Monday, October 24, 2011

Fideliosity - Week 4

Fraught with dramaturgical difficulties, the composition of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, was characterized by fits and starts. There are three versions of the opera, each featuring musical and libretto changes. Joseph von Sonnleithner’s libretto for the first version of the opera, premiered in 1805 at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, was adapted from Jean Nicolas Bouilly’s libretto used for the 1798 French opera Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal, by Pierre Gaveaux. Beethoven, unsatisfied with the opera’s reception, revised and shortened the opera with the help of librettist Stephan von Breuning. This form of the opera, premiered in 1806, enjoyed greater success than the 1805 version, but its life was cut short when Beethoven and the management of the Theater an der Wien fell into a protracted dispute. Finally, in 1814, Beethoven revised the opera, overhauling the music and reinvigorating the plot with a libretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke. This version, premiered at Vienna’s Kärntertortheater, was Beethoven’s great operatic success; it is the most commonly performed version and will open at Houston Grand Opera on October 28, 2011. 

Theater an der Wien

Bouilly’s story, set in 18th century Seville, struck quite an impression on Parisian audiences in 1798, having recently cast off the yolk of an oppressive French aristocracy. Not only that, but the story proves to be unorthodox in its gender reversal; the hero, Leonore, is a woman disguised as a young man; she calls herself Fidelio. She attempts to save her husband, Florestan, who is wasting away as a political prisoner of the extremely cruel Don Pizarro, a governor who neglects to abide by the changes being instituted by the progressive Minister of State Don Fernando, friend of jailed Florestan. Leonore, disguised as Fidelio, works for Rocco, the jail keeper of the prison in which Florestan is held. Also working for Rocco is Jaquino, who is in love with Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter. Thus Fidelio, an opera of two acts each with two scenes, becomes a dramatic work of two interlocking plots. Leonore, in her real and disguised roles, and Rocco, a father and jail keeper, participate in both. The domestic plot involves them in the emotional world of Jaquino and Marzelline; the heroic plot involves them in the deadly confrontation of Pizarro and Florestan.

Some of the dramaturgical difficulties with composing this opera might be due to the plot’s binary nature. It is evident at the beginning of Act II, that the domestic plot of Jaquino and Marzelline becomes an ancillary dramatic device; the crux of Fidelio is Leonore’s rescue of Florestan and Beethoven makes it quite clear, through musical convention, that the opera is about humanity’s struggle against tyranny and oppression and not about Jaquino’s unrequited love for Marzelline. The more notable musical excerpts from the opera include the Prisoner’s chorus near the end of Act I and Florestan’s recitative and aria in the opening of Act II. The confrontation between Pizarro and Florestan near the end of Scene 1, Act II, in which Leonore finally reveals her true identity, is musically thrilling and dramatically riveting; not much can be said of the “comedic” love duet of Marzelline and Jaquino at the opening of the opera.
letter from Beethoven to Treitschke

Moreover, with Fidelio being a Singspiel, a drama of humble origins featuring spoken dialogue interspersing musical compositions, there is evidence that Beethoven had difficultly reconciling his lofty, heroic themes with Singspiel’s rather parochial tendencies. Beethoven wrote a contemporary opera of great political significance, one that mirrored movements against oppression in early 19th century Europe. There is no doubt that the motto of the French revolution, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity) had colored Beethoven’s operatic treatment of resigned political prisoner, Florestan. As such, singspiel could be considered as an outmoded vehicle of dramatic expression, especially when considering the musical development of Act II: the growing weight and presence of the chorus combined with the increasing emotional complexity of the principal characters’ arias. The opera becomes a musically complex, dramatically multi-tiered, and emotionally concentrated work of art centering on the themes of humanity and justice, moving away from singspiel convention.

Timeless Fidelio may be, it was not without significant personal sacrifice from Beethoven; it took the master composer over ten years to produce a satisfying final version. Beethoven says it best himself, in a letter to Treitschke: “I assure you… that this opera will win me a martyr’s crown.”

Mena Mark Hanna

Houston Grand Opera

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fideliosity - The Chorus in Fidelio

This is the fourth post in a series which we hope will help you to get to know Beethoven’s rarely-performed Fidelio before you come to see it at HGO. Please let us know what you think by commenting on our Facebook page or leaving a comment this post.

Richard Bado, Chorus Master
The Fidelio chorus is on nearly every chorus master’s bucket list. Why?

There are, of course, endless operas with thrilling choral music, but as Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio is a unique part of the operatic repertoire. Both of the major choral moments in this piece are incredibly moving, but are so different in scope, they could easily be from two different works.

