Beethoven and Fidelio by Rodney Milnes

Article  by Rodney Milnes

Would you rather you were seeing Beethoven’s Macbeth this evening?  It’s not as far-fetched an idea as it might sound.  We automatically think of Beethoven as a one-opera man, indeed the one opera man.  Can you think of any other great composer who wrote just one opera?  And the more straight-laced music lovers might think of him as perhaps the greatest of all symphonists, a master of concertos, sonatas, chamber music and choral works, who by way of temporary aberration dipped his toe into the murky waters of the theatre, just once, and withdrew it hastily.

After all, opera, like theatre, still isn’t quite respectable, especially opera with spoken dialogue and, worse, with mélodrame – a combination of words and music since redefined as “voice over” and familiar mostly on Broadway and in Hollywood.  But Beethoven was concerned with the theatre all his life, and he took Fidelio very seriously indeed, to the extent of substantially revising it twice before he got it right.

The first version, known for convenience’s sake as Leonore, was premiered under unhappy circumstances in 1805, when Napoleon’s troops were occupying Vienna; the French officers at the Theater an der Wien might have liked the music but probably didn’t understand a word of the libretto.  Beethoven withdrew the score after just three performances.  Nine years and three librettists later came the final version, following a shortened and hastily prepared revival in 1806, which Beethoven tetchily withdrew after just two performances (he was not an easy man).

The 1814 version, which we are hearing this evening, came about almost by public demand: three singers at the Kärntnertor Theatre asked permission to revive the piece, and Beethoven only consented on condition that he could make drastic revisions.  These revisions, he said, were far more arduous than writing a completely new opera, and should have earned him a martyr’s crown.  Yet even the work premiered at the Kärntnertor on 23 May 1814 was not quite the final word: the Fidelio overture was late, and not performed until the second night, and it was the seventh performance (on July 18) before Leonore’s great scena “Abscheulicher” reached its final form.  And for heaven’s sake, he wrote four overtures before he was satisfied. Oh yes, Beethoven took Fidelio very seriously indeed.

And why should he not have done?  Fidelio was no temporary aberration: opera was always part of his life.  His father had been a singer in Bonn and he himself played the viola and the harpsichord in the theatre there.  And how could he have lived in Vienna for 35 years without being drawn into the operatic world, then as now part of the capital’s way of life?  And drawn he was.  In 1803 Schikaneder, the librettist, impresario and director of The Magic Flute, commissioned an opera from Beethoven for the Theater an der Wien, and gave him a workroom on the premises.  The composer found Schikaneder’s own libretto (Vestas Feuer) impossible and the accommodation too noisy (opera houses tend not to be oases of peace and quiet).  He abandoned Vestas Feuer after the first scene, but one number became the “Namenlose Freude” duet in Fidelio.

After the cool reception of Leonore in 1805, Beethoven wrote to the Imperial Opera suggesting that he should be contracted to write an opera a year on a fixed salary; this bizarre proposal was turned down, thankfully – heaven knows how much symphonic and instrumental music might have been lost to posterity.  In 1808 he became involved with the playwright Heinrich von Collin, and wrote the magnificent overture to his play Coriolan.  Collin supplied him with the first act, at least, of the Macbeth libretto mentioned above. Beethoven toyed with ideas for the overture and the opening chorus of witches, but ran out of steam when Collin died.  He hovered so long over Collin’s libretto Bradamante that he lost it to Reichardt (rather a good composer, incidentally).  Beethoven also considered Scott’s Kenilworth, a treatment of the Return of Ulysses, whose theme of marital fidelity would have chimed more harmoniously with Fidelio than Macbeth, and a project entitled The Arrival of the Pennsylvanians in America, which doesn’t sound like a sure-fire box-office attraction.He wrote the wonderful incidental music for Goethe’s Egmont, and far more of it than just the overture demands to be heard, especially the blazing mélodrame finale that anticipates Fidelio and the Ninth Symphony in its revolutionary fervour.  Following this there were plans for Faust, but he and Goethe didn’t get on.  This must be one of musical history’s greatest might-have-beens.  Beethoven nearly collaborated with the playwright Franz Grillparzer, who completed a Melusine libretto for him, but the composer felt it would be too similar to Hoffmann’s enormously popular Undine, and didn’t proceed.  And don’t forget the fine ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. All of which suggests, if not confirms, that Beethoven was no amateur when it came to writing for the theatre, but he was also extremely fastidious.  Nothing but the best would do.

The best turned out to be what he called “an old French libretto” by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly for Léonore, ou l’Amour, which had originally been set in Paris by Pierre Gaveaux in 1798. Bouilly maintained that the plot was based on a true incident in the Reign of Terror in Tours, where he had been a government official; he changed the setting to Spain to protect the identity of the original Leonore.  (Se non è vero, è ben trovato.)

