When the world's greatest composer writes only a single opera, it's entitled to instant respect. Although he considered such other deep and inspiring sources as Macbeth, Ulysses and Faust, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote and stuck with only Fidelio, a silly tale with cardboard characters and a contrived plot. Why was he so attracted and devoted to this seemingly trifling work?
As a rising and determined composer, and surely aware that his advancing deafness was about to end his career as a performer, it was natural for Beethoven to turn to opera, the most lucrative and visible route to success and lasting fame at the time. He had tested the waters with his Christus am Ölberg (Christ on the Mount of Olives), an hour-long oratorio that, despite raising critical eyebrows over its passionate (and thus arguably improper secular) singing, was a huge success at its April 1803 premiere. Indeed, from its opening of sustained brassy chords with timpani accents to its triumphant final chorale, it would serve as a herald and paradigm for Fidelio.
Beethoven had been exposed to opera early in his career, when he played viola in the Bonn opera company orchestra for four years. He particularly admired Cherubini (as much for his moralistic librettos as for his music) and Mozart's Magic Flute (even while snubbing The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni as frivolous). The Magic Flute librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, now an impresario seeking an attraction for his Theater-an-der-Wein to rival Cherubini at his competitor's theatre, hired Beethoven to write an opera in exchange for free lodging and ten percent of the proceeds of the first ten performances (a generous offer at the time).
Beethoven found a new project in a libretto by the theatre secretary, Joseph Sonnleithner, who had adapted it from a 1798 French opera by Pierre Gaveaux that, in turn, had been based on a trendy "rescue" play by Jean Nicholas Bouilly – Léonore ou L'amour conjugal (Leonore, or Conjugal Love), which Bouilly claimed to have based on a true incident during the Reign of Terror, although he shifted the era and locale to 18th Century Spain. Winton Dean found that Beethoven drew far more from the Gaveaux opera than mere inspiration and plot – not only the arrangement of the musical numbers but even many themes and details of instrumentation. Richard Englander further claims that Beethoven was indebted to an 1804 Italian opera by Fernandino Paer, although probably not to an 1805 one-act comic opera by Simone Mayr, both of which were built on the same basic plot. Although the predecessors were soon forgotten, Beethoven drew upon a wide scope of other influences, ranging from the singspiel structure (in which dialog was studded with musical numbers, although Beethoven bent that tradition through music that was more extensive and advanced the plot rather than serving as mere commentary to the spoken narrative), to the two great dramatic arias (derived from opera seria) and the accumulation of characters and narrative strands in the finales (adapted from opera buffa). Yet, despite its considerable debt to prior models, Richard Bletschacher views Fidelio, imbued with the spirit of the French Revolution, as marking a new epoch in opera, leaving behind the lavish staging, exotic costumes, scenery changes and fantastical elements of the Baroque tradition for aesthetic detachment, intellectual depth and spirituality.
The basic plot sounds so trite as to breed satire. Florestan is being held by his political enemy Pizarro in a prison where his wife Leonore has gotten a job disguised as a young man Fidelio, with whom the jailer Rocco's daughter Marcellina has fallen in love, to the dismay of her suitor Jaquino. The climactic scene is only barely more credible than the premise, as the prime minister Don Fernando arrives to restore social order at the very moment when Leonore holds the murderous Pizarro at bay.
Of all the great literary stories he could have set to music, why was Beethoven first attracted to and then so absorbed by this clichéd tale? Maynard Solomon argues that although the writing was artless, the action stagnant, the dramatic development cumbersome and the blending of styles awkward, it served as an ideal vehicle to express Beethoven's most cherished Enlightenment beliefs in brotherhood and justice and his deep hatred of tyranny. Other commentators suggest more personal reasons – that Beethoven's attraction to the title character reflected his fruitless lifelong search for a devout wife and his belief in the redemptive power of individual initiative, that Florestan's imprisonment invoked his oppressive deafness, and that the rescue symbolized his prayer for deliverance. Some even suggest a more concrete interpretation – that Florestan's resurrection from his intended grave after being given bread and wine comprise a direct religious allegory.
David Charlton places Fidelio squarely within the mold of revolutionary theatre of the time, in which political prisons were a powerful symbol of the royalty's abuses of power. Robinson, though, points out that the opera's political ideology is at best abstract, since the victim Florestan is an aristocrat, the evildoer Pizarro reflects an abuse of the Revolutionaries, and the powerful prime minister is benevolent. In any event, by grounding his opera in the commonplace and conjuring his themes from such modest material Beethoven avoids turning it into dry intellectual abstraction, ensures that his work is accessible and by contrast enhances the import of its noble themes. In that way, he transforms the very narrative weakness of Fidelio into a primary vehicle for magnifying its thematic strength. Yet all of this concerns only the verbal component; William Mann reminds us that when the text is connected to Beethoven's music their two dimensions become four.
