and powerful on repeated hearings. This is because it is a story of an extraordinary woman whose love for her husband gives her the courage to take action. And, we learn that compassion can surface in unexpected places, as with Rocco the jailer.
Beethoven wrote highly theatrical music that is also gorgeous. We hear solos, duets, trios, a splendid quartet (Leonore, Marzelline, Jaquino, Rocco) and two amazing choruses—a sad one for prisoners and an exultant one that concludes the opera.
Fidelio has taken on additional significance as a moral force on important occasions. Its 1814 performances were interpreted as a celebration of the defeat of Napoleon’s armies by allied forces. In 1933, Arturo Toscanini left the Nazi-occupied Wagner shrine of Bayreuth and conducted a protest performance of Fidelio in Salzburg. In 1941, a cast of singers who were refugees from Hitler’s war sang in Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera under the baton of Bruno Walter. And, it was meant to provide a conciliatory tone when the Vienna State Opera house reopened in 1955.
For many years it was a tradition in the German-speaking world that newly engaged couples were sent to a performance of Fidelio to learn the lessons of unconditional love and human dignity. Our world would likely be a better place today if every citizen had a chance to see and hear Beethoven’s singular masterpiece.
Fred Plotkin, author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera, writes for Operavore at wqxr.org and lectures for major opera companies worldwide.