Significantly, Bouilly was also the librettist of Cherubini’s Les Deux Journées, which enjoyed great success in Vienna and was inordinately admired by Beethoven – rightly, as it is a little masterpiece of suspense.  The “two days” describe two escapes by a persecuted Florestan-style nobleman; in the first he is smuggled out of the city in an empty water barrel.  The true hero is the water-carrier Mikeli, a simple man motivated by compassion, philanthropy and the pursuit of natural justice, qualities previously associated with privileged and educated folk.  But class barriers were crashing down all over Europe.  Beethoven kept a copy of the score, which was known in Vienna as “The Water-Carrier”, in his study.

Josef Sonnleithner, first of the three librettists, translated Bouilly for Beethoven, and supplied more opportunities for music (in the original, Pizarro is only a speaking role).  Two other composers were to set Bouilly, Ferdinando Paer and Giovanni Simone Mayr, and it was to avoid confusion with the former’s Leonore that Beethoven was unwillingly obliged to use the title Fidelio, though he always preferred the original – the opera, after all, is “about” Leonore.  So Bouilly’s was a subject for its time, a time that relished suspense in the theatre and a time that in the wake of the French Revolution saw a whole series of “rescue operas”, from Grétry’s Richard, Coeur de Lion via Cherubini’s Lodoïska and Faniska through to the three settings of Leonore/Fidelio.  Contrary to received opinion, incidentally, the plots were nearly always what might be described as “counter-revolutionary”, with aristos being persecuted by uppity state functionaries, but no matter: they celebrated the triumph of justice and the brotherhood of man.

Fidelio failed in 1805. Librettist number two, Stephan von Breuning, fashioned the none-too-drastic revisions for the 1806 revival, dividing the piece into two rather than three acts.  It also failed.  The revisions for the 1814 revival by Beethoven himself and the third librettist, Georg Friedrich Treitschke, were far more thoroughgoing.  The work was once more restructured in two acts, Leonore’s and Florestan’s big arias were re-worked again and again, and the two finales newly composed.  And musical numbers were cut, regrettably so on musical though not on dramatic grounds.

This was largely a matter of striking the right balance between the homely, domestic background, the Singspiel element, and the main heroic action.  Some people have worried about the near-operetta quality of, say, Rocco’s Gold aria, coming as it does so soon after the sublime quartet, “Mir ist so wunderbar”.  Wieland Wagner evidently thought it was some sort of mistake on Beethoven’s part, and simply cut it in his famous epic production.  But that is surely to miss the point: the homely and the heroic, the everyday and the exceptional, co-exist in real life, and much of the power of Fidelio derives from the way heroism flowers from such commonplace soil.  Be that as it may, the charming duet in which Marzelline and “Fidelio”, like Papagena and Papagena, plan their family had to go.  We need not regret this too much at a time when the original Leonore has been performed and recorded.

Beethoven’s score needs neither commendation nor commentary, and it would be impertinent to supply either.  The music speaks directly to audiences from the very first number, the duet for Marzelline and Jacquino in which a symphonist’s natural command of counterpoint is fully evident yet never thrust down the listener’s throat, if such a thing be anatomically feasible.  But he worked and worked at it.  There are no less than eighteen sketches for Florestan’s aria at the start of the second act.  I must defend Pizarro’s solo, which some have seen as merely a conventional revenge aria of its time and in the conventional key of D minor, but I would like to know of one other that exudes just half the hissing venom of Beethoven’s.  And there is the subtext of Pizarro having to psych himself up for the deed; he’s had his worst enemy in solitary confinement for two whole years, and done nothing about it.  You could argue that, as villains go, he’s wringing wet.  And there’s one number, unchanged in all three versions, that deserves mention: the sinister little march that introduces Pizarro.  Its sinister quality derives from the fact that without looking at the score you can’t tell on which beat of the bar it starts.  It’s an out-of-step march, as wonky as Pizarro himself.  Has any other operatic villain had his villainy suggested in so economically unsettling a fashion?

But maybe the many-handed libretto does need commendation.  It is customary to view the librettos of operas with spoken dialogue as careless, third-rate hackwork, almost on principle.  Thus did – and often still does – received opinion rate The Magic Flute, Der Freischütz, Fidelio and even Carmen.  All four are in fact masterpieces of the genre, structured with great care and unobtrusive theatrical skill.  The Fidelio libretto is written with extraordinary economy, forthright characterisation and crisp syntax.  It is studded with simple eternal truths as stirring as those in the Flute.Above all it makes the most of the opéra-comique or spoken-dialogue form, justifies it single-handedly, in isolating those moments when words are no longer enough and music has to take over the burden of communication.  Just two examples: Rocco’s line to Leonore “do you think I can’t see into your heart?”, which of course he can’t, he doesn’t even know she’s a woman.  Leonore is naturally speechless, the music of the canon quartet steals in, and the heart of each member of the audience misses a beat.  Or in the dungeon scene, when Leonore pleads for Florestan and even Rocco is moved by his voice: “yes, it pierces to the very depth of your heart”.  Only music can cap that, and it does with the introduction of “Euch werde Lohn”.  Leonore pleads to be allowed to give the prisoner some refreshment, and does so: bread and wine.  Nothing is stated, it’s almost a throwaway event, but a woman administering the sacraments, now there’s something to think about in terms of the early 19th century.