Indeed, Fidelio's thematic appeal has only grown in time. In notes for his 1950 Salzburg production, Wilhelm Furtwängler wrote that "Fidelio is a Mass, not an opera – its emotions touch the borders of religion. … After all we have experienced and suffered in recent times, this religious faith has never seemed so essential as it does today. … This is what constitutes the unique power and grandeur of Fidelio. … What Beethoven was trying to express in Fidelio cannot be encompassed by any form of historical classification but extends beyond the narrow limits of a musical composition – it touches the heart of every human being and will always appeal directly to the conscience of Europe." Furtwängler, of course, was reacting to the recent grievous traumas and losses of World War II – and perhaps was hoping to deflect memory of his country's atrocities through artistic idealism. Writing in 1979, Rodney Milnes goes even further – he asserts that all over the world today countless Pizarros, with the aid of as many Roccos "carrying out orders" try to silence Florestans who dare to tell the truth. Yet, he asks, where are our Leonores – "Are they only to be found in opera houses?" Their points are well-taken – the true power of Fidelio has nothing to do with Spain or the French Revolution, but rather the aspiration of every human soul for justice, and its timeless message is as much a contemporary warning as an historical lesson. Beethoven's opera is not a discrete story or an abstract theoretical concept but arises from the very depths of the human condition and bolsters the ideals that resonate within each of us.
As conceived by Bouilly and Gaveaux opportunities for musical expression abounded, and as expanded by Beethoven potent themes emerge to constantly overshadow the meager story. Indeed, the poignancy and power of the opera arise in spite of the inherited plot rather than to advance it. The first two numbers are domestic fluff, straight out of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro – a flirty duet between an ardent Jacquino and a diffident Marcellina, followed by her reflective aria. But then, in the first of many characteristically iconoclastic gestures that transcend the plot and abrade audience expectations, Beethoven brings time to a halt with a sublime quartet ("Mir is so wunderbar!") ("It seems a miracle") as Fidelio, Jacquino, Marcellina and Rocco each sing of their aspirations, directly and simply, without any pretense of displaying their diverse characters, in a purely musical blend that would work equally well as a purely instrumental interlude. Other brilliantly original highlights in Act I are a sour, offbeat march that adds more than a hint of perversity to Pizarro's entrance and subtly undermines his ensuing aria of aggressive bluster; a duet in which the sincerity of Rocco's verbal resistance to Pizarro's evil plan is compromised by their harmonious singing, and the same duet's culmination in which Pizarro's murderous threat – "Ein stoss" (a blow) – is underlined by a double tritone and then silence. In the only such instance in the entire opera, Leonore's grand aria ("Abscheulicher!") ("Monster!") follows immediately without intervening dialogue, portending the coming collision of the two characters. More a lengthy, complex scene than a mere aria, she begins in a stormy recitative damning Pizarro as a vile monster, and then, fueled by braying horns, progresses through lyrical hope to an ecstatic vision of being reunited with her husband.
Act I is capped by a bold and extraordinary gesture – a 20-minute finale that is thoroughly gratuitous in terms of the plot but essential to the theme and ideology, which thus assume paramount importance. A chorus of prisoners wondrously emerges from their dismal captivity for a brief taste of freedom and light, as two solos articulate the duality of their existence – a tenor sings of hope for release while a baritone cautions of the reality of surveillance. After Pizarro orders them back (and Leonore's hope of seeing her husband among them is dashed) the prisoners' chorus dies away, ending the act on a wistful note suggesting that freedom can be fragile and fleeting. This must have been quite unusual, as it led Berlioz to feel compelled to defend Beethoven's closing by noting that "while some listeners are indignant at silence, feeling that theatre should erupt with immense acclamation, … there are certain kinds of musical beauty, evident to all, yet which are not calculated to excite applause."
But all this is mere preparation for the opening of Act II. With over half the opera over, we finally find Florestan starved and shackled in the deepest part of the prison, alone with his fevered thoughts. The 3½ minute orchestral prelude is arguably the most heartfelt and directly expressive music Beethoven ever wrote. Not even in his final piano sonatas and string quartets would Beethoven free himself so thoroughly from the demands of traditional form. Here, with astonishing efficiency, through rhythmic fragmentation, thematic shards that never quite coalesce into melody, volatile dynamic outbursts, brass that both cower and blaze, and timpani tuned in a bitter A-E-flat tritone (rather than the usual fifth) both expectant and explosive, Beethoven draws us wordlessly in to evoke the dank atmosphere and the intense but confused emotions of anguish, hope, despair, fear and sheer depletion that Florestan must feel.
