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"Fidelio": The only opera Ludwig van Beethoven wrote

“Fidelio” is the only opera crafted by Ludwig van Beethoven. It was originally titled “Leonore” or “The Triumph of Marital Love.” Jean-Nicolas Bouilly and Joseph Sonnleithner wrote the French and German librettos, respectively.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Origin

During the legendary composer’s career, three separate versions of “Fidelio” were crafted, with music included from his other incomplete opera, which never saw the light of the day. It all started in 1803 when Beethoven signed a contract with Emanuel Schikaneder, an impresario and librettist, to craft an opera. Beethoven was also offered free lodging in the suburban theater’s apartment complex. Initially, Schikaneder crafted the libretto, which Ludwig didn’t fancy. After spending a month composing music, he abandoned the project after noticing the libretto for “Fidelio.” The time spent on the abandoned opera didn’t entirely go to waste, as two numbers in “Fidelio,” “Hah! What a moment!” and “O unnamed joy!” contained music from “Vestas Feuer,” the abandoned opera.

History & Performances 

Fidelio's 1st performance playbill

On the 20th of November, 1805, “Fidelio” premiered at Theater an der Wien in Vienna. The following nights, more performances were held. However, Vienna back then was under  French occupation, and the military personnel had little interest in a German opera. Subsequently, his friends suggested shortening the opera, and in 1806, the work was extensively revised with the help of Stephan von Breuning - three acts were reduced to two. He further crafted a new “overture” and the new version was staged on the 29th of March, to much greater enthusiasm. However, an unfortunate disagreement between the management and Beethoven led to the opera being shelved from the theatre.

Georg Friedrich Treitschke further worked on the libretto, and yet another version saw the light on the 23rd of May, 1814, at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna. This was the final version of the opera, apart from the three-act version of 1805 and the two-act revision of 1806. The title “Fidelio” was attributed permanently that evening. A young Franz Schubert among the audience, having sold his books to buy a ticket. Beethoven was increasingly deaf at this juncture yet conducted the performance with the help of Michael Umlauf. It was an overwhelming success, cementing its status in the operatic repertory. Ludwig found the entire process of crafting and producing operas so taxing. He never ventured down that road again.

In 1822, the two-act version of “Fidelio” was first performed outside Vienna, in Prague. In 1826, the full score of all three versions was published, going on to become his “Opus 72.” In 1832, it traveled across The Thames to the King's Theatre in London. In 1839, it finally crossed the Atlantic and was performed at the “Park Theatre” in New York City.

The Play

Act I

Painting of the prison in opera "Fidelio"

The story revolves around a prison in Spain. Florestan, a nobleman, had attempted to expose the wrongdoings of Pizarro, another wealthy nobleman. However, he was secretly imprisoned by his rival, who also spread rumors about Florestan's demise. Pizarro is the governor of this prison, while the warden is named Rocco. Leonore, Florestan’s spouse, still believes that her husband is alive and thus, takes up the alias “Fidelio” to work in the prison. Florestan’s ration supply is slowly being cut off on the orders of the governor, who plans to starve him to death.

Marzelline, Rocco’s (the guard) daughter, and Jaquino, his assistant, are seen together at Rocco's place. Jaquino proposes to Marzelline but is rebuffed, as the latter expresses her feelings towards Fidelio through the aria, “Now, darling, now we are alone.” However, Fidelio is actually a disguise borne by Leonore, the wife of a prisoner named Florestan. Jaquino leaves the room as Marzelline starts singing, “If only I were already united with thee.”

Rocco enters the scene enquiring about Fidelio, who follows him shortly, carrying a bunch of repaired chains. As Rocco complements her, he also misinterprets her response as attraction towards Marzelline. Soon, Jaquino returns as everyone performs the quartet titled, “A wondrous feeling fills me,” celebrating Marzelline’s, newfound love.

Rocco soon declares that Fidelio and Marzelline can get married whenever the governor leaves for Seville. He also warns them through the song, “If you don't have any money,” that without wealth, they cannot be happy. Fidelio tries to convince Rocco to work in the dungeons, but the guard refuses, stating the dungeon is home to an important man who has been imprisoned for a while. Marzelline also implores her father to keep Fidelio away from such men. Fidelio and Rocco soon break into the duet, “All right, sonny, all right.”

