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Synopsis of
An Opera by Ludwig van Beethoven

"Fidelio," opera in two acts, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Produced in three acts, as "Fidelio, oder, die eheliche Liebe" (Fidelio, or Conjugal Love), at the Theatre on the Wien, November 20, 1805. Revised and given at the Imperial Private Theatre, March 29, 1806, but withdrawn after a few performances. Again revised and successfully brought out May 23, 1814, at the Kärnthnerthor Theatre (Theatre at the Carinthian Gate), Vienna, Paris, Théâtre Lyrique, May 5, 1860. London, King’s Theatre, May 18, 1832; Covent garden, June 12, 1835, with Malibran; May 20, 1851, in Italian, with recitatives by Balfe. New York, Park Theatre, September 9, 1839. (See last paragraph of this article). The libretto was by Sonnleithner after Bouilly; first revisions by Breuning; second by Treitschke. Four overtures, "Leonore," Nos. 1, 2 and 3, "Fidelio."


FLORESTAN, a Spanish Nobleman……………………………Tenor
LEONORE, his wife, in male attire as FIDELIO…….………….Soprano
DON FERNANDO, Prime Minister of Spain…………………….Bass
PIZARRO, Governor of the prison and enemy to FLORESTAN….Bass
ROCCO, chief jailer……………………………………………….Bass
MARCELLINA, daughter of ROCCO…………………………….Soprano
JACQUINO, assistant to ROCCO…………………………………Tenor
Soldiers, prisoners people

Time: 18th century.
Place: A fortress, near Seville, Spain used as a Prison for political offenders.

Flyer for Beethoven's opera Fidelio (image)

Theater flyer for the earliest known production of Beethoven's opera Fidelio in Bonn

Ludwig van Beethoven, composer of "Fidelio," was born at Bonn, December 16, 1770. He died at Vienna, March 26, 1827. As he composed but this one opera, and as his fame rests chiefly on his great achievements outside the domain of the stage -- symphonies, sonatas, etc. -- it is possible, as Storck suggests in his Opernbuch, to dispense with biographical data and confine ourselves to facts relating to "Fidelio."

The libretto, which appealed to the composer by reason of its pure and idealistic motive, was not written for Beethoven. It was a French book by Bouilly and had been used by three composers: Pierre Gabeaux (1798); Simon Mayr, Donizetti’s teacher at Bergamo and the composer of more than seventy operas (1805); and Paër, whose "Leonora, ossia 1’Amore Conjugale" (Leonora, or Conjugal Love) was brought out at Dresden in December, 1804.

It was Schikaneder, the librettist and producer of Mozart’s "Magic Flute," who commissioned Beethoven to compose an opera. But it was finally executed for Baron von Braun, who had succeeded to the management of the Theatre on the Wien.

Beethoven’s heart was bound up in the work. Conscientious to the last detail in everything he did, this noble man, inspired by a noble theme, appears to have put even more labour into his opera than into any other one work. There are no less than sixteen sketches for the opening of Florestan’s first air and 346 pages of sketches for the opera. Nor did his labour in it cease when the opera was completed and performed.

Bouilly’s libretto was translated and made over for Beethoven by Schubert’s friend Joseph Sonnleithner. The opera was brought out November 20th and repeated November 21 and 22, 1805. it was a failure. The French were in occupation of Vienna, which the Emperor of Austria and the court had abandoned, and conditions generally were upset. But even Beethoven’s friends did not blame the non-success of the opera upon these untoward circumstances. It had inherent defects, as was apparent even a century later, when at the "Fidelio" centennial celebration in Berlin, the original version was restored and performed.

To remedy these, Beethoven’s friend, Stephan von Breuning, condensed the three acts to two and the composer made changes in the score. This second version was brought forward April 29, 1806, with better success, but a quarrel with von Braun led Beethoven to withdraw it. It seems to have required seven years for the entente cordiale between composer and manager to become re-established. Then Baron von Braun had the book taken in hand by a practical librettist, Georg Friedrich Treitschke. Upon receiving the revision, which greatly pleased him, Beethoven in his turn -- re-revised the score. In this form "Fidelio" was brought out May 23, 1814, in the Theatre am Karnthnerthor. There was no question of failure this time. The opera took its place in the repertoire and when, eight years later, Mme. Schröder-Devrient sang the title role, her success in it was sensational.

