A Mass Made Operatic: Fidelio

When I look back across my entire life, I find no event to place beside this in the impression it produced on me.

Richard Wagner, on Fidelio

In 1950, one of the greatest conductors of all-time, Wilhelm Furtwängler led a production of Beethoven’s lone operatic effort, Fidelio, in Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg. And what a cast too, led by Kirsten Flagstad as the heroine Leonora and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as the jailkeeper’s daughter who falls in love with her. Say what?

Yes, that’s not a typo. The plot of Fidelio is among the silliest this genre has to offer–and that’s saying quite a lot. The opera centers on a heroine, Leonora, whose husband, Florestan, is being held prisoner by his political enemy, the despotic Don Pizarro. Leonora disgues herself as a young man named Fidelio and obtains a job at the prison, determined to rescue her husband. The prison warden, Rocco, has a young daughter, Marcellina, who throws over her suitor, Jaquino, because she has fallen in love with Leonora. Rocco, despite being a pretty decent guy, is starving Florestan on the orders of Don Pizarro. But when Don Pizarro learns that his prison is to be inspected, he decides to kill Florestan himself and gives the order to dig a grave. Leonora, disguised as Fidelio, overhears the plan and asks Rocco to accompany him to Florestan’s cell. The second act opens in Florestan’s cell. Although Florestan has just sung an aria about Leonora coming to save him, he does not recognize his wife when she in fact arrives to save him. Rocco and “Fidelio” begin digging the grave. When Pizarro enters to do the deed, Leonora springs forward, pulls out a pistol and reveals her true identity. At that moment, the governor arrives and Rocco confesses everything. Pizarro is arrested, the prisoners are freed, and they join Florestan and Leonora in a joyful celebration as the curtain falls. (Somewhere along the way, Marcellina learns that her Fidelio is acutally a woman, but for the life of me I can’t recall how that works out.)

Again, say what? The greatest composer in Europe, the composer of six mighty symphonies to date that changed the musical landscape forever, the composer of piano sonatas of such emotional depth they have inspired composers nearly 200 years after his death, the composer who would go on to write music of such transcendental beauty that we have only begun to really wrestle with them . . . this is the opera he produced? What was he thinking?

Well, in the first instance, let’s take a look at Beethoven’s operatic history. As a young man, Beethoven played viola in the Bonn opera company, so he was very familiar with the genre. His favorite opera composer was, surprisingly, not Mozart or Rossini, but rather Cherubini. Despite the fact that Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner and Brahams all held Cherubini to be among the first rank of opera composers (if not the “greatest living composer” as Beethoven wrote to him), his 35(!) operas are rarely performed today. That said, the Metropolitan Opera is putting on a production of Medea this fall, which will give New York audiences a rare opportunity to hear, firsthand, the man Wagner called the “greatest of musical architects.”

Beethoven admired Cherubini as much for the music in his operas as the morals of his librettos. That’s clue number one. Beethoven’s perference for The Magic Flute over either Don Giovanni or The Marriage of Figaro is another. Dismissing Don Giovanni and Figaro as frivolous, Beethoven embraced what for many is the silliest of Mozart’s operatic output. Beethoven didn’t really care about the plot–he cared only about the theme, the triumph of true love against all odds. He was a cuddly romantic after all.

So why this story? We know that the libretto was based on a French “rescue” play by Jean Nicholas Bouilly called Léonore ou L’amour congugal, which the author claimed was based on actual historical events during the Reign of Terror. French composer Pierre Gaveaux had turned the play into an opera, which had apparently made its way into Beethoven’s hands. Not only did Beethoven take the plot from Gaveaux’s opera, he also cribbed many of the themes and details from Gaveaux’s instrumentation. Beethoven also liberally borrowed from the various operatic traditions, melding the dialogue of German singspiel with the dramatic arias of opera seria and the grand finale of opera buffa. Which is to say, the resulting opera is a bit of a mess.

