Ludwig van Beethoven is not a particularly good vocal composer. Somebody may object to that, but having sung Fidelio and many other vocal compositions by the Maestro, I can definitely say that his incredible knowledge of symphonic and instrumental music, didn’t carry over to his composing for the human voice.
That is probably one reason why Fidelio is his one and only Opera… And he struggled with it.
I don’t want to downplay it, because somehow he managed to create a true masterpiece. The simple but dramatic storyline is masterly outlined with exceptionally painted characters and dramatic music. Fidelio is an awesome opera, no doubt about that… I still wouldn’t suggest the arias of Florestan or Fidelio to a student… They are too difficult.
The beginning of Beethoven’s work with the opera was all the way back in 1803, but the final version wasn’t ready until 1814. In 11 years he had written 4 overtures, had done three premiers of different versions, had shortened it from three acts to two, used up four different librettists, and suffered endless sleepless nights.
“Of all my creatures, Fidelio is the one whose birth has cost me the most bitter pains…This is why it is also the dearest to me. Above all my other works, I consider it worthy of being preserved.”
Fidelio is composed as a Singspiel with spoken dialogue.
Premiere – November 20, 1805, Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria
Premiere of the revised and final version – March 23, 1814, Theater am Kärtnertor, Vienna, Austria
Composer – Ludwig van Beethoven
Librettists – Joseph Sonnleithner, Stephan von Breuning, and Georg Friedrich Treitschke.
Running Time – Roughly 2 hours or a little more, plus interval
Overture – 7 minutes
Act 1 – 1 hour and 10 minutes
Act 2 – 50 minutes
… or a little more.
Additional 15 minutes if the Overture Leonore nr.3 is inserted in the second Act.
Fidelio / Leonore – Dramatic Soprano. The wife of Florestan.
Florestan – Heldentenor (Dramatic tenor) – A Noble Spaniard.
Marzelline – Lyric Soprano. Rocco’s daughter.
Rocco – Bass. Chief jailer.
Jaquino – Light tenor. The porter.
Don Pizarro – Dramatic baritone. The Governor of the prison, and Florestan’s enemy.
Don Fernando – Bass. Minister of internal affairs, and Florestan’s friend.
Loosely based on the screenplay Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal by Jean Nicolas Bouilly. He based his story on a supposedly true event from the French revolution, where a woman saved her husband from prison dressed up as a man.
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Background – The opera Fidelio is set in…
We’re in the 17th century. A Fortress has been converted into a prison where Don Pizarro keeps political prisoners.
(It could be Castillo De San Jorge, a Palace just over the river to the west from Seville. It was the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition until mid-1600, and as such a feared and hated location. Beethoven doesn’t specify it, though.)
The setting isn’t very historically interesting as Beethoven anyway just wanted to write about freedom in general and personal freedom in particular. He was very enthusiastic about the French revolution (… and of Napoleon until the French general declared himself Emperor in 1804.). The idea of individual freedom for everybody, justice, and the struggle for equality and brotherhood between men was a constant companion of the composer’s.
So, more than Spain and the 1600s, we should see it as a stage where some are prisoners and others are jail-keepers… Some are oppressing (Pizarro), while others are standing up for the oppressed (Fidelio). And that concept is time-less.
Would you like to visit Spain?
Would you like to see the sites where the Opera takes place?
First Act – The Court-yard of the State Prison.
The Opera starts out in a way that you might think you’re watching a comedy. Marcellina is ironing and Jaquino, the porter, is trying to ask her to marry him (Actually he’s telling her that he has chosen her for his wife… A somewhat dubious tactic.). So, Marcellina says, No! Jaquino leaves.
In the following Aria O wär’ ich schon mit dir vereint (Oh, If I was already united with you) she explains that she’s instead madly in love with the new boy who’s arrived at the Prison to work as a handyman, Fidelio.