There are four overtures to the work, three entitled "Leonore" (Nos. 1, 2, and 3) and one "Fidelio." The "Leonore" overtures are incorrectly numbered. The No. 2 was given at the original performance and is, therefore No. 1. The greatest and justly the most famous, the No. 3, is really No. 2 The so-called No. 1 was composed for a projected performance at Prague, which never came off. The score and parts, in a copyist’s hand, but with corrections by Beethoven, were discovered after the composer’s death. When it was recognized as an overture to the opera, the conclusion that it was the earliest one, which he probably had laid aside, was not unnaturally arrived at. The "Fidelio" overture was intended for the second revision, but was not ready in time. The overture to "The Ruins of Athens" was substituted. The overture to "Fidelio" usually is played before the opera and the "Leonore," No. 3, between the acts.

Of the "Leonore," No. 3, I think it is within bounds to say that it is the first great overture that sums up in its thematic material and in its general scope, constructions, and working out, the story of the opera which it precedes. Even the trumpet call is brought in with stirring dramatic effect. It may be said that from this time on the melodies of their operas were drawn on more and more by composers for the thematic material of their overtures, which thus became music dramas in miniature. The overture "Leonore," No. 3, also is an established work in the classical concert repertoire, as is also Leonore’s recitative and air in the first act.

In the story of the opera, Florestan, a noble Spaniard, has aroused the enmity of Pizarro, governor of a gloomy mediaeval fortress, used as a place of confinement for political prisoners. Pizarro has been enabled secretly to seize Florestan and cast him into the darkest dungeon of the fortress, at the same time spreading a report of his death. Indeed, Pizarro actually plans to do away with Florestan by slow starvation; or if, necessary, by means more swift.

One person, however, suspects the truth -- Leonore, the wife of Florestan. Her faithfulness, the risks she takes, the danger she runs, in order to save her husband, and the final triumph of conjugal love over the sinister machinations of Pizarro, form the motive of the story of "Fidelio," a title derived from the name assumed by Leonore, when, disguised as a man, she obtains employment as assistant to Rocco, the chief jailer of the prison. Fidelio has been at work and has become a great favourite with Rocco, as well as with Marcellina, the jailer’s daughter. The latter, in fact, much prefers the gentle, comely youth, Fidelio, to Jacquino, the turnkey, who, before Fidelio’s appearance upon the scene, believed himself to be her accepted lover. Leonore cannot make her sex known to the girl. It would ruin her plans to save her husband. Such is the situation when the curtain rises on the first act, which is laid in the courtyard of the prison.

Act I. The opera opens with a brisk duet between Jacquino and Marcellina, in which he urges her definitely to accept him and she cleverly puts him off. Left alone she expresses her regret for Jacquino, but wishes she were united with Fidelio. ("O wär ich schön mit dir vereint"- O, were I but with you united.)

Afterward she is joined by her father. Then Leonore (as Fidelio) enters the courtyard. She has a basket of provisions and also is carrying some fetters which she has taken to be repaired. Marcellina, seeing how weary Leonore is, hastens to relieve the supposed youth of his burden. Rocco hints not only tolerantly but even encouragingly at what he believes to be the fancy Fidelio and Marcellina have taken to each other. This leads up to the quartet in canon form, one of the notable vocal numbers of the opera "Mir ist so wunderbar" (How wondrous the emotion). Being a canon, the theme enunciated by each of the four characters is the same, but if the difference in the sentiments of each character is indicated by subtle nuance of expression on the part of the singers, and the intonation be correct, the beauty of this quartet becomes plain even at a first hearing. The participants are Leonore, Marcellina, Rocco, and Jacquino, who appears toward the close. "After this canon," say the stage directions, so clearly is the form of the quartet recognized, "Jacquini goes back to his lodge."

Rocco then voices a song in praise of money and the need of it for young people about to marry. ("Wenn sich Nichts mit Nichts verbindet" – When you nothing add to nothing.) The situation is awkward for Leonore, but the rescue of her husband demands that she continue to masquerade as a man. Moreover there is an excuse in the palpable fact that before she entered Rocco’s service, Jacquino was in high favour with Marcellina and probably will have no difficulty in re-establishing himself therein, when the comely youth Fidelio, turns out to be Leonore, the faithful wife of Florestan.

Through a description which Rocco gives of the prisoners, Leonore now learns what she had not been sure of before. Her husband is confined in this fortress and in its deepest dungeon.

A short march, with a pronounced and characteristic rhythm, announces the approach of Pizarro. He looks over his dispatches. One of them warns him that Fernando, the Minister of State, is about to inspect fortress, accusations having been made to him that Pizarro has used his power as governor to wreak vengeance upon his private enemies. A man of quick decision, Pizarro determines to do away with Florestan at once. His aria, "Ha! welch ein Augenblick!" (Ah! the great moment!) is one of the most difficult solos in the dramatic repertoire for bass voice. When really mastered, however, it also is one of the most effective.