Much has been read into this opera. Beethoven was clearly attracted to the theme of a rescue from political tyranny, as we find that inspiration dotted throughout his work of his second period. Others suggest that Beethoven connected with Florestan’s plight–the prison serving as a metaphor for Beethoven’s deafness. Others suggest that Florestan’s dreams of being rescued by Leonora (a somewhat preposterous notion) reflected Beethoven’s own fruitless search for love. And yet I focus on a different element–Florestan’s rescue after taking communion in the form of bread and wine. Is this an allegory for salvation? Well, I’m not alone in thinking so. Very much still in the shadow of WWII and Nazi Germany, Furthwängler wrote:

Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician for the theater, or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary. That which disturbs us is not a material effect, nor the fact of the ‘imprisonment’; any film could create the same effect. No, it is the music, it is Beethoven himself. It is this ‘nostalgia of liberty’ he feels, or better, makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears. His Fidelio has more of the Mass than of the Opera to it; the sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a ‘religion of humanity’, which we never found so beautiful, or necessary as we do today, after all we have lived through. Herein lies the singular power of this unique opera…. Independent of any historical consideration … the flaming message of Fidelio touches deeply. We realize that for us Europeans, as for all men, this music will always represent an appeal to our conscience.

Wilhelm Furtwängler

Why does Fidelio stirs such emotions in us? Well, it certainly isn’t the plot: When Gaveaux turned the play into an opera, he chose to make it a comedy. Furtwängler hits the nail on the head–it’s Beethoven, always Beethoven and his incomparable music.

So let’s turn to the music. The first act is largely forgettable. There is a much admired quartet (Leonora, Jacquino, Marcellina and Rooco) and a good aria or two, but the real meat comes in Act II. In the last production I saw at the Metropolitan Opera, the second act opens in absolute darkness–I have never seen the Met stage so completely black. The prelude that introduces the scene is some of the greatest music Beethoven ever wrote. This is a composer who can effortlessly pull on your emotional strings at will; here, he pulls on all of them at once. All of those innovations we heard in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies are present here–Beethoven’s use of repetitive use of rhythmic motifs, dramatic dynanimsm, powerful brass, and perhaps most notably, music that turns on a tritone (A-E flat). We feel it all. Despair as well as hope; anguish as well as elation. Before Florestan even opens his mouth, we’ve been transported into Florestan’s soul–his aria confirms what we already know: This is a man at the literal end of his rope. There are other great moments as well. The Leonora-Florestan-Rocco scene in which Rocco realizes the great injustice he is helping to facilitate. And the moment just after Leonora pulls her gun on Pizarro — “one more step and you’re dead” — the music suddenly falls away, as if Leonora was threatening the orchestra too. Silence, as ever in Beethoven, provides much of the dramatic tension.

But then we get the finale–a pedantic oratorio on the joys of matrital fidelity. Sure, the music is great and Beethoven cranks up the emotion-machine to 11 here, but the messaging is all wrong. In many ways, Beethoven finally found the finale he was looking for at the end of his Ninth Symphony.

Contemporary audiences hated the opera. And Beethoven, supremely frustrated by the process of composing opera, never finished another. Interestingly, Fidelio was neither Beethoven’s first attempt at writing an opera–an abandoned effort called Vestas Feuer was abandoned in 1803 (some of the music found its way into Fidelio)–nor his last. Beethoven tantalizing planned to write an opera based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but his librettist Joseph von Collin died in 1811 before completing the libretto and Beethoven never found a substitute.

Over the centuries, Fidelio has tapped into our need to express our desire for liberty, perhaps like no other work of art. In 1814, a much revised version was premiered to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat. In 1933, the great Arturo Toscanni left Nazi-occupied Baytheuth to conduct Fidelio in Salzburg to protest Hitler and his regime. In 1941, a cast of European refugees again turned to Fidelio to mount a protest performance, this time at the Metropolitan Opera. And when the Vienna State Opera reopened, it was Fidelio on the bill. More recently, a small opera company in New York used Fidelio to examine the injustices that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Fidelio isn’t an opera–it is the greatest hymn to liberty that we have.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Fidelio, Op. 72:

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