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“Fidelio” is a remarkable opera composed by Ludwig van Beethoven.
Prior to creating “Fidelio,” Beethoven had never ventured into opera, and he never attempted to compose one again.
However, the opera he did undertake became a labor of love. For instance, over the course of a decade, he crafted three distinct versions of it.
He meticulously wrote and rewrote, carefully selecting which duets to include and which arias to incorporate. He even tinkered with the spoken dialogue.
At times, he conceived up to eighteen different beginnings for a single musical piece.
Astonishingly, he composed four entirely different overtures for the opera before he deemed it complete.
Yet, even after all his dedicated efforts, it still retained an air of imperfection, a quality it maintains to this very day.
Initially, the opera was known as “Leonore,” or “Marital Fidelity,” before eventually evolving into the beloved work we now know as “Fidelio.”
We invite you to join us in this operatic adventure as we explore the world of Beethoven’s original masterpiece, “Fidelio.”
What is Fidelio Opera?
“Fidelio Opera” is a magnificent creation by Ludwig van Beethoven that celebrates the themes of love and freedom. Originally, it went by the title “Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe,” which translates to “Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love.”
This opera, “Fidelio,” follows the tradition of vernacular German singspiel, a style akin to operetta.
It combines spoken dialogue with sections of vocal music, including solos, ensembles, and choruses, all accompanied by the orchestra.
Many regard it as a prime example of the popular “rescue” opera genre.
In these stories, a heroic character is saved from peril or impending doom, usually at the last possible moment, leading to a joyous conclusion that upholds lofty ideals of humanity.
“Fidelio” made its grand debut at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on November 20, 1805.
The characters in the opera each bring their own unique charm. There’s Rocco, the head jailer, whose deep bass voice resonates with authority.
Marzelline, his lovestruck daughter, adds a light soprano touch, while Jaquino, the doorkeeper, expresses his woes with a querulous tenor.
In Beethoven’s revisions of 1805, some scenes involving these characters were trimmed down. This allows the spotlight to shine on Leonore, a soprano with a flair for coloratura, and Florestan, a tenor known for his lyrical prowess.
Audiences of Beethoven’s time and even later were accustomed to the theatrical convention of characters donning disguises, accepting that Leonore could convincingly take on a male role despite singing and speaking in a soprano tone.
The subsequent year saw Stephan von Breuning assist in condensing the opera from three acts to two.
After further refinements to the libretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke, a definitive version graced the stage at the Kärntnertortheater on May 23, 1814.
By tradition, both the initial versions are collectively referred to as “Leonore.”
Who Wrote the Libretto?
In this libretto, there’s a whole group of characters, none of whom are particularly well-known.
The original German text was put together by Joseph Sonnleithner. It was inspired by a French piece by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly called “Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal” (translated as “Léonore, or Conjugal Love”).
This story belonged to a collection of “rescue operas” that gained popularity in the wake of the French Revolution.
The very next year, Stephan von Breuning assisted in condensing the opera from three acts to two.
After further adjustments to the libretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke, a definitive version emerged.
As we can see, Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio” underwent three different versions.
The initial one, in 1805, was seen as a bit too lengthy and lacking in dramatic stability.
The second version was a rushed attempt made a few months later, in 1806.
The third, crafted in 1814, marked a thorough revamp of the piece, and it’s this impactful rendition that is typically performed today.
Before Beethoven, at least three other composers tried their hand at adapting this story (in both French and Italian).
However, it’s Beethoven’s version that has stood the test of time and remains the only one still performed today.
Who Composed Fidelio?
Fidelio was composed by Ludwig van Beethoven as a singspiel with spoken dialogue. He was a German composer and pianist who remains one of the most celebrated figures in the history of classical music.
Born in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven displayed prodigious musical talent from an early age.
Despite facing the challenge of losing his hearing in his twenties, Beethoven persevered and continued to compose.
It’s said that he would sit at the piano with a pencil in his mouth, touching the other end of the soundboard to feel the vibration of the notes.
He composes some of the most enduring and influential works in Western music.
Beethoven’s compositions spanned various genres, including symphonies, concertos, chamber music, piano sonatas, and opera.
Ludwig van Beethoven is most celebrated for his symphonies, which revolutionized the genre.
His groundbreaking compositions, such as the Symphony No. 9 in D minor (“Choral”) and the “Moonlight Sonata,” showcased his innovative use of form, harmonies, and emotional depth.
The iconic opening motif of his Fifth Symphony is one of the most instantly recognizable in the world.
Interestingly, Beethoven only tackled one opera; Fidelio proved to be such a source of frustration that he never ventured into another.
Nonetheless, he expressed a deep attachment to it, writing, “It is the work that brought me the most sorrow; for that reason, it is the one most dear to me.”
Throughout his life, Beethoven grappled with personal adversity, including the loss of his hearing.
Despite this, he continued to create music and transcend conventional boundaries, leaving an indelible mark on the world of music.
His legacy endures, with his works remaining integral to the repertoire of orchestras, chamber ensembles, and soloists worldwide, making him a revered figure in the pantheon of classical music.
What Is the Story of the Opera Fidelio?