The chorus appears in the finales of each act of the opera (in addition to a brief appearance of 20 men as soldiers in Pizarro’s aria earlier in Act I). The choral writing for each act is hugely different, but extremely effective. The Act I finale begins with the famous prisoner’s chorus – this men-only ensemble in four-part harmony is a beautiful, expansive, and wistful musical exclamation of the prisoners’ first glimpse of the sun after years of being held captive within the dark prison. The awe and wonder they express, along with the hesitation to embrace any sense of hope, is ever present in their singing. The act ends with the prisoners being led back into their cells singing “Leb’ wohl, du warmes Sonnenlicht” (“Farewell, warm sunlight”).

The Act II finale is the only time we will see and hear the entire 82-member HGO Chorus. This writing, much like the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, praises this very day and moment of the release of the prisoners and their reuniting with loved ones. We hear loud, celebratory, and exuberant singing that is unlike anything else heard in the opera. There is little subtlety in this writing, but rather unbridled joy as the opera draws to a close.

We embrace the timelessness and universal quality of Fidelio. It is a story of our living, changing world that never loses its ability to unite and work together with a sense of community – much like the members of the HGO Chorus.

See you at the opera!

Richard Bado, Chorus Master
Craig Kier, Assistant Chorus Master

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fideliosity - Week 3

This is the third post in a series which we hope will help you to get to know Beethoven’s rarely-performed Fidelio before you come to see it at HGO. Please let us know what you think by commenting on our Facebook page or leaving a comment on this post.

Fidelio – Synopsis, Act II

Alone in his cell, Florestan sings of his trust in God; he has a vision of Leonore (Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! …In des Lebens Frühlingstagen"- "God! What darkness here...In the spring of life"). He collapses and falls asleep.
Listen to Jonas Kaufmann – or to a great Florestan of the past, Jon Vickers.

Rocco and Leonore come to dig his grave. Florestan awakens and learns at last that he is in Pizarro's prison, he asks that a message be sent to his wife, Leonore, but Rocco says it's impossible. Florestan begs for water to drink, and Rocco tells Fidelio to give him some. Florestan does not recognize the disguised Leonore but tells her she will be rewarded in Heaven ("Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten" - "You shall be rewarded in better worlds"). Under Rocco's watchful eye, Leonore gives Florestan a crust of bread.

Rocco sounds the alarm for Pizarro, and tells Leonore to leave, but instead she hides. Pizarro reveals his identity to Florestan, who accuses him of murder ("Er sterbe! Doch er soll erst wissen" - "Let him die! But first he should know"). Pizarro brandishes a dagger, and Leonore, leaping between him and Florestan, threatens to shoot Pizarro. A trumpet heralds the arrival of the minister, and Jaquino enters to announce that the minister is waiting. Rocco tells the soldiers to escort Governor Pizarro upstairs. Pizarro declares he will have revenge, and Rocco expresses his fear of what is to come ("Es schlägt der Rache Stunde" - "Revenge's bell tolls"). Florestan and Leonore sing a love duet ("O namenlose Freude!" - "O unnamed joy!").

Out in the yard, the prisoners and townsfolk sing to the day and hour of justice ("Heil sei dem Tag!" - "Hail to the day!"). The minister, Don Fernando, announces that tyranny has ended. Rocco enters with Leonore and Florestan, and he asks Don Fernando to help them ("Wohlan, so helfet! Helft den Armen!" - "So help the poor ones!"). He explains how Leonore disguised herself as Fidelio to save her husband. Rocco describes Pizarro's murder plot, and Pizarro is led away to prison. Florestan is released from his chains by Leonore, and the crowd acclaims her ("Wer ein holdes Weib errungen'" - "Who has got a good wife").

Coming Next: Preparing the chorus, by Richard Bado and Craig Kier.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fideliosity - Week 2

This is the second post in a series which we hope will help you to get to know Beethoven's rarely-performed Fidelio before you come to see it at HGO. Please let us know what you think by commenting on our Facebook page or leaving a comment on this post. Unless otherwise noted, links in the synopsis below lead to selections on YouTube that are taken from the Metropolitan Opera production by Jürgen Flimm, which opens at Houston Grand Opera on October 28, 2011.

Beethoven's Fidelio is in two acts, set in a prison, and in this production everything takes place in the 20th century. The prison is run by a warden named Rocco, whose daughter Marzelline lives with him.

As the opera commences, Jaquino and Marzelline are discussing marriage. Unbeknownst to Jaquino, Marzelline has fallen in love with Fidelio, who is Leonore - the wife of the prisoner Florestan - in disguise. Jaquino leaves, and Marzelline expresses her desire to become Fidelio's wife in her aria, "wär ich schon mit dir vereint" - "If only I were already united with thee" (here sung by Sena Jurinac). Rocco and Jaquino enter, looking for Fidelio, who comes in with a heavy load of newly repaired chains. Rocco compliments Fidelio, and misinterprets his modest reply as hidden attraction to his daughter. Marzelline, Leonore, Rocco, and Jaquino sing "Mir ist so wunderbar" - "A wondrous feeling fills me".