The text is full of ironies and parallels.  The greatest danger for Leonore is that she will be unmasked as an impostor, but she has to use her masculine guise to ingratiate herself with Marzelline and, as Rocco’s prospective son-in-law, win his trust and be allowed down into the dungeons.  She is already under suspicion, with Jacquino noticing that she seems a “cut above” the rest of them and referring to “him” sarcastically as the “young master”, and with Rocco noticing “his” smooth skin and delicate hands.  Without wanting to get enmeshed in unacceptable stereotyping, it is Leonore’s feminine skills that make her so good at her temporary job: she excites Rocco’s admiration by buying equipment for the gaol at more favourable prices than he ever did, and by being a dab hand at accounts.

Rocco, the man who carries out orders and knows it is best not to ask too many questions, is the one character who resonates most fiercely today.  Yes, he’s “Father Rocco”, the cosy old buffer, a very ordinary man helping to run a very ordinary prison. The gold he recommends as essential for a happy marriage – Beethoven was absolutely right to restore Rocco’s aria in the final version – will be won as payment for assisting in the committal of cold-blooded murder.  His conscience is wonderfully flexible. In the flesh-creepingly sinister duet with Pizarro he refuses to strike the fatal blow, even for ready money, but his conscience allows him to starve Florestan to the point of death, unctuously to regard his murder as a happy release, and help dig his grave.

There are interesting differences in how Rocco reacts to the trumpet call between the 1805 and 1814 versions.  In 1805 he seizes Leonore’s pistol and follows Pizarro out, presumably to see which side is winning before deciding how to act.  Leonore faints, but recovers in time to sing the “Namenlose Freude” duet.  There is no scene change, Fernando and the populace enter the prison cell, and Rocco comes down off the fence, contemptuously flinging the two bags of gold at Pizarro’s feet.  Of course he never intended to go through with it, ‘onest, guv.In 1814, the trumpet call elicits a “God be praised!” from him, hardly prepared for by his profoundly equivocal behaviour up to that point. He leaves Leonore with her pistol, rushes out with Pizarro, and returns in triumph (this stretch of dialogue is often cut, and shouldn’t be) with the news that Florestan’s name wasn’t on the official list of prisoners and so was never under his, Rocco’s, jurisdiction. Nothing to do with me, guv’.And in the finale he manages to associate himself so closely with Leonore that not even Pizarro succeeds in pointing the finger of, if not guilt, then at least collusion at him.  Oh, and he keeps the gold.  What a character, painted with boundless subtlety by the librettists.

There is one other supremely stirring moment in the opera.  In all three versions, Leonore is so moved by the starving and as yet unrecognised prisoner at her feet that she sings, in the grave-digging duet, “Whoever you, I will save you, you will not fall a victim”.  At that moment, the particular is transmuted into the universal, Leonore’s quest for her missing husband becomes something bigger, a quest to seek justice for all mankind.  This is what Beethoven intended, to celebrate the extraordinary courage, the determination of one woman to change the world.  Some hard-nosed directors have found this slightly embarrassing, if not distasteful.  I remember a production in which Leonore’s moment of triumph in the finale, “O Gott, o welch’ ein Augenblick”, was purposefully upstaged by an elaborate tableau of prisoners waving their chains at the audience, and another in which the finale was some kind of childish dream and the final image was of Leonore’s and Florestan’s coffins.  Yes, yes, we all know that, but is Beethoven not to be allowed to inspire us with a vision of how the world might be, one day, not awfully soon on current evidence?

Fidelio has taken on extra baggage in the half century since the end of the second world war.  It was nearly always the work chosen to re-open the bombed opera houses of Europe, and had to be a Grand Statement.  It became the custom to cast Leonore with powerful dramatic sopranos, Valkyries who could gobble up two Pizarros for breakfast, and queues of Wagnerian Heldentenors sang Florestan, often with excruciating results (a strong Tamino is a better idea).  But the Theater an der Wien was a small theatre, holding just over 1,000, and the Kärntnertor no larger.  Fidelio, its roots firmly in opéra-comique, is not a Grand Opera.  It doesn’t need a huge orchestra, indeed positively benefits from a modest-sized band via whose playing the vibrant colours of Beethoven’s orchestration can make their full impact.  It is no coincidence that the three best productions I have seen have all been at Glyndebourne.  It seems to me a work admirably suited to the unpretentious and comparatively intimate setting of Holland Park.