Beethoven never specified dynamic markings for the vocal lines of his score, and so the opening words of Florestan's aria ("Gott! welch Dunkel hier! O grauenvolle Stille!") ("God! What darkness here! What frightening stillness!") present a severe interpretive challenge. The first note is to be held long, but should it be belted out to show Florestan's unremitting defiance, whispered to reflect his frail vulnerability, diminished to depict his fading strength, or perhaps crescendoed to symbolize his immutable spirit in which hope still can arise? (Most recordings seem to opt for a loud, sustained "Gott" followed by a searching, reflective remainder.) In any event, Florestan's aria mirrors the structure of Leonore's, thus suggesting a spiritual connection between them – first he reflects on his gloom, then awakens to hope and ends in an ecstatic hallucination of his wife as an angel.
Next follows an unusual melodrama as Rocco and Leonore descend to Florestan's cavern to dig his grave, their highly-charged dialogue first alternating with, and then underscored by, atmospheric musical fragments that guide the mood subtly without resort to hyperdramatic stings or cloying suspensions.
The denouement is compressed into a quartet whose power is further intensified by the final throes of the plot that override the rigid musical structure, driven by relentless acceleration and accumulation of density. Then, Beethoven presents a visionary stroke that would resonate throughout the next century of operatic development – as Leonore pulls a pistol on Pizarro just as he is about to stab Florestan and then intones the climactic line ("Noch einen Laut und du bist tot!") ("One more step and you are dead!") the boiling music falls utterly silent, except for a distant trumpet fanfare announcing the governor's approach, and the characters freeze, so as to underline the drama of the moment.
The opera proper is now over, yet 15 minutes remain. As with the close of the first act, the rest belongs to Beethoven to hammer home his themes and dwell upon the truly important essence. The scene changes into the open courtyard, as the music itself sloughs off the prior flattened keys to dazzle in the simple brilliance of C major and the stage action cedes to essentially an oratorio in praise of fidelity, justice and mercy, with a prayerful central section as Don Fernando guides Leonore to release Florestan's chains, and concludes as Beethoven cranks up the excitement to an unbearable pitch to end in a paroxysm of blazing fulfillment.
As Robinson observes, the ending seems highly abstract, as the words are so densely layered, repeated and fragmented as to blur into incomprehension. Frankly, that's just as well, since they turn out to be a rather trite salute in praise of marital fidelity rather than trolling the deeper themes of brotherhood, faith, hope or justice that the work suggests. (Those would come to fruition in the Ninth Symphony of which the Fidelio finale is a striking forebear, although the text of even that masterpiece is hobbled by vapid allusions to Greek mythology and other verses unworthy of their magnificent musical setting.) Even so, Robinson notes that the finale anchors the overall arc of the opera as a progression from personal intrigue to universal ideology – a journey from the quotidian to the sublime. Indeed, so thoroughly left behind is the story that we hardly notice that Leonore never changes out of her Fidelio costume, since all that really matters is her abiding humanity that no disguise can conceal. Nor is the opening situation between Jacquino and Marcellina ever resolved, as they simply blend in as part of the chorus – Beethoven abandons their personal issues for a redemptive vision of essential goodness and moral supremacy to which their narrative roles are irrelevant.
Only in 1814 did Beethoven produce the definitive version of Fidelio that is performed today and to which we've referred so far. It's tempting to dismiss his earlier efforts as embryonic trials. Yet, the essence is clearly present, even if not yet fully formed, and their failure was due more to extrinsic circumstances and Beethoven's own self-destructive temperament than to any fatal artistic defects, although in retrospect we must be thankful that their bumpy history spurred Beethoven to even greater artistic heights.
The work could be scheduled only after clearance by the Vienna police censors. In a petition to counter suspicion that the libretto was subversive and contemporary, Sonnleithner managed to convince the authorities that Pizarro abused his powers in a private revenge, that the setting was in Spain and that the thrust concerned womanly virtue rather than politics. By the time of the November 20, 1805 premiere, though, Vienna was hardly conducive to a new serious opera. Only a week earlier, Napoleon's occupation had begun. Soldiers were billeted throughout the city and its outskirts, the entire court and upper class had fled, and the remaining residents, crushed by war reparation taxes and other deprivation, rarely ventured out. Thus the opening night audience comprised not Austrian patrons of the arts but mostly French soldiers seeking light diversion. Not surprisingly, Fidelio bombed. One critic opined that it "fell far below expectations to which connoisseurs felt entitled" and "lacked the happy expression of passion which in Mozart and Cherubini's works moves us so irresistibly." After the first night, the house was nearly empty and the opera closed after its third presentation.