Fidelio is Leonora in disguise. She has traveled and sought for her lost husband, Florestan for two years. Finally, she has pinned him down to this prison, and she’s trying to find out if he’s here.
Rocco enters, then Fidelio and last Jaquino.
Together they sing a beautiful quartet, Mir ist so wunderbar, built like a fugue, where everybody sings the same melody but with different words, one after the other. What we discover is that Fidelio does not discourage Marcellina, because she can’t blow her cover. Rocco, Marcelina’s father is just as enthusiastic about Fidelio.
Rocco sings Hat man nicht auch Geld daneben, explaining the importance of money.
Afterward, he mentions that there is one prisoner in the lower dungeons who’s been imprisoned for two years. (The exact time that Leonore’s husband has been missing.) Fidelio insists that Rocco lets her help him down there, but Rocco is reluctant. He has to ask Pizarro first.
The scene ends with a terzetto.
Pizarro enters and is given the daily mail. Among the letters there is one from the Ministry of State, saying that they have been informed about prisoners held without authorization. The Minister of Internal Affairs, Don Fernando, is coming to inspect. Pizarro panics but after considering his situation, he decides to assassin Florestan before they arrive.
He sings the fiery Aria Ha! welch ein Augenblick! (Ah! the moment has arrived. I will easy my revenge…)
He then orders Rocco to kill the prisoner. But the jail-keeper refuses.
– Sir, to take lives, that is not my duty.
So the plan is as follows. Rocco is going to dig a grave. Then Pizarro will enter in disguise, kill Florestan with one blow, and throw him into the tomb.
Fidelio has heard them talking and in despair and anguish, she decides to do whatever it takes to save the poor man from this demon. She sings her big aria Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin? (Abominable! Where are you heading?).
Jaquino and Marcellina enter, quarreling. Jaguino is jealous of Fidelio, but when Rocco enters, Fidelio suggests that he should let out the prisoners into the sunlight for an hour, just as he’s promised to do many times before… Rocco is reluctant but agrees
Now comes one of the highlights of the opera. The chorus Oh welche Lust in freier Luft… Den atem einzuheben. (Oh, what pleasure, to freely inhale the fresh air.)
The poor prisoners come out to once again see the sky, to feel the wind. A solo tenor voice sings Let us trust in heaven to have pity on us. Then a solo bass sings Be quiet! There are eyes and ears everywhere… These two solo voices are sometimes sung by the whole section. That is not how it’s intended. The way we act when confronted with injustice often depends on personal initiatives. One man shows the way and others follow. Beethoven knew that.
These are two distinct ways to face oppression: Succumb to fear, or have hope and fight back. An important statement by Beethoven.
Fidelio searches for Florestan among the prisoners but in vain. When Rocco enters they talk and the plan to kill Florestan is revealed to Fidelio. Rocco also says that Pizarro has agreed to let Fidelio help him in the lower dungeons… To dig the grave.
They sing a duet. Wir müssen gleich zu Werke schreiten. (Let’s start right away…) Fidelio is anxious to beginn.
Pizarro enters with the guards. He’s very upset to find the prisoners in the courtyard. Rocco promptly finds a way to defend himself, saying it’s the King’s name-day, and in his honor, they have been let out for a minute.
The Governor orders them back inside, and the act ends with a big mass-scene with the chorus, Rocco, Marcellina, Jaquino, Fidelio, and Pizarro. They all sing their own words, and you don’t really understand anything more than that the poor convicts have to go back to the depths. The drama is intensifying…
Second Act – Part 1 – The deepest, darkest parts of the prison.
Florestan makes his first appearance. He sings a 6 minutes-, very dramatic Aria Gott! welch ein Dunkel hier! (God, how dark it is here…). He is dying and in his despair, he calls out for his beloved wife
Rocco and Fidelio enter. Florestan has fallen asleep/gone into a coma so he doesn’t recognize anybody. Fidelio on the other hand tries to see who it really is, lying there on the floor.
