Program Notes By Ed Rutschman
Fidelio (1805, rev. 1806 and 1814)
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)
Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, was timely in his day and remains timeless in ours. The central story tells of the rescue of the political prisoner, Florestan, from the treacherous hand of Don Pizarro by Leonore, who risks her life to locate and free her husband. This story of dignity, sacrifice, and love has been lived out in every generation and in many ways, and it holds a firm grip on the world stage today. For the modern-day traveler, a visit to the International Red Cross Museum in Geneva, Switzerland, includes a long mural that details many centuries of war. The visitor is taken aback by the sheer number of armed conflicts on the list for the current year, and truly stunned at the realization that there in not one year in the historical record without a conflict somewhere in the world.
The opera cost its composer considerable personal and professional capital, and its cri de coeur still reverberates. Beethoven undertook the project in 1803, but did not complete its third and final version until 1814. During that time, both the composer and his world had changed profoundly. In 1803 Beethoven and Emanuel Schikaneder, the director of Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, who had been Mozart’s librettist for The Magic Flute,made plans to produce an opera at the theater. As bad luck would have it, Beethoven’s long, three-act opera with a plot about political imprisonment, heroism and dramatic rescue premiered shortly after Napoleon’s troops had captured Vienna, in November 1805. Fidelio, or Leonore, as Beethoven would have preferred to call the new work, closed after three performances. A two-act version, shorter and much revised, opened a few months later but closed after only two performances. Again thoroughly revised, the work appeared once more in 1814. This is the version that is nearly always staged today. The period 1803-1814 also encompassed the bulk of the Napoleonic Wars and traced the arc of Beethoven’s idealization of and subsequent disillusionment with Napoleon. In 1803, the composer began his Symphony #3, planning to call it his “Bonaparte” Symphony. In 1814, when Napoleon abdicated and France surrendered (with Waterloo yet to come), Beethoven began to compose music for the Congress of Vienna, where dignitaries would eventually draw the post-Napoleonic map.
The plot line of Fidelio came from Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s 1798 French libretto, Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal (“Léonore, or Married Love”). Bouilly said that he based his story on events of which he had first-hand knowledge, as part of his job with the Military Commission in Tours during the Reign of Terror. Beethoven’s librettist, Joseph von Sonnleithner, translated Bouilly’s work into German and expanded it. Two additional librettists tailored the text for the 1806 and 1814 revisions. The drama unfolds in a combination of spoken dialogue and music, in the tradition of the German Singspiel (“sung play”).
Florestan and Leonore, as prisoner and rescuer, have elaborate music that marks the nobility of their birth and, more significantly, of their character. But there is a secondary plot as well, which introduces the main plot. Jaquino woos Marzelline, who is more interested in Fidelio (Leonore in cross-dress disguise). Fidelio/Leonore gets in the good graces of Marzelline’s father, Rocco, who has the keys to the prison. Beethoven tells parts of this story in light-hearted music.
When Pizarro shows up, though, the plot gets deadly serious, and before things can get better, they get much worse. Prisoners are misused, although Leonore does convince Rocco to let them have some fresh air, in the achingly beautiful ‘Prisoners’ Chorus’ in the Finale of Act I. Later, in Act II, Leonore finds herself helping Rocco dig a grave for Florestan on Pizarro’s orders. Beethoven composed this frightening scene in a style known as melodrama, where the music underpins the spoken words. Here, the two elements alternate rapidly. Music and speech even occur at the same time, when Rocco observes that the prisoner is sleeping: the oboe plays a phrase from Florestan’s aria, in which Florestan had described an angelic vision that resembled Leonore. When Pizarro is ready to stab Florestan, Leonore intervenes, in the thrilling Quartet where “Fidelio” reveals her identity. She thrusts herself between Florestan and Pizarro and shouts, “Kill his wife first!” Suddenly the trumpet announces the arrival of Don Fernando, who will make things right. Dignity, sacrifice, and love have triumphed.
Who’s who in Fidelio
Florestan (tenor), a Spanish political prisoner held on the order of Don Pizarro. He is among the “disappeared,” and no one has heard of him in a long while. Nor does he appear in the first half of the opera. Pizarro plans to execute him.
Leonore (soprano), Florestan’s wife. She disguises herself as a man and takes the name Fidelio. Seeking her husband, she becomes the assistant to Rocco in order to get inside the prison.
Rocco (bass), the jailer in charge of the prison near Seville where Florestan is hidden. Rocco is sympathetic to the unfortunate prisoner, but he follows Don Pizarro’s order to prepare for Florestan’s execution.
Marzelline (soprano), Rocco’s daughter. Fooled by Leonore’s disguise as Fidelio, she is smitten. After seeing Fidelio, she spurns the overtures of Jaquino.
Jaquino (tenor), Rocco’s assistant, who courts Marzelline early in the plot but then disappears from the action until the finale of the second act.
Don Pizarro (bass-baritone), governor of a state prison. He has imprisoned Florestan, and he nearly succeeds in his plan to murder his prisoner.
Don Fernando (bass), state minister and Spanish nobleman, friend of Florestan. When Don Fernando arrives to inspect the prison, he arrests Don Pizarro.
Soldiers, prisoners and townspeople
A few favorite musical moments
Overture – Unlike the three earlier overtures composed at different stages of the revision of Leonore, the Overture to Fidelio does not give away the plot material of the opera. Its noble music suggests concepts such as heroism, loyalty, and the triumph of goodness.
Quartet – Marzelline, Leonore, Rocco, and Jaquino have four quite different reactions to a prospective pairing of Fidelio and Marzelline. Their feelings are under the surface, as they all sing the same tune. Beethoven’s compositional technique (a four part canon) is sophisticated.
Leonore’s soliloquy – In an orchestrally accompanied recitative, Leonore rages against Pizarro; in her aria she regains her dignity, and then her courage, with bravura passages for herself and three obbligato horns.
Prisoners’ chorus – A brief moment of humanity in otherwise inhumane conditions
Florestan’s soliloquy – Florestan’s first appearance in the opera. In the lowest dungeon, he cries out and then sees an angelic vision of Leonore leading him to heavenly freedom.
Quartet – The rescue scene. Attempted murder, heroic intercession, last-minute trumpet calls, astonishment of Florestan, Pizarro and Rocco, as Fidelio becomes Leonore; rejoicing by three of the four protagonists.
Victory laps – Leonore and Florestan’s duet, followed by general celebration
After Fidelio Beethoven ardently searched for another libretto to set as an opera, but he never found another subject that he considered worthy of his dramatic ideals. He became involved in a court battle over custody of his young nephew. He never got to follow up on the letter he had written to an as-yet-unidentified “immortal beloved.”
Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.