Never published, the original 1805 version was reconstructed (with a fair degree of speculation) in 1905 from scattered manuscript materials by Erich Prieger for a centenary commemoration led by Richard Strauss. Heard today, it's rather hard to judge objectively, since we're so attuned to the revision. As the most apparent structural variance, the first act is divided into halves and expanded by two numbers – a rather forgettable trio of Marcellina, Rocco and Jacquino and a waltzy Viennese duet with violin obbligato that, while quite lovely, diffuses (and, indeed, spoils) the tension between the Rocco-Pizarro duet and Leonore's aria. Other distinctive differences: the first two numbers are switched (opening with Marcellina's aria and then proceeding to her duet with Jaquino), Leonore's aria begins with a more conventional sad recitative (although the introduction and central prayerful section are intact), the prisoners' chorus ends in martial triumph, Florestan's aria ends in self-centered declamation rather than a vision of his wife, "O nomenlose Freude" emerges as an outgrowth of a lengthy recitative rather than bursting out as an explosion of repressed emotion, and the finale is largely recast, with only the middle section yet in place, surrounded by more extensive solo turns for which the chorus adds occasional punctuation in lieu of the dominant role it would later assume. On a more subtle level, those familiar with the final product constantly will be struck throughout with differences in detail – several numbers run longer, with added measures and more florid vocal display, and many vocal and orchestral phrases are shaped differently. But even with these variants, the overall idiom is unmistakably Beethoven and the bulk of the opera was firmly in place.
Despite the abject failure of its launch, Fidelio was not forgotten. Late that year, Beethoven's patron Prince Lichnowski arranged for a private performance at his palace with all but one member of the original cast. The Princess played the orchestral score on the piano and the original conductor Franz Clement embellished various instrumental lines from memory on his violin. According to the substitute Florestan, August Röchl, Beethoven resisted tightening the score, insisting on preserving every note, but after six hours was persuaded to cut three numbers (including Rocco's aria in praise of gold, later restored). Barry Cooper notes that Beethoven's propensity to write long, drawn-out movements served him well in instrumental music but made the dramatic pacing too slow for an opera. Ultimately, after his friend Stephan von Bruening tightened the text, Beethoven pared nearly one-sixth of the music. (The score of this version survives only because Beethoven sent it to Prague the next year for a production that never materialized.) The new production of Fidelio was introduced on March 29, 1806. Although critics still called it "worthless hackwork," "affected" and "disorganized," it seemed headed for success – until the run abruptly ended when Beethoven fought with the theatre director over his share of the receipts and took back the score.
The next revival came in 1814, when three singers at the Imperial Opera sought the work for a benefit performance. By then, the cultural and political climate had evolved in two essential ways – Beethoven's music had soared in popularity (propelled, of all things, by Wellington's Victory,
Furtwängler noted that the opera was regarded with diffident respect and considered as alien to the demands of the stage during much of the 19th century. Yet its theme attracted increased attention in the 20th. Emblematic of its emergence as a universal allegory is the increasingly abstract stage sets with which it was mounted. As traced by Robinson, Mahler's 1904 production featured stylized modern sets liberated from reference to any specific era, Klemperer's 1924 version used massive cubist blocks to subordinate the individual players to the conformity of the ensemble, and Wieland Wagner's 1954 revival dispensed with sets altogether to present the work as an oratorio without any link to space or time.
If there is one pervasive criticism of the music it is that Beethoven tended to view the work in instrumental rather than vocal terms. Thus, his writing is often disparaged for its cruel vocal demands, ranging from the punishing leaps that conclude Leonore's aria (even more severe in its original version) to the sustained high notes in the choral finale (a hallmark that would recur in the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony). Beethoven readily admitted in 1824: "The symphony is my true element. When sounds stir in me I always hear the full orchestra. I know what to expect of instrumentalists who are capable of almost everything, but with vocal compositions I must always keep asking myself: can this be sung?" Berlioz noted that the orchestral parts contain expressions and ideas that Beethoven couldn't give to the vocals and praised the integrity of the scoring, whose "opulent sobriety" disdained unjustified sonorous effects and held conventional endings in contempt.
