Operapedia: Fidelio
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Operapedia: Fidelio 

HENRY STEWART liberates Beethoven’s only opera from the shackles of history.

Operapedia Beethoven lg 815 The Basics

A political prisoner’s wife goes undercover as the male title character, infiltrates the family of the prison guard and frees her husband from a secret dungeon just as the local petty tyrant is about to kill him.

First Performances

The work that Beethoven wanted to call Leonore had its premiere on November 20, 1805, at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien — after a month’s delay caused by politically touchy censors and the need for extra rehearsals. The theater’s owners insisted it be called Fidelio, to avoid confusion with other Leonore operas. Some listeners thought it was too long, so Beethoven reluctantly agreed to trim it, producing a two-act version that made its debut in March 1806. Today, we usually call these Leonore. Fidelio is what we call the substantial revision first heard in May 1814, with a new overture, reworked arias and a rejiggered libretto.

In Pop Culture

In Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), “Fidelio” is the password that admits Tom Cruise to a masked orgy — at least, it’s the first password, and his ignorance of the second (if it even exists) results in at least one death. (Or does it?!) The opera’s mention within the movie suggests that Cruise’s insecurity-inspired odyssey through a lusty New York City underground makes him the Florestan and Don Pizarro — both prisoner and imprisoner — of his own psychosexuality. That makes his (onscreen and then-offscreen) wife Nicole Kidman both his gatekeeper and keymaster — Rocco and Leonore, scourge and salvation.

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Time and Place

The source play was loosely based on real events from the French Revolution, and Frenchies figure prominently in the history of this decidedly Germanic work. In 1805, when the opera was first performed, the Austrian Empire was fighting the Napoleonic Wars; just days before the premiere, French troops took Vienna. Most of Beethoven’s supporters — the cultured upper classes — had split, so Fidelio played to an almost empty house. No wonder it went badly! It was performed twice more, attracting a few French soldiers. But by the time the revision was unveiled, Napoleon had gone into exile; that fall, the new Fidelio was the centerpiece of a gala for the kings and queens of Europe — a well-earned triomphe.

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Spoiler Alerts

With Leonore freeing Florestan and defeating Pizarro, the opera promotes democratic ideals, to which Beethoven was sympathetic; he’d removed the dedication to Napoleon from his Third Symphony (which became the “Eroica”) after the erstwhile icon of nineteenth-century European liberalism went all Caesar on the continent and declared himself Emperor. In Fidelio’s music, “Beethoven’s ‘honesty’ is so pronounced that one can tell exactly … which characters were sympathetic to him,” Frank Merkling wrote in OPERA NEWS in 1951. The composer felt sympathy for the opera’s prisoners, of course, whose famous chorus is laced with a longing for liberty made plain in the music’s dark stirrings on their first mention of “Freiheit.” But the opera is also romantic, and its deepest emotional expression is hope, uniting both the conjugal and the political: not only will love win; so will justice!

Operapedia Westens lg 815 The Performance We
Wish We’d Seen

Fidelio, with its starved prisoners and searing anti-tyranny, particularly resonated during and after World War II. It was the first opera performed in Germany after the fighting had ended, less than four months after V-E Day — on September 4, 1945, in West Berlin, at the Theater des Westens, the only house in the city that was still standing. Surprisingly, the Nazis hadn’t banned the work, which flummoxed Thomas Mann. “What kind of apathy was needed to listen to Fidelio in Himmler’s Germany,” he wrote, “without covering one’s face and charging out of the opera house!”



Eleven productions have been announced through May, in such major locales as Vienna, Salzburg and Sarasota, Florida. But mostly it’s playing in smaller German markets such as Lübeck, Lüne­burg, Koblenz, Essen and Bad Hersfeld, evincing its continued popularity in the fatherland.

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Something Completely Different

It wasn’t the set, which evoked a concentration camp, that made Harry Kupfer’s 1981 production in Holland and Wales unique; many directors, as recently as last summer a Santa Fe, have put Fidelio in Nazi times. Rather, it was the East German’s placing Socrates, Che Guevara, Jesus and the PLO onstage for the finale’s celebration! In the twenty-first century, the opera’s action has often been moved to various political prisons (sometimes literally, as in a site-specific production at PERM-36), particularly Guantánamo Bay, just as a Cold War-era production set Fidelio in the grip of a South American junta.



Surprise Showstopper

Act II opens with one of the great introduction arias, Florestan’s “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier! … In des Lebens Frühlingstagen.” “Few melodies are more likely to give the impression of having come to the composer intuitively in a particularly happy and inspired moment,” Max Rudolf wrote in opera news in 1951, citing its “expression of heroic resignation and pursuit of duty unto death.” (This is especially striking as sung by Jonas Kaufmann.) But it actually took at least twenty drafts before Beethoven got it right. In general, the writing and rewriting across a decade exhausted him; he wrote to Fidelio’s last librettist, “This opera will win for me the martyr’s crown.”

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Operapedia Oldman lg 815 Hit Tune

The opera is positively obscure beside the composer’s symphonies and piano works; the 1994 biopic Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman, skips over Fidelio altogether. But some of its transcendent vocal writing has become classic (for lovers of German opera, at least), including Act I’s quartet canon, whose delicate melodies are simply and astoundingly interwoven. The overtures are the most Beethoven-y pieces in the unusually Mozartean work; the best are stormy and Romantic. He wrote four of them (and almost a fifth!), because he never could quite figure out how to start the darn opera. The least popular is the most often used, because it’s more emotionally appropriate to the opening scenes, which defer the dark political drama with suggestions of romantic comedy. Fidelio oddly, even radically, opens in relatively quiet domesticity — which isn’t so “operatic.”



Fidelio has had its detractors, including its first cast. “Singers, from [Beethoven’s] day to ours, have complained about his vocal composition,” John Suchet writes in his biography, Beethoven: The Man Revealed, because it “make[s] demands on the voice that are … not natural.” (Though closer in age to Mozart, Beethoven wrote for the voice in a way that anticipated Wagner, and famous Fidelio singers have often been noted Wagnerians.) Fans of the work are often gaga devotees, like Leonard Bernstein, who in a televised Young People’s Concert said the opera contains “some of the most glorious music ever conceived by a mortal…. It’s a political manifesto against tyranny and oppression, a hymn to the beauty and sanctity of marriage, an exalted affirmation of faith in God as the ultimate human resource.” Or, as opera news put it in 1980, “It is music’s supreme expression of personal and political freedom.”

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