The two servants work away with the tomb, but Fidelio does all she can to be as close as possible to the prisoner. She’s still not sure if it is her spouse or someone else.
In fact, Beethoven has put a phrase in her mouth in the first Act, where she’s swearing to save the unfortunate captive whoever he might be.
Fidelio and Rocco sing a duet. Nur hurtig fort und frisch gegraben. (Let’s just dig, fast and steady…)
When Florestan awakes, it becomes clear to Fidelio that she has finally found her husband… But he’s going to be assassinated in just a moment. Florestan is curious about the new helper, and Rocco is moved by the tragic fate of the man.
We also learn that Florestan knows Pizarro very well. He’s illegally been thrown in jail because he was telling the truth about the Governor, and Pizarro has officially proclaimed him dead. A circumstance that in no way improves his possibilities to survive.
Fidelio is able to give some wine and slip a piece of bread to Florestan.
The grave is dug, and Rocco goes away to give the signal for Pizarro. Fidelio whispers to Florestan
– Be calm. Don’t forget, whatever you may hear and see, Providence is on your side!
It’s showtime. Pizarro enters to kill Florestan, but before he can strike the blow, Fidelio jumps out and stands in front of her husband.
– If you want to kill him, you first have to strike his wife.
Everybody is stunned… And poor Rocco who was supposed to marry his daughter to her…
Pizarro doesn’t back off though, but when Leonora pulls out a handgun, he has to retreat. At that very moment, the trumpets sound for the arrival of the Minister. Pizarro and Rocco rush away leaving Leonore and Florestan alone, singing the duet Oh namenlose freude.
Rocco enters, frees Florestan, and orders them to follow him.
The ending of the dungeon scene leaves something to desire. This is the turning point of the opera, where the killer becomes the prey. And it’s also where Leonore’s disguise is revealed and explained. But the quartet between the four main characters is quite a bit of shouting and not much can be understood from the words. It’s also extremely difficult, especially for the soprano, which could make it even more screamy.
It is a dramatic scene though and the orchestra rises the tension with the Beethovian chromatic movements and diminished harmonies. We have to be content with that.
Some productions insert the Ouverture Leonore nr.3 here. It’s the Ouverture to the revised version of 1806.
Second Act – Part 2 – Outside the Castle.
So, Don Fernando has arrived and salvation is at hand. The prisoners come out into the square in front of the castle. There are townspeople, Jaquino, Marcellina, and Pizarro. The liberated prisoners sing Heil sei dem Tag! Heil sei der Stunde (Praise this day, praise this moment…).
Actually, there should be two choirs. One of the prisoners and the other is the people. Normally, the theatre can’t engage enough men. The prisoners are men only, so you would need a double male chorus and a single female chorus. Usually, they combine the parts and let one single chorus do it. It’s not a big deal.
Don Fernando sings Des besten Königs Wink und Wille! (On behalf of our King I come to you… ). He has a list of all the prisoners who shall be freed. But Florestan is not on it, because he’s supposed to be dead.
When he, Leonore, and Rocco appears it all falls into place. Florestan is a friend of the Minister, and when Rocco explains what is going on, Fernando arrests Pizarro.
When Rocco is about to release Florestan from his chains, Don Fernando takes the key and gives it to Leonore.
– You, Noble woman… Only you deserve to set him free.
Fernando is a tricky role to cast. It’s a deep Bass and even if it’s a minor character (He has practically only one scene to do), he is the one with the most authority. It should be a full, rich, and deep voice.
Leonore, Florestan, Ferndando, and the chorus sing a beautiful, short piece O Gott! Welch ein Augenblick! (Oh God! what a moment!).
The Opera ends with a big final where everybody is on stage. If you are familiar with the end of the ninth symphony, this is something similar. Full speed ahead from all the singers, the chorus, and the orchestra.
End of story.
Things to look out for.
20 minutes. Mir ist so wunderbar. Quartett, Rocco, Marcelina, Jaquino, and Fidelio.