This libretto includes spoken dialogue. It tells the tale of Leonore, who takes on the identity of a prison guard named “Fidelio.”
Her mission is to rescue her husband, Florestan, who is in grave danger in a political prison.
Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s plot aligns seamlessly with Beethoven’s artistic and political perspective.
It is a story of personal sacrifice, bravery, and ultimate victory.
Location and Time
The entire opera unfolds within the grim walls of a colossal state prison located on the outskirts of Seville, Spain.
Just imagine an entire opera set in such a somber place. That’s quite a formidable challenge to begin with.
The timeframe is the late eighteenth century, just after the French Revolution.
This is a period when everyone was deeply invested in concepts of freedom and the fight against oppressive rule.
Now, every good, classic tale revolves around three key characters: a hero, a heroine, and a villain.
Our hero is Florestan, a nobleman who, for many long years, has been wrongfully imprisoned in this very jail.
His crime? Speaking out boldly against tyranny, particularly against the malevolent dictator, Pizarro.
What makes matters more complicated is that Pizarro also happens to be the governor of this very prison.
So naturally, Florestan’s fate is sealed in the dungeon. There you have it—the hero and the villain.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the heroine. Leonore, Florestan’s devoted wife, is determined throughout the entire opera to secure her husband’s freedom.
To achieve this, she adopts the persona of a young boy named Fidelio.
Furthermore, she secures a position as an assistant to the kindly old jailer. Mind you, this is not the wicked governor Pizarro.
Keep that distinction clear. The chosen name of Fidelio holds special significance as it translates to “the faithful one”. This is a trait that defines Leonore.
Her singular, all-encompassing goal is to be reunited with her husband.
Her ingenious plan involves an inside job: once inside the prison, she believes she’ll discover the secret dungeon where Florestan is held—a place known only to the jailer.
Once she locates it, she can orchestrate her husband’s escape. And execute it brilliantly, she does.
The story culminates in a joyous conclusion.
A Brief History of the Fidelio Opera Composition
The origins of “Fidelio” can be traced back to 1803, when Emanuel Schikaneder, a librettist and theater manager, struck an agreement with Beethoven to create an opera.
The creation of this opera had a lengthy and complex history. Beethoven went through three different versions while developing the opera.
He initially began working on a new libretto provided by Schikaneder, titled ‘Vestas Feuer,’ but he didn’t like the story.
However, upon discovering the libretto for ‘Fidelio,’ he shifted his attention to it, despite having spent about a month composing music for ‘Vestas Feuer.’
Interestingly, two significant pieces from “Fidelio,” Pizarro’s “‘Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick!” and the duet “O namenlose Freude” for Leonore and Florestan, actually had their origins in the music originally composed for “Vestas Feuer.”
Beethoven began working on ‘Fidelio’ in 1804, right after giving up on ‘Vestas Feuer.’
It had its first performance in 1805, and Beethoven made extensive revisions for later performances in 1806 and 1814.
Although Beethoven had initially named it “Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe,” which means ‘Leonore, or The Triumph of Married Love.’
Specifically, the 1805 performances were billed as “Fidelio” at the theater’s request. This was done to avoid any confusion with other operas based on the same source material as Beethoven’s opera.
For instance, Pierre Gaveaux’s “Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal” (1798) and Ferdinando Paer’s “Leonora” (1804) both drew from the same source material.
Beethoven published the libretto in 1806 and released a vocal score in 1810 under the title “Leonore.”
The accepted convention nowadays is to refer to both the 1805 (three-act) and 1806 (two-act) versions as “Leonore” and reserve the title “Fidelio” exclusively for the final 1814 revision.
The complete score wasn’t published until 1826, and all three versions are designated as Beethoven’s Opus 72.
Among Beethoven’s works, none caused him as much vexation and disappointment as “Fidelio.”
The challenges he faced while writing and producing an opera were so disheartening that he firmly resolved never to attempt another.
Fidelio Performance History
There have been numerous performances of Beethoven’s masterpiece, “Fidelio.”
Beethoven embarked on this opera in 1804 after giving up on another project called “Vestas Feuer. “Fidelio” had its first performance in 1805.
The initial version featured a three-act German libretto adapted by Joseph Sonnleithner from the French work of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly.
It premiered on November 20, 1805, at the Theater an der Wien, with additional shows over the following two nights.
However, these performances faced challenges because Vienna was under French military occupation, and most of the audience consisted of French military officers with little interest in German opera.
After the first showing, Beethoven’s friends had a thought. They told him to make some changes to the opera to make it shorter, with only two acts.
Beethoven listened to them, and with the help of his close friend Stephan von Breuning, he did just that.
He also made a brand-new opening piece, which we now call “Leonore No. 3. They put on the opera again with these changes on March 29 and April 10, 1806, and this time it was a big hit.
During this time, the opera went by the title “Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe” (“Leonore, or The Triumph of Married Love”).
But then there was a problem. Beethoven and the people in charge of the theater couldn’t agree on something, so they stopped showing the opera.
In the year 1814, Beethoven revisited his opera, making further changes.
He also received some help with the libretto from Georg Friedrich Treitschke.