Soon, Pizarro enters the scene. He is warned about the impending visit of a minister who plans to investigate accusations against the nobleman. Pizarro plans to murder Florestan before that and shares his plans through the aria, “Hah! What a moment!” He further orders Rocco to carry out the murder through the song, “Now, old man, we must hurry!” When Rocco refuses, he is ordered to dig a grave and warn Pizarro about the arrival of the minister. Once the grave is dug and the alarm goes off, Pizarro will enter the dungeon to murder Florestan. However, Fidelio (Leonore) hears about the entire plot and plans to rescue her husband and expresses her emotions through the aria, “Monster! Where are you off to so fast?” She requests Rocco to allow the poor prisoners to go out in the garden and enjoy the weather, which is acknowledged. The prisoners break out into a joyful chorus, “O what a joy.”

Rocco informs Fidelio (Leonore) that he can accompany him during the dungeon rounds. However, as they prepare to go down, Marzelline and Jaquino enter the room and warn them that Pizarro is livid about the prisoners have been allowed out of their cells. The aria, “O, father, father, hurry!” accompanies this scene. The prison governor enters and demands clarification, to which Rocco replies that they were awarded momentary freedom to honor the name day of the king. Pizarro isn’t entirely satisfied and orders the prisoners back to their lock-ups. The prisoners oblige while singing, “Farewell, warm sunshine.”

Act II

Leonore acted by Lotte Lehmann in opera "Fidelio"

In the dungeon, Florestan has a vision that his wife is coming to rescue him. He performs the arias, “God! What darkness here” and “In the spring days of life.” Fidelio and Rocco are seen digging the grave as the guard urges his subordinate to hurry through the arias, “How cold it is in this underground chamber,” and “Come get to work and dig.” Florestan is awoken by the commotion and urges the guard to pass a message to  Leonore, his wife, but is turned down. When he pleads for a drop of drink instead, Fidelio is ordered to provide him one.  Florestan fails to recognize his wife in disguise but praises Fidelio the aria, “You shall be rewarded in better worlds.”

Soon, Rocco sounds the alarm as Pizarro enters the scene and commands Fidelio to leave, who obliges but hides at a distance. The governor reveals his plot to the prisoner by singing, “Let him die! But first, he should know.” As Pizarro takes out a dagger, the disguised Leonore jumps in between and reveals her true identity after brandishing a gun. A trumpet in the background announces the arrival of the government minister. Jaquino enters the dungeon with soldiers to reveal that the minister is waiting at the entrance. Rocco, who has a change of heart, instructs the soldiers to escort the Governor out of the dungeon. Pizarro leaves while swearing revenge, as “Revenge's bell tolls” plays in the background. The estranged couple Leonore and Florestan burst out in a romantic duet, “O unnamed joy!”

The townsfolk, along with the prisoners, are seen singing in jubilation “Hail to the day!” as Don Fernando, the minister announces the end of the evil governor’s regime. Rocco enters the scene along with the liberated couple and requests the minister to help the needy through the aria, “So help! Help the poor ones!” Rocco further explains how a brave Leonore risked her life to rescue her husband. The crowd applauds Leonore and erupts into the song, “Who has got a good wife.”

Musical Overview 

Beethoven was by no means a superficial composer. Everything he crafted is a result of immense, sometimes colossal effort. “Fidelio” saw the day of light after a twelve-year span, albeit, even after which he had failed to produce any single, conclusive version of the opera.

This perception of struggle is evoked throughout the music of “Fidelio” to a great extent. All classic components that are associated as being unusual to a Beethoven score are present here. An artist combating against all odds for elucidation and comprehension, a rugged sense of individualism, a motivic approach to music, offering a sense of musical freedom throughout, abbreviated yet accented beats - all characteristics of his music which were enhanced due to his gradual perpetuity towards deafness. However, what remains remarkable in “Fidelio” is this prevalent struggle is present throughout - even among the vocal lines.

When compared with other legends, like Gioachino Rossini and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his vocal lines might come around a tad awkward. There’s a presence of “anti-vocal” elements, cumbersome phrases. The communication between characters feels like a struggle, the limitations of the singers seem exposed. But in the end, it feels like a victory overcoming all odds, everything working together wonderfully evoking the true sense of the opera - good triumphing over evil, love winning against all odds.

A Flawed Masterpiece

“Fidelio” creates a sense of dramatic mood tension gradually escalating. The music affirms the composer’s volatility, a tendency to incorporate color and symphony. He crafts a beautiful “tutti” that brings out the isolated textures - something that emulates the Wagnerian resonance. The dramatic unevenness, the tricky vocal lines make “Fidelio” look like a flawed masterpiece, albeit at a superficial glance. When analyzed carefully, it offers an immense emotional rollercoaster that is bound to satisfy the cravings of opera aficionado - musical drama at its very best, a masterpiece indeed.

 

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