Berlioz also marveled at the sheer sense of creative struggle he heard in Fidelio, likening it to a durable beech tree, "born amid rocks and ruins, … proud and verdant, all the more solidly implanted on account of the obstacles it had to overcome in order to emerge, wilst the willows that grow without any trouble upon the river bank fall into its bed and perish forgotten." David Cairns finds a similar source for its deep humanity: "What a relief to be able to show this terrifyingly confident genius for once out of his depth, unsure of himself, hesitating, fumbling, aware of his inexperience." As a result of struggling with his thin material and the uncomfortable methods of the stage, Beethoven was guided by his deepest feelings, tying the disparate elements together with a spiritual unity that transcends narrative illogic or stylistic inconsistency.
Perhaps the key to Fidelio's lasting appeal lies in Bletschacher's observation that no other opera reaches so far beyond its immediate context. But as Robinson notes, that's a double-edged sword: its seriousness and timeless humanity appeal to those averse to the frivolity and exhibitionism of the genre, while opera buffs are often put off by its awkwardness and lack of dramatic action. Perhaps because it rises above both the appeal and limits of theatre, Davenport refers to Fidelio as a special and private rite which no two will hear in the same way.
So why did Beethoven cling so tenaciously and exclusively to this work? Perhaps because he "heard" it as the means by which he could surmount his own personal demons through detachment from the demands of established art of his time and at the same time depict themes of paramount import and use the suspension of disbelief inherent in all theatre to embrace mankind in a way that he could never do in real life.
For his only opera, Beethoven wrote no fewer than four complete overtures. The final one is called Fidelio and, according to Treitschke, was written in such haste for the 1814 production – Beethoven had been up all night writing it and slept through the final rehearsal – that another overture had to be substituted for the opening night. Light, brisk and busy, yet surging with expectation, it provides a fine six minute E major introduction to the opening A major domestic scene. Compared to its weightier siblings, in Romain Rolland's view it "introduces us into Florestan's prison by the back stairs," and indeed manages to open the opera with barely a hint of the momentous thematic issues to come. Yet while fulfilling its theatrical function, many regard it as far less significant musically – Rolland felt that Beethoven wrestled with the question of form versus expression in the other overtures, but abdicated the question for the Fidelio.
The other three are known today as Leonore 1, Leonore 2 and Leonore 3. At first they were thought to have been composed in that order, which indeed seems plausible in terms of their increasing musical complexity. Anton Schindler, Beethoven's secretary and first biographer, claimed that Leonore 1 was used during the rehearsals for the first production until Beethoven rejected it as too simple, a tale that persists, repeated by an eminent musicologist in his notes to the 1960 Knappertsbusch recording and even as recently as 1990 in notes to a Klemperer CD (although, ironically, not in the notes to the 1964 Klemperer LP). Only discovered after Beethoven's death, Leonore 1 is now believed to have been intended for the abortive Prague production. All three Leonores share a soulful theme from Florestan's aria, but otherwise the structure and materials of Leonore 1 diverge from the other two, which are over half again as long and have much in common.
It is now accepted that Leonore 2 was composed for the 1805 premiere. Reportedly, the woodwind players complained that their parts were too difficult, and so, rather than rewrite a few lines, Beethoven rethought the entire piece and created Leonore 3 for the 1806 revival. Lasting nearly a quarter-hour, they are among the longest opera overtures before or since and threaten to overwhelm the opera proper. Indeed, Tovey quipped that Leonore 3 "annihilates the first act" and is "about ten times as dramatic as anything that possibly could be put on stage." Wagner opined that it was not a mere introduction to the opera but presented the drama far more completely than the play itself. Yet Davenport salutes its esteem: "Beethoven the dramatist fuses with Beethoven the universal symphonist," moving "from the world of visible theatre into the eternal realm of the spirit." Berlioz, too, had admired it as "a masterful piece, possessed of incomparable life and light, a real symphonic chef d'oeuvre – but one which does not fit, either by its character or material, the opera to which it serves as an introduction." The problem in using Leonore 3 (or 2 for that matter) as the overture is that it not only overpowers the lightweight opening but summarizes the entire action and thus gives away the denoument. Although the notion of a preliminary overview of the narrative was innovative, Beethoven's model was rarely followed; perhaps the best known instances are the overtures to Rossini's William Tell and Wagner's Meistersingers.
While most commentators tend to focus on Leonore 3 as Beethoven's most fully realized version of his overture, Rolland opts for Leonore 2 for its more focused treatment and pervasive use of the Florestan theme to illuminate Beethoven's interior vision and to treat his ideals as its subject, beginning with an evocation of the prison walls and the captive's lament in half-light and then progressing through grief, violent despair and ultimately triumph. Indeed, despite their general similarity, Leonore 3 adheres more closely to sonata form, with an extended recapitulation between the climactic trumpet call and the thrilling coda, whereas Leonore 2 is somewhat freer, eliminating the recapitulation for a brief transition to the coda and dwelling more on the development section.
