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