Article by Michael Tanner

Fidelio is one of the most moving operas in the repertoire, though that isn’t what I have always thought. In fact it is one of the works about which I have had a conversion experience. I mention that because I think the same is true for quite a lot of people. In my case, it was the production which Otto Klemperer both conducted and directed in 1961 at Covent Garden, but I don’t think it needed to be quite so spectacular an occasion as that was. It’s a matter of coming to realise what kind of work it is, what Beethoven is accomplishing in it, which is not necessarily the same as what he was trying to accomplish, and it’s also a matter of imposing a certain kind of discipline on oneself: don’t always be cynical, sceptical about the possibility of freedom, of an improvement in the way things are, even on a relatively grand scale.

Beethoven was himself idealistic, a believer in the possibility of redemptive action, and at the same time, notoriously, a rancorous, litigious man, whose verbal articulateness outside of music was mainly confined to abuse and aggression, a classic case of a lover of mankind and a hater of individuals.

He wrote three major works in which he used words to express his deepest beliefs and hopes: Fidelio, the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony. All three of them invoke transcendental powers, yet it is by no means clear that they are what interested Beethoven most. What was, certainly, most urgent for him was human aspiration: he was desperately eager that people should want their lives, and the lives of human beings in general, to be ampler than they are, whether for internal or external reasons. Famously, he wrote over the ‘Agnus Dei’ section of the Missa “A prayer for inward and outer peace”; Beethoven was a stranger, undoubtedly, to inner peace and he was a fascinated and appalled observer of the violence which tore Western Europe apart during his lifetime, mostly in the form of the Napoleonic Wars, his loathing of Napoleon being all the more intense because Beethoven, in common with many other people, had originally seen him as a liberator, not another power-hungry politician. Beethoven sensed that if people didn’t aspire to some condition which transcends humanity, they are liable to lapse repeatedly into sub-humanity. Yet he was unsure of what it was they should aspire to: not, it seems, to a personal God, such as Christianity is centred upon – hence the rather awkward fit of parts of the Missa. He was, fundamentally, a disciple of the humanistic ideals which had allegedly inspired the French Revolution, but he had seen them collapse. But life without ideals was inconceivable for him. So long as he confined himself to purely instrumental works, whether piano sonatas, string quartets or symphonies, he could dramatise the conflicts which were his deepest experiences in a way that leaves us free to think of them in terms of vague abstract concepts such as Fate, to take the most obvious one. But Fate is hardly something against which one can summon one’s moral resources, and though Beethoven was excited and moved by the thought of working out the conflict between Fate and the tormented individual, he did also have an immense amount of moral energy which needed to be expressed in different terms. In the Ninth Symphony he seems, in the first three movements, to be dealing, in the most profound way, with impersonal and overwhelming forces, while the last movement proposes, for much of its length, a solution in terms of a joy which is closely related to the Brotherhood of Man. Yet some of the most inward and deeply felt passages in that movement are about the God who must (Beethoven’s emphasis) “live above the stars.” What is the connection?

And what, you might ask, is the connection between what I have written so far and the opera Fidelio? It isn’t a straightforward one, but I can’t account for the peculiar greatness and power of Fidelio without seeing that work in relation to Beethoven’s other great word-setting masterpieces. For Fidelio is, though in some ways a movingly direct and simple work, also a strange and complicated one. It seems simple enough: a wicket tyrant has unjustly imprisoned, among others, an enemy who would have exposed his villainy. The prisoner’s wife, uncertain where her husband is, takes work in male disguise as a gaoler’s assistant in order to discover the truth and rescue him. Awkwardly the gaoler’s daughter is all too hoodwinked by the disguise, and falls in love with the woman. In the brief, crucial confrontation the governor storms into the prisoner’s cell to kill him, the wife draws a pistol on him, and providentially at that very moment the Minister of State comes to inspect the prison, the governor is led away and the prisoners all released, and the heroism of the rescuing wife is celebrated by everyone – the sub-title of the opera is “Married Love.”