40 minutes. Pizarro gets the letter from the Minister. Then he sings Ha! welch ein Augenblick!
50 minutes. Florestan jumps out from her hiding place and alone she sings. Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin?
58 minutes. Two minutes after Florestan’s Aria is finished. The poor prisoners sing Oh welche Lust…
Second Act – Part 1
From start. Florestan sings his Aria, Gott! welch ein Dunkel hier!
13 minutes. Fidelio knows who it is, and Florestan understands who has imprisoned him.
16 minutes. Pizarro enters, he sings Er sterbe! Doch er soll erst wissen.
Fidelio saves Florestan, and then, the trumpets sound.
(Sometimes there’s the overture of Leonore from 1806 here. That’s 15 minutes of music.)
12 minutes of wrapping up the story. Florestan is freed, Fidelio/Leonore unchains him. Pizarro is arrested. And a big ensemble at the end.
Check the low notes of Don Fernando. It’s a difficult part.
Another story about a series of failures, before the final success.
Emanuel Schikaneder, the man who set up, wrote the text to, and sang Papageno in the first performances of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, had moved to a brand new theater in Vienna… Theater an der Wien. He was still the leading theater impresario in Vienna. In 1803, he ordered a new Opera from Beethoven, Vestas Feuer. Schikanader was to write the libretto.
Beethoven wasn’t all that enthusiastic about it and after some time he abandoned the project and started working on a new Opera with a woman disguised as a man as the main character. Having already written some fragments of music for Vestas Feuer, he simply copied them into the new project, named Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love. The Opera was completed and premiered at the Theater an der Wien on November 20, 1805, but now with the title Fidelio. This to not mix it up with the Opera by Pierre Gaveaux.
It didn’t go well. On November 12, the French army had captured Vienna, and the French soldiers didn’t care much for Beethoven’s Rescue Opera.
Beethoven was very enthusiastic though and had his friend Stephan von Breuning rewrite the original libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner. He also cut it down to two acts, from the original three (… Which meant that the characters of Marcellina and Jaquino became chopped off. They start out as a regular soubrette-couple, but almost disappears completely after the first scenes.) The new version was premiered on March 29, 1806. From this version, we have the Ouverture (Leonore nr.3), which is sometimes inserted in the second Act. (It’s a 15 minutes symphony-like creation with all the dramatic characteristisìcs of Beethoven’s orchestra style… Maybe just a bit too much to open a rather short opera with.).
Although the French had left, not even this time the Opera earned its due success.
A third premiere was supposed to take place in Prague in 1807 but was canceled.
So, for eight years it was mostly forgotten, until 1814 when the Theater am Kärtnerthor, at the time the Vienna court theater, decided to put it on. For this production Beethoven rehauled it once more, f.ex. he revised the Ouverture again, and cut it in half. On May 23 the final version was staged.
Fidelio as a political Opera.
In the German-speaking part of the world, as well as the non-German… it is an Opera that holds a political statement. Some of the same content as in the 9th Symphony… Freedom, equality, justice, brotherhood, and the willingness to suffer and struggle to reach these objectives. There’s also a religious perspective, just as in the ninth.
In December 1944 Arturo Toscanini performed a Radio broadcast with the NBC symphony orchestra and soloists from the Metropolitan Opera house.
In December 1945 it was the first Opera to perform in Berlin in the only theater still standing after the war, Theater des Westens.
In September 1989 in Dresden, East Germany, Fidelio was set up. The director Christine Mielitz had staged it in a contemporary timeframe. After the chorus of the prisoners, there was a six-minutes applause. Four weeks later on November 9, the Berlin wall crumbled.
After the second world war, many European theaters took on Fidelio. It was as if they all wanted to stand together for certain universal principles. All men are of equal value. Justice, freedom, and respect are for all. A significant fact in this story is that the man who struggles more than anyone else to defend these values, is a woman.
Beethoven was far ahead of his own time.