Pizarro posts a trumpeter on the ramparts with a sentry to watch the road from Seville. As soon as a state equipage with outriders is sighted, the trumpeter is to blow a signal. Having thus made sure of being warned of the approach of the Minister, he tosses a well-filled purse to Rocco, and bids him "for the safety of the State," to make away with the most dangerous of the prisoners -- meaning Florestan. Rocco declines to commit murder, but when Pizarro takes it upon himself to do the deed, Rocco consents to dig a grave in an old cistern in the vaults, so that all traces of the crime will be hidden from the expected visitor.

Leonore, who has overheard the plot, now gives vent to her feelings in the highly dramatic recitative: "Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin!" ("Accursed one! Where hasten’st thou!"); followed by the beautiful air, "Komm Hoffnung" (Come, hope!), a deeply moving expression of confidence that her love and faith will enable her, with the aid of Providence, to save her husband’s life. Soon afterwards she learns that, as Rocco’s assistant, she is to help him in digging the grave. She will be near her husband and either able to aid him or at least die with him.

The prisoners from the upper tiers are now, on Leonore’s intercession, permitted a brief opportunity to breathe the open air. The cells are unlocked and they are allowed to stroll in the garden of the fortress, until Pizarro, hearing of this, angrily puts an end to it. Then chorus of the prisoners, subdued like the half-suppressed joy of fearsome beings, is one of the significant passages of the score.

Lotte Lehmann as Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio (image)

German opera singer Lotte Lehmann (1888-1976) as Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio

Act II. The scene is in the dungeon where Florestan is in heavy chains. To one side is the old cistern covered with rubbish. Musically the act opens with Florestan’s recitative and air, a fit companion piece to Leonore’s "Komm Hoffnung" in Act I. The whispered duet between Leonore and Rocco as they dig the grave and the orchestral accompaniment impress one with the gruesome significance of the scene.

Pizarro enters the vault, exultantly makes himself known to his enemy, and draws his dagger for the fatal thrust. Leonore throws herself in his way. Pushed aside, she again interposes herself between the would-be murderer and his victim, and, pointing at him a loaded pistol, which she has had concealed about her person, cries out: "First slay his wife!"

At this moment, in itself so tense, a trumpet call rings out from the direction of the fortress wall. Jacquino appears at the head of the stone stairway leading down into the dungeon. The Minister of State is at hand. His vanguard is at the gate. Florestan is saved. There is a rapturous duet, "O, namenlose Freude" (Joy inexpressible) for him and the devoted wife to whom he owes his life.

In Florestan the Minister of State recognizes his friend, whom he believed to have died, according to the reports set float by Pizarro, who himself is now apprehended. To Leonore is assigned the joyful task of unlocking and loosening her husband’s fetters and freeing him from his chains. A chorus of rejoicing: "Wer ein solches Weib errungen" (He, whom such a wife has cherished) brings the opera to a close.

It is well said in George P. Upton’s book, The Standard Operas, that "as a drama and as an opera, "Fidelio" stands almost alone in its perfect purity, in the moral grandeur of its subject, and in the resplendent ideality of its music." Even those who do not appreciate the beauty of such a work, and, unfortunately their number is considerable, cannot fail to agree with me that the trumpet call, which brings the prison scene to a climax, is one of the most dramatic moments in opera. I was a boy when, more than forty years ago, I first heard "Fidelio" in Wiesbaden. But I still remember the thrill, when that trumpet call split the air with the message that the Minister of State was in sight and that Leonore had saved her husband.

When "Fidelio" had its first American performance (New York, Park Theatre, September 9, 1839) the opera did not fill the entire evening. The entertainment, as a whole, was a curiosity from present-day standards. First came Beethoven’s opera, with Mrs. Martyn as Leonore. Then a pas seul was danced by Mme. Araline; the whole concluding with "The Deep, Deep Sea," in which Mr. Placide appeared as The Great American Sea Serpent. This seems incredible. But I have searched for and found the advertisement in the New York Evening Post, and the facts are stated.

Under Dr. Leopold Damrosch, "Fidelio" was performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in the season of 1884-85; under Anton Seidl, during the season of 1886-87, with Brandt and Niemann as well as with Lehmann and Niemann as Leonore and Florestan.

The 1886-87 representations of "Fidelio," by great artists under a great conductor, are among the most vivid memories of opera-goers so fortunate as to have heard them.

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Renaissance Music
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Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
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