It is hardly to be expected, in a work of this kind, that all our questions should be answered. We don’t, or shouldn’t ask how it took the Minister so long to come and inspect the prison, or wonder why the woman didn’t go to see him first with her suspicions without embarking on her extraordinarily risky enterprise. Though there is no element of magic in Fidelio as there is in The Magic Flute, which is clearly its inspiration in many respects – the Minister grandly quotes from Sarastro (probably without realising that that is what he is doing), to whom he is in some ways comparable – there are, as in Mozart’s masterpiece, loose or bewildering ends which the tactful listener and spectator will refrain from asking. The drama is effective despite being, in truth, quite ramshackle. That is partly explained by the work’s tortuous history, which doesn’t need recapitulating in detail here, but which involved several librettists at different stages. Beethoven made what he came, rightly, to regard as a botched job of the opera to begin with – and we can easily hear the results on disc and note that every single alteration that he made was an improvement. This was, after all, his first operatic venture, as well as his last. In the first version, which premiered in 1805 as Napoleon’s troops entered Vienna, the subplot, of the gaoler Rocco’s daughter falling for Fidelio and quarrelling with her fiancé Jacquino, is too prominent and re-appears after the drama has shifted onto a loftier plane. There are also far too many repetitions of musical phrases, and an unsure pacing which was partially corrected the next year, but which wasn’t really got right until the composer unwillingly returned to the work years later, and the final version was performed in 1814.

The difficulty Beethoven had with the work can be put down to several factors, but I’d like to air just one here: if you look at the title in relation to the opera it gives some indication of split purposes: for though it is allegedly about Married Love, who can deny that the most moving moment in Fidelio/Leonore’s moral development is when she is helping the gaoler Rocco to dig her husband’s grave, and sings, with a marked intensification of the vocal line, “Whoever you are, I will save you, By God, you shan’t be a victim!” The terms of the drama shift from the feeling of love to that of duty, the sacred and solemn duty to right injustices. Odd: one might have expected to be more moved if the shift had been the other way round, but Beethoven is the master of dealing with great, noble abstractions as the animating force of actions. In fact Leonore is evidently acting from both love and a sense of duty, since the denouement of the action arrives when she shouts at Pizarro “First kill his wife!” There follows a passage which only just avoids the comic, when one character after another exclaims “His wife!” as if it were an episode in a Mozart comic opera. The music continues with enormous impetus, until everyone on both sides of the footlights is brought up short by the trumpet call which announces the arrival of the Minister, but is clearly a manifestation of the Providence which Leonore has been whispering to Florestan to put his trust in, as she does. What, one might ask, would have happened if the Minister hadn’t arrived at precisely the right moment? Leonore is armed with a pistol, Pizarro only with a dagger, so she would surely win. Yet Beethoven felt the imperative need to bring in Divine Providence, in order to evoke a world order in which Goodness triumphs over Evil, but only if there is Someone or Something to ensure that it does. So it turns out that Fidelio is so moving because it answers our vision, or would if we still had one, of a world in which the moral books balance. But they don’t, as we see every moment of every day. What is amazing is the conviction which Beethoven can bring to denying that. Not at all sure, as Bach was, that the good will be rewarded and the evil punished – for that one simply has to believe in an afterlife – Beethoven took to issuing commands to life to sort itself out and satisfy our moral sense. One remembers Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, saying that she once wrote a novel in which “the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” With that single joke Wilde brought the whole simple moral view of art crashing down.

So what are we to say about Fidelio? With the image of Guantanamo Bay always before us, we have to acknowledge the sheer stubbornness of injustice. What may be remarkable about it is the degree to which the whole world has come to tolerate it. The great evil dictators of the past went to considerable lengths to hide their crimes, or lied about them. But Guantanamo, which is surely a very great crime indeed, is not only maintained by the most self-advertising free country the world has ever seen, but is the cause of such weariness to right-thinking people that not much fuss is made about it any longer. President Obama evidently feels no urgency about it, as he did when he came to office last year. Even to raise the subject any longer is to risk seeming a self-righteous bore. Perhaps there are other people who try to forget it, because when they remember it they are so upset that their lives are futilely disordered – and anyway, think of all the other things that there are that are, if not more unjust, still more atrocious examples of long-lasting suffering.

It is against that way of giving oneself peace that Fidelio is still a necessary work. That Beethoven couldn’t face the world’s being as frightful a place as it actually is, and always has been and always will be, is in one way to his credit, and for all its naivete and its gaucheries and its structural flaws and rudimentary psychology, Fidelio can stand as his longest, loudest, most exhilarating protest against giving in to the Pizarros who may conceal their villainy more cunningly than his does, but who have the means to effect far more harm, and don’t hesitate to use them. When you go to a decent performance of Fidelio you emerge exultant, but it’s to be hoped that as you go on thinking about what made you exult, you remember the gulf between the world that Beethoven has depicted, and the one to which you are returning.

Michael Tanner is the opera critic for The Spectator