Although superceded in the opera house, the three Leonores went on to lives of their own. In January 1840 Felix Mendelssohn performed all four Fidelio/Leonore overtures together with his Gewandhaus orchestra. Enthralled by the experience, Robert Schumann urged their publication and wrote that they were a "monument of industry, conscientiousness and creative power, both active and destructive, of a prodigiously talented composer." He went on to thank the Viennese public for rejecting the opera so that Beethoven "in divine rage poured forth" the other overtures. Otto Klemperer (with the Philharmonia Orchestra) and George Szell (with the Cleveland Orchestra) followed Mendelssohn's example and issued LPs with all four. Nowadays, they are firmly ensconced in the repertoire and are often heard apart from the opera in concert and as fillers for recordings of Beethoven symphonies.
Even so, Leonore 3 has assumed a special place in the opera house as an interlude between the ecstatic duet following Fidelio's rescue and the finale. The practice was thought to have originated with Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Opera at the turn of the last century, for reasons both practical (to give the stagehands the necessary time to completely change the scene from interior prison to outside courtyard) and artistic (a peroration to recap and complete the preceding drama in preparation for the thematically-focused finale to come). Musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon, though, found reports of the same practice as early as 1841. (Curiously, the 1907 Schirmer vocal score prints Leonore 3 not between the two scenes of Act II but between Acts I and II.) At least two conductors took the opportunity to integrate Leonore 3 more fully into the preceding scene, rather than treating it as a detached interlude. Furtwängler strengthened the final descending figure of the "O namenlose Freude!" duet and replaced its final lingering chord with the first commanding chord of the overture (although the audiences in both his 1948 and 1950 live recordings bury the effect under their applause). Leonard Bernstein created an analogy to a cinematic dissolve by eliminating the opening chord altogether, so that the overture extends the soft exhausted closing of the duet.
Alfred Frankenstein noted that Beethoven's unprecedented use of orchestral resources demands a conductor of vast symphonic experience and instrumental virtuosity. The early performance history of Fidelio tends to validate that approach.
Perhaps because of his affliction and his professional background, Beethoven may have paid diminished attention to the singers. The Theater-an-der-Wein presented both plays and singspiel,
Only in later productions (and then recordings) was the role of Leonore embraced by leading singers of their time. Among the earliest on record was Lotte Lehmann, whom Michael Scott cites for her lovely voice, spontaneous and intense execution, and projection of character through a combination of technical skill and musicality. Her 1907 Odeon recording of "Abscheulicher!" is effortless yet powerful, warm without affectation, with a natural display of conviction.
Beethoven himself led the premiere from the piano, although his hearing already had faded so severely that the challenge may have reduced his role to supervision more than genuine leadership. He also attempted to conduct the 1814 and 1822 revivals, by which time he had been profoundly deaf for years and could not possibly have been an effective leader; indeed, as would occur again with his last public concert in which he gave the world premiere of his Ninth Symphony in 1824, the musicians largely ignored him in favor of cues given by Michael Umlauf, the deputy Kapellmeister.
Despite his impairment, Beethoven was quite critical of others' efforts, which he apparently was able to infer despite his deafness. For the 1806 revival, he found that the conductor paid insufficient attention to dynamics: "All delight in composing departs when one hears one's music played thus." And after a fellow composer complimented Fidelio as the best opera he had ever heard in Vienna, Beethoven replied that he really hadn't heard it since the cast was unable to sing it. Schroeder-Devrient left an intriguing account of Beethoven's efforts to conduct, citing his violent movements at rehearsals – for soft passages he crawled under the music stand and then "leapt upwards with the most curious gestures and uttered the strangest sounds." Even if this account is somewhat embellished, and even if his deafness plunged him into a private world, clearly Beethoven felt his opera viscerally.
So do I. On a personal note, I often fantasize how I would play or conduct a favorite work, generally with far more emotional underlining than celebrated performers apply. Since I'm not a trained musician, I'm willing to shrug off such an impulse as an emblem of an amateur's artistic immaturity and lack of professional sophistication. Yet the fact remains – that's the way music speaks most meaningfully to me. (And as I pass through my seventh decade, I recognize – and indeed hope – that this will never change.) So when faced with dozens of recordings of the sole opera into which the composer I revere above all others poured his soul, I've come to admire and draw inspiration from those few that convey its primal power.
