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Composed: 1804–5, 1806, 1814

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, strings, offstage trumpet, solo voices (2 sopranos, 2 tenors, baritone and 2 basses), and chorus

About this Piece

Opera in Two Acts

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

Libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner, Stephan von Breuning, Friedrich Treitschke

Why the prolific Beethoven produced only one opera—his masterpiece Fidelio—has occasioned considerable speculation (and regret) among music-lovers and scholars. One plausible explanation is that his growing deafness made it difficult for him to communicate with the highly vocal people involved in operatic production: singers, impresarios, stage directors, designers, producers, audiences. Another is that the artifice and frivolity of theater did not appeal to his serious nature. Instead of producing more operas (like his frequent model Mozart), he poured most of his titanic energy into composing symphonic and chamber works demanding less collaboration.

Beethoven was a prisoner of his deafness, locked in a dark world of silence. In Florestan, the male protagonist of Fidelio, Beethoven discovered a kindred soul: a fellow prisoner, unjustly incarcerated by a malevolent authority figure (the corrupt and vengeful prison governor Pizarro).  Florestan’s story, and the selfless love of his brave wife Leonore who disguises herself as the male prison worker Fidelio to free him, resonated with Beethoven’s own struggles. The appeal of its sublime music, deftly combining popular and classical styles, and the universal relevance of its utopian message of the redeeming power of love and hope, have never waned, making Fidelio a staple of the global operatic repertoire.

Fidelio took a long and bumpy ride to success. Emmanuel Schikaneder, librettist of Beethoven’s favorite Mozart opera, Die Zauberflöte, offered the commission in 1803. The source was a 1789 French libretto, “Leonore, ou L’ amour conjugal,” by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, based on a real incident from the period. By the time Beethoven started composing to Joseph Sonnleithner’s German translation, the libretto had already been used for two other operas, one Italian and one French. Beethoven’s three-act version of Fidelio (he preferred the title Leonore), with the action transferred to safely remote sixteenth century Seville, opened and quickly closed in the autumn of 1805, just as Napoleon’s forces occupied Vienna. Beethoven made revisions and cuts for a two-act version staged in 1806 that disappeared after only a few performances due to financial disagreements.

In 1814, three singers asked Beethoven (then at the height of his fame) to revisit Fidelio. This time, in a more concise, confident, and polished two-act form, with a revised libretto by Georg Friederich Treitschke, the opera found public and critical favor, and was published soon after the premiere at the Kartnertortheater in Vienna.

Fidelio belongs to the vernacular German singspiel tradition, close to operetta, featuring spoken dialogue between sections of vocal (solos, ensembles, and choruses) and orchestral music. Many consider it the finest example of the popular genre of “rescue” opera, whose noble main character is saved (usually at the last minute) from danger or death, with a happy ending celebrating lofty humanistic ideals. The mostly comic characters of Rocco, the head jailer (a bass); Marzelline, his lovesick daughter (a light soprano); and Jaquino, the hapless doorkeeper (a querulous tenor), come from the eighteenth-century tradition of light opera buffa. In his 1805 revisions, Beethoven cut some of their scenes to focus on Leonore (a cross-dressing coloratura soprano) and Florestan (a lyric tenor). Familiar with all manner of disguises in operatic plots, audiences of Beethoven’s time—and later—accepted that Fidelio can “pass” as a man even though (s)he sings and talks in a soprano.

The music of Fidelio moves among several different stylistic layers: a pastoral-peasant “domestic” one for the comic characters; brassy, chromatic, and angular lines for the villain Pizzaro; tender lyrical melodies for the “aristocrats” Fidelio and Florestan; triumphant fanfares for the benevolent rescuer Don Fernando.

But the “action ensembles” and choruses are the opera’s beating heart. Here, Beethoven weaves together different musical lines and emotional states into a unified musical whole, in a complex interaction between the characters, voices, and orchestra. In the magnificent Act I quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar” (“How wonderful it is”), Marzelline, Leonore, Jaquino, and Rocco expound upon their conflicting motives and hopes in the form of a repeating canon, entering one by one. Florestan finally appears at the start of Act II, with a glorious aria to freedom and to Leonore. She arrives shortly after (as Fidelio), reveals her true identity, and joins Florestan in one of the great duets in all operatic literature: “O namenlose Freude” (“O joy beyond words”).

What brings many opera audiences to tears is the chorus of prisoners (“O welche Lust!”“O what joy!”) that closes Act I. As they slowly emerge from the darkness into daylight for a brief respite, they sing of enduring hope for freedom (Freiheit) in a solemn B-flat major anthem, raising their voices for all humanity in the shared struggle against tyranny and oppression. Beethoven would return triumphantly to this same message in the choral finale of the Symphony No. 9, composed 10 years after Fidelio.

—Harlow Robinson