Rocco tells Fidelio that as soon as the governor has left for Seville, he and Marzelline can be married. He also tells them, "Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben" - "If you don't have money set aside, you will not be happy". Fidelio asks why Rocco will not permit him to help him in the dungeons when he always comes back out of breath. Rocco says that there is a prison where he can never take Fidelio, and Marzelline begs her father to keep him away from it - but Fidelio prevails, and Rocco gives in, saying "Gut, Söhnchen, gut" - "All right, son, all right".

Pizarro enters with guards. Rocco warns Pizarro that the minister plans a surprise visit the next day. Pizarro exclaims that he cannot let the minister discover the imprisoned Florestan, who has been thought dead. Pizarro decides that Florestan must die "Ha, welch ein Augenblick!" - "Hah! What a moment!". He offers Rocco money to kill Florestan, but Rocco refuses: "Jetzt, Alter, jetzt hat es Eile - "Now, old man, we must hurry!", so Pizarro orders him to dig a grave in the well in the dungeon, and to signal him when it is ready.

Fidelio has seen Pizarro plotting, but has not overheard what he said. She is agitated, but thoughts of Florestan calm and focus her attention: "Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? ... Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern" - "Scum! Where are you going? ... Come, hope, let the last star"). Hoping to find Florestan, Fidelio begs Rocco to give the prisoners a few moments, respite in the garden. Rocco agrees to distract Pizarro while the prisoners are allowed out. Overwhelmed at their freedom, the prisoners sing, "O welche Lust" - "O what a joy", but, remembering that they could be caught, are soon quiet.

Rocco reenters and tells Fidelio of his success with Pizarro: "Nun sprecht, wie ging's?" - "Speak, how did it go?". (Note: this link refers to a Glyndebourne Festival production by Peter Hall, starring Elisabeth Söderström as Fidelio and Curt Appelgren as Rocco.) They prepare to go to the cell of a prisoner who, according to Rocco, must be killed and buried within the hour. As they prepare to leave, Jaquino and Marzelline rush in and tell Rocco to run: Pizarro has learned that the prisoners are free, and he is furious "Ach, Vater, Vater, eilt!" - "O, father, father, hurry!" here sung by Christa Ludwig).

Pizarro enters and demands an explanation. Rocco pretends that they are celebrating the King's naming day, and suggests quietly that Pizarro save his anger for the prisoner in the dungeons below. Pizarro tells him to hurry and dig the grave, then announces that the prisoners will be shut in again. Rocco, Leonore, Jacquino, and Marzelline reluctantly usher the prisoners back to their cells as they sing "Leb wohl, du warmes Sonnenlicht" -  "Adieu, warm sunshine".

Later this week: Act II.  

Monday, October 3, 2011


It's a rare moment in an opera company's life when the fates conspire to allow for performances of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. It doesn’t matter where you are: so many things are repeated before Fidelio comes up even once. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against experiencing anything by Verdi or Puccini any time! But I am rather wildly excited to watch Fidelio take the stage here at HGO.

Fidelio opens here at HGO on October 28; we just started rehearsals today. For the next several weeks, we will use this space to take a closer look at the production, the music, and the cast of Fidelio, and you’ll meet some of the people involved in making it happen at HGO. Check back on Mondays throughout October for new postings.

In its 57 seasons, HGO has performed Fidelio only twice: in the 1970-71 season, in the teeth of the Vietnam conflict (and the American League Baseball strike), and in the 1983-84 season, a time of simmering unrest in Iran, Iraq, Cameroon and elsewhere, less than a decade before the fall the Berlin wall. We offer it now, as part of our 57th season, with five performances starting October 28, 2011. Who knows what resonances this 206-year-old opera might offer up in the wake of the Arab Spring?

Why such a rarity? HGO Artistic Director Patrick Summers shares some of his thoughts here.

Fidelio is famously difficult to sing, demanding a cast that is born, not made. In the 1970s, HGO's Leonore was the late, great Leonie Rysanek; in 1983 it was the extraordinary and powerful Hildegard Behrens. Our 21st-century Leonore is the great Finnish soprano, Karita Mattila, heard and seen here in a selection from acclaimed Metropolitan Opera performances in the same role. That clip, by the way, is the production we’re doing here at HGO, magnificently conceived by the great director Jürgen Flimm. Our Florestan – a whopping great role that requires a singer of substantial power and finesse as well as charisma – is the brilliant Simon O’Neill. Check out his recording of “Gott! Welch dunkel hier” from Act 2.

To get ready for Fidelio, subscribers are invited to join us for "From Mozart to Romanticism: Fidelio in Context" – a free event (reservations required - RSVP to on October 10 at 6:00 p.m. Associate director Gina Lapinski and HGOco Director Sandra Bernhard will discuss the shift from Mozart and the Enlightenment to Beethoven and the Romantic Era, examining a society in transition from Revolution to freedom through the lens of its creative and artistic output.