This remarkable Fidelio comes from a wildly improbable source – a live recording of a February 22, 1941 Metropolitan Opera performance led by Bruno Walter with staggering energy that belies his later reputation, based on his final decade of recordings, as an eminence grise of Viennese tradition. In terms of sheer conducting, it's the most exciting and inspired Fidelio on record, constantly using tempo as an emotional barometer, but without threatening the continuity or effectiveness of the musical values. Thus, the opening duet is breathless but then relaxes for the central section of Marcellina's reverie and never quite recaptures the initial ardor – a fine depiction of her complex, conflicted emotions. Walter's Leonore 3 and Act II finale are utterly electrifying in their reckless speed and power. The balances are decent, with just a few stage noises to remind us that this indeed was a spontaneous outpouring rather than a patient construction of the recording studio. Throughout, not only Walter but the entire cast tread the exceedingly thin line between the reality of concert and the abstraction of the composer's interior world. Voices constantly quake with excitement to craft a deeply human document that explores complexity beneath the surface of the plain text, all the while projecting the essence of the characters. Sounding far more youthful than the thoughtful, dignified portrait she would provide Furtwängler, Flagstad is thoroughly convincing as a woman whose iron determination cannot be compromised. Maison is a deeply human victim whose courage and faith in ultimate vindication cannot be crushed. Even Huehn's Pizarro impresses as a man of conviction (albeit misguided) rather than a one-dimensional villain of pure malevolence, his pure tone leaving the instrumental accompaniment to suggest a lurking aura of evil. Kipnis as Rocco struggles to muster enthusiasm for his vile work and thus summons the painful compromises we all face in life. Although some may be put off by the relatively thin sound, on every other level this is an altogether exhalting and exhilarating experience.
A fascinating curiosity is found in an even earlier Met performance led by Artur Bodanzky on December 31, 1938 that shares much of the same cast as Walter – an attempt to recast the work as grand opera rather than singspiel. In 1851 Michael Balfe composed recitatives to replace the stretches of dry dialogue, a version that apparently was performed for decades. Some of those recitative passages are punctuated with phrases from the surrounding musical numbers, while others are mostly underlined by extended orchestral chords. The effect tends to place Act I more comfortably in the context of traditional operatic stylization but, except for an effectively spooky hint of forthcoming redemption before the quartet, the chanted speech tends to blunt the sharp dramatic confrontations of Act II. Although undoubtedly well-intentioned to pave the way to acceptance by 19th century audiences (as did translations into other languages and even added ballets), Balfe's "improvements" ultimately compromised the very bases on which Fidelio stakes its potent claim as a unique creation that deserves to be presented as its composer conceived it.
For the first in what would become a cherished feature of his weekly NBC Symphony Orchestra concerts – the broadcast of a full opera (albeit spread over two successive weeks) – of all the works in his extensive repertoire from his decades as an opera conductor Toscanini chose to air concert readings of Fidelio – and with good reason. Harvey Sachs notes that Toscanini seized upon the symbolic significance of conducting a German work in New York at the height of World War II and thus delivering its message through a world-wide broadcast at this moment in history. (A similar artistic protest against fascist aggression may have infused Walter's 1941 Met performance, and we already noted how Furtwängler viewed the work as a post-War catharsis.) In marked contrast to Walter, Toscanini treats the score as an abstraction with fleet, headstrong linear progress and no slackening for sentiment, as if driven by a moral imperative that ordains the outcome from the very outset. Nothing detracts from the purity of his vision – neither plot nor character (nor, for that matter, the dialogue that is wholly omitted, thus bypassing the opera's major weakness). While portions (including the Act II introduction) may sound somewhat impatient and even mechanical, and some of the dramatic impact is forgone, Toscanini's reading is not superficial, but rather a distillation of the essence. Whatever atmosphere is lost, the glare of truth remains. The recording is sharp and detailed – ironically, vastly superior to the flat, blurry sound of RCA's studio product of the time, although, with an eye to AM broadcast needs, the dynamics are somewhat compressed and the voices placed prominently forward.