This new version of “Fidelio” had its first showing on May 23, 1814, at the Kärntnertortheater.
Despite Beethoven’s struggle with his hearing, he conducted the performance with a little assistance from Michael Umlauf.
This version of the opera was a great success, and “Fidelio” has remained a cherished part of the opera repertoire ever since.
In more recent history, “Fidelio” marked significant milestones. In December 1944, Arturo Toscanini took charge of something special.
He led the first full opera performance in the United States since 1915. In fact, it was also the very first opera ever broadcast on the radio through the NBC network.
Then, on November 5, 1955, something exciting happened in Vienna. The Vienna State Opera swung its doors open again with a performance of “Fidelio,” conducted by Karl Böhm.
This marked a big moment because it was the first time ORF aired a live television broadcast. Back then, there were only about 800 television sets in Austria!
On October 7, 1989, a special performance of “Fidelio” took place at the Semperoper in Dresden.
They were celebrating the 40th anniversary of East Germany (DDR). Around the same time, there were strong protests happening at the city’s main train station.
Then, just four weeks later, on November 9, 1989, something incredibly significant occurred.
The Berlin Wall, a symbol of East Germany’s rule, came down, marking the end of that era.
“Fidelio” has also been performed in various places by different groups since then, solidifying its enduring legacy in the world of opera.
Leonore, taking on the identity of Fidelio, has cleverly disguised herself as a man to secure a job as a deputy gaoler in the very prison where her husband Florestan is wrongfully imprisoned by the cruel Don Pizzaro.
Through this risky endeavor, Fidelio has won the affection of Marzelline, the gaoler’s daughter, leading her to turn away from her intended.
With unwavering courage and determination, this brave wife will succeed in rescuing her husband from the grim fate planned for him by Pizzaro, his political adversary, whose deceitful schemes will be revealed.
A Tale of Deception and Devotion
In eighteenth-century Spain, a brave woman named Leonore faces a dire situation.
Her husband, Florestan, has been captured and locked away by his wicked foe, Don Pizzaro, all because Florestan sought to reveal Pizzaro’s dark deeds.
Leonore, determined to rescue her beloved, adopts a clever disguise, transforming herself into a young lad named Fidelio.
With this new identity, she secures a position at the very prison where Florestan is held.
The Tangled Web of Affection
Inside the prison walls, complications arise. The governor, Rocco, and his daughter, Marzelline, take a liking to ‘Fidelio’, unwittingly adding to the intricate web of emotions.
This, however, creates a thorny situation not only for Leonore but also for Jaquino, who carries affection for Marzelline and is now green-eyed with jealousy over this unexpected rival.
Rising Hopes, Swift Disappointments
As ‘Fidelio’, Leonore toils tirelessly to win Rocco’s trust.
She hopes that he will grant her permission to accompany him to the underground cell where Florestan languishes.
She devises a plan to allow the other prisoners a precious moment in the garden, basking in the rare sunlight.
Yet, when Pizzaro learns of this, his fury knows no bounds.
He commands an immediate return to the confines of their cells, dashing their fleeting hopes.
A Deadly Scheme Unveiled
Following Pizzaro’s sinister orders, Rocco has been slowly depriving Florestan of sustenance, pushing him to the brink of death.
Yet, when word reaches Pizzaro that Don Fernando, a minister in the king’s court, will soon arrive to investigate the allegations of Pizzaro’s brutality, he resolves to take even darker measures and end Florestan’s life.
A Heroic Intervention
In the very moment that Pizzaro stands poised to strike, ‘Fidelio’ throws himself bravely between the two adversaries.
The tense standoff reaches its climax when a trumpet’s clarion call heralds the arrival of Don Fernando.
Florestan is spared, Pizarro is seized and led away to face justice, and the voices of the grateful assembly fill the air with praises for the valiant Leonore.
Roles in Fidelio Opera
In the opera “Fidelio” by Beethoven, there are several key characters. Each character contributes to the intricate plot of “Fidelio,” creating a rich and engaging narrative.
|Florestan||tenor||He is a prisoner, unjustly held captive.|
|Leonore||soprano||Leonore is Florestan’s wife, and she goes undercover disguised as a man named Fidelio. She takes on this alias to infiltrate the prison and rescue her husband.|
|Rocco||bass||Rocco is the gaoler, or guard, of the prison.|
|Marzelline||soprano||Marzelline is Rocco’s daughter.|
|Jaquino||tenor||Jaquino is an assistant to Rocco.|
|Don Pizarro||baritone||Don Pizarro is the governor of the prison. He is a key antagonist in the story.|
|Don Fernando||baritone||Don Fernando is the king’s minister.|
|Two prisoners||tenor and bass||These characters play a role in the unfolding of the plot.|
|Soldiers, prisoners, and townspeople||These characters likely have smaller, supporting roles in the opera.|
Orchestration in Fidelio Opera
The orchestration for Fidelio is a grand ensemble featuring a piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, a contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani, and strings.
In addition to this, there’s an offstage trumpet that adds a unique dimension to the performance.
The vocal lineup includes two sopranos, two tenors, a baritone, and two basses, supported by a chorus, creating a rich tapestry of voices and instruments.
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