All you need to know about Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio, right here!
What is the story?
Fidelio is inspired by a true story from the French Revolution. It centres on a woman, Leonore, whose husband Florestan has been secretly imprisoned by his political rival – the villainous Don Pizarro. Determined to rescue him, Leonore disguises herself as a young man named ‘Fidelio’ and gets a job in the prison where he is being held. As Fidelio, she earns the trust of the jailer Rocco (and also the affections of his daughter Marzelline, which leads to some awkward moments…)
On the orders of Don Pizarro, Rocco is slowly starving Florestan to death. However, when news breaks that a government official named Don Fernando is coming to investigate rumours of cruelty in the prison, Don Pizarro decides to speed things up and execute Florestan himself – as soon as possible. Will Leonore be in time to save him?
Who are the characters?
Florestan – a prisoner (tenor)
Leonore/Fidelio – his wife (soprano)
Rocco – the jailer (bass)
Marzelline – his daughter, in love with Fidelio (soprano)
Jaquino – Rocco’s assistant, in love with Marzelline (tenor)
Don Pizarro – prison governor (baritone)
Don Fernando – government official (bass)
A male chorus also sing the role of prisoners at the end of Act I, and a full chorus as townspeople at the opera’s close.
The company of Fidelio © Richard H Smith
What is the music like?
Beethoven’s score for Fidelio combines Mozart-like grace and elegance with much more dramatic writing which foreshadows later composers such as Wagner. Writing for the voice did not come naturally to him – Beethoven’s music is notoriously difficult to sing, but to our ear manages to sound incredibly beautiful!
Highlights include Leonore’s hymn to Hope, ‘Komm, Hoffnung‘ with its magnificent horn accompaniment, and Florestan’s near-impossible aria ‘Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!‘ at the opening of Act II, the scene for which is set by bleak, F minor chords and shadowy string sounds, painting the total darkness of the dungeon. The opera’s most famous moment, however, is the Prisoners’ Chorus ‘O Welche Lust’ in Act I, where for a rare moment, the prisoners are allowed out into the open air. They sing in overlapping four-part harmony in a poignant ode to freedom.
Our Fidelio is performed with a slightly reduced chorus of 24 and orchestra of 33 due to social distancing measures, but they still make an overwhelming sound!
Who was the composer?
Fidelio was composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), a defining figure in the history of Western music. He wrote 722 works from piano concertos to string quartets, but is best known for his nine symphonies, which were a game-changer for the genre – the opening motif to his Fifth Symphony is one of the most recognisable ever written.
Beethoven also began to go deaf while still in his 20s, but was still able to compose – apparently, he would sit at the piano with a pencil in his mouth and touch the other end of it to the soundboard to feel the vibration of the note.
He only penned the one opera – Fidelio caused him so much frustration that he never attempted another! But, he wrote that although ‘it is the work that brought me the most sorrow, for that reason it is the one most dear to me.’
Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820
A little history
Fidelio took over 10 years to get right, during which time three different versions of the opera premiered. The first version opened in Vienna in November 1805, and did not go down well. It was too long and dramatically messy. It didn’t help that the city had just been invaded by Napoleon, meaning the audience at the premiere consisted mainly of French soldiers who couldn’t understand a word of the German text! Beethoven pulled the opera and set to fixing it.
The next version premiered a few months later in 1806 and was better received, but a disagreement with the theatre caused Beethoven to storm in and remove the score after only the second performance.
He returned to Fidelio many years later and worked with a different librettist, experienced man-of-the-theatre Georg Friedrich Treitschke, to completely overhaul the work. This third version – which is the one we know today – premiered in 1814, and was a great success. Its message of liberation now chimed perfectly with the public mood of the time, as Napoleon had just been defeated!
Playbill for the premiere of Fidelio (final version) on 23 May 1814 at the Theater am Kärntnertor
Did you know?
– Fidelio, as a musical cry for freedom and justice, has always been a politically powerful opera. It was performed in October 1989 to mark the 40th anniversary of East Germany in a production that showed the chorus appearing in their normal clothes as representatives of the audience. Just four weeks later, the Berlin Wall fell. What’s more, Fidelio was not allowed to be performed in China until as recently as 2008.
– A 17-year-old Schubert attended Fidelio’s final 1814 premiere – he had sold his school books to get hold of a ticket!
– In the original score, there is spoken dialogue (in German) between the numbers, which is vital to the storytelling. In our version, this has been replaced by an English narration, read by the same person who will sing Don Fernando.
Matthew Stiff as Narrator/Don Fernando in Fidelio © Richard H Smith