At this juncture, we should note the wide-spread variety of approaches to the dialogue. From the very outset, critics have disparaged the quality of the spoken text as the most ineffectual element of Fidelio. Dr. Henry Rose, an English physician who attended the premiere, opined that "The story and plan of the piece are a miserable mixture of low manners and romantic situations" but that "the airs, duets and choruses are equal to any praise." An 1806 review agreed: "The inanity of the spoken parts entirely or very nearly wipes out the beautiful effect of the sung parts." Thus, it's tempting for producers to relegate the text to a subordinate role at best. Toscanini sidestepped the issue by eliminating it altogether. In her notes to the LP edition of that performance, Davenport posits that this distillation into sound alone creates an urgent and compelling grasp of the idealistic plot for which explanation is unnecessary. Yet, except for the deliberate collision of the Pizarro/Rocco duet and Leonore's outburst, the musical numbers were not meant to run together and some relief from the intensity seems appropriate to Beethoven's conception. Even if trite, the spoken stretches provide a needed buffer to separate the musical pieces, which were not intended to be heard in quick succession. Nearly all the recordings I've heard trim the full published dialogue, some to a few lines so as to enable listeners to bask in the musical essence, while others retain much of it so as to develop the plot and characters and emulate the experience of a theatrical presentation. (Nowadays, producers can finesse the issue by assigning separate digital tracks for music and dialog, which listeners then can program to their liking.)
We already have noted Furtwängler's regard for Fidelio as a universal ritual that transcends form and time. Fortunately, we have recordings of four of his performances, of which the two headnotes list my favorites. All share his passionate advocacy and reflect his balance between abstract intellectual philosophy and profound human sentiment to craft a Fidelio of deadly serious purpose depicting real people caught up in a maze of life's horrors. Thus (as described in anonymous notes to a Replica LP of the 1953 concert), his Leonores are dramatic sopranos, his Pizarros are sauve and elegant rather than sheer brutes, and his Florestans are not the heldentenors he favored for his acclaimed Wagnerian cycles but more passive objects of fate than active heros. Far slower and richer than Toscanini, Furtwängler's orchestral conception is rooted in a different brand of steadfast inevitability – brooding and probing, with an undercurrent of mournful regret, as much myth as reality.
Were it not missing four numbers in Act I and a three-minute chunk of Leonore 3, and were the recording not quite so strident, my preference would be for the unabashed passion of the 1948 reading. Schlüter, often disparaged, is well-suited to the harrowing conception of a Leonore driven by a desperate need for justice, her restless, wobbly voice barely controlled as if constantly swept away by emotion she can never suppress in her desparate struggle to advance toward her goal – she even screams her line before the trumpet call of deliverance, as if music itself could not possibly contain her overwhelming feelings of the moment. The 1950 set is more spiritual and less heavily underlined, yet still viscerally gripping – the principals' sequential reaction to Leonore's revelation of her identity in the Act II quartet ("Sein weib?" "Sein weib?" "Mein weib?") for once avoids sounding slightly comical as each is gripped by a spontaneous and characteristic outburst. We also have both studio and live recordings of Furtwängler's 1953 Vienna Opera production, which some prefer for their more massive, ritualistic feeling (although Martha Modl as Leonore tends to bark at emotional peaks, which some find engaging and others annoying). The studio version, while better recorded, omits all dialogue and seems comparatively cautious.
While the above recordings boast stellar casts, orchestras and conductors, each has its personal interpretive quirks and dated mono sound. So for those who seek a reliable introduction, this one is free of pretense, is in digital stereo and, as a wonderful bonus, attempts to replicate the sheer sound that Beethoven envisioned (even if he could barely hear it himself) in lieu of the far richer sonics to which we've become accustomed nowadays. As Mackerras notes, among the authentic touches here are his use of narrow-bore brass, natural horns with hand-stopped notes, reduced numbers of strings and a piano continuo (consistent with a report of how Beethoven "conducted" the premiere from a keyboard). Singing conventions of the time are observed as well, including reduced vibrato and added appoggiaturas (singing accented syllables one step higher than written). A supplement of Leonore 3 uses a score Beethoven sent to Prague in 1814 for a performance led by Carl Maria von Weber. The recording is sharp, attentive and fully detailed and thus complements its authoritative integrity. While we will never know just how Beethoven "heard" Fidelio, this production seems a reasonable and fascinating guess.
At first, Fidelio was largely ignored on record. Although it was preceded by the Walter and Bodanzky performances, both of which would surface only later, and then in unauthorized editions, Toscanini's was the very first Fidelio in general release. Indeed, in the discography to his 1943 Life and Work of Beethoven, John N. Burk was able to list five recordings of Leonore 3 and six separate Fidelio arias (as well as at least two versions of each symphony, concerto and quartet), but no complete opera at all. Since then, a wealth of Fidelios has emerged. The Operadis website catalogs 20 studio and 112 live recordings as of 2009. Of those, I should mention some others that seem historically or stylistically significant (or that have been widely praised or that I've simply enjoyed, although without the same degree of engagement from the ones above – perhaps the sense of heightened significance reflecting the extreme social dislocation of the War subsided and became diffused as the world recovered a sense of normalcy).
The factual background for this article is based primarily upon the following sources:
Copyright 2014 by Peter Gutmann
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