Looking back on musical history it seems strange to us today that Beethoven, widely recognised as the pre-eminent composer of his time, only managed to write one opera. And that was after two unsatisfactory trials and much revision. As the son of a singer and grandson of a former Kapellmeister, Beethoven must have become familiar as a boy with theatrical repertoire. Aged twelve, his teacher Neefe employed him as his deputy in rehearsals of theatre music. In later years, in Bonn, he became familiar with a wide operatic repertoire, further extended by the variety of works that he heard in Vienna, after he had settled there in 1792.
In both Bonn and Vienna Beethoven contributed music for theatrical productions. Typically, he provided a score in Vienna for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and wrote arias for use in operas by other composers. However it was not until 1803 that he started work on what was to be his only opera. Fidelio based on a French play Leonora, or Conjugal love of 1798. Other composers set the play as an opera. In that form it was a success in Paris and there was a German version by Paer in Dresden in 1804. The story is that of a typical rescue opera, owing much to an incident in the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
The translator of the German version was given the job of director of the Theater-an-der-Wien, replacing the actor-manager Emanuel Schikaneder, author of the libretto of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. In accordance with terms agreed with Schikaneder, Beethoven occupied rooms at the theatre. These were at the very advantageous rate of free lodging during the composition and ten per cent of the box office proceeds from the first ten performances. The new lessee of the theatre renewed this arrangement. The first sketches of Leonore, his favourite title, date from 1803 and are contemporaneous with the Eroica symphony.
Beethoven worked assiduously and meticulously throughout 1804 and 1805 making many sketches including eighteen for Florestan’s first aria. To avoid confusion with Paer’s opera, Beethoven's was given under the title Fidelio. Blighted by poor casting and the invasion of Vienna by Napoleon shortly before the work was premiered in November 1805, it was greeted poorly by a sparse audience. Beethoven withdrew it after three performances.
Friends encouraged Beethoven to shorten the work with a revised libretto and two acts instead of three. This revision was performed at the end of March 1806, this time with the third of the Leonore overtures, now best known in concert performance. It was then withdrawn, apparently through Beethoven's dissatisfaction either with the performance or the financial results after two performances. When Beethoven published music from the opera himself, he used his preferred title of Leonore.
It was not until 1814, after further revision and changes in the libretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke, an actor who had quickly risen in 1802 to the position of poet and stage-manager of the German Court Theatre, that Fidelio was again staged in Vienna. The Fidelio overture was not ready for the first performance on 23 May 1814 but was available for the second performance, three days later. It is in this final revision, with the new overture, that the opera Fidelio, as it is now known, was premiered. Leonore overture number three is often given as an introduction to the second act, or, as here, to divide act two.
In the opera, the name ‘Fidelio’ is assumed by the heroine, Leonore, who disguises herself as a boy. In that identity she takes employment under the gaoler Rocco in the prison where her husband Florestan is kept by his enemy, the prison governor Don Pizarro. She is able to rescue her husband from imminent death as trumpets announce the arrival of the King’s Governor. Leonore and her husband get their freedom whilst Don Pizarro gets his due, in this case a shot is heard off-stage after he has been lead away with a hood over his head.
Given the vitality of the symphonies that had flowed from Beethoven’s pen during the protracted period of the composition of Fidelio, particularly the vibrant Seventh in 1813, it is something of a disappointment that Bernard Haitink’s interpretation is so languid in his conducting of such a dramatic work. It lacks the bite, dynamism and tonal weight that I find in other versions on record, particularly that of Klemperer (EMI) and Halàsz (Naxos) let alone Bernstein’s account. Thinking of Carlos Kleiber’s brilliantly vibrant conducting of the Seventh Symphony on CD (DG), with its overtones of Fidelio, this is a particular cause for regret.
Whilst Ezio Toffolutti’s stage design is fairly traditional, with imaginative touches, the costumes are a mish-mash. They could be setting the work anytime between 1870 and 1930. Particularly incongruous is that for Don Pizzaro in white suit and trilby as he goes round whistling. Add his facial contortions as Pizarro expresses his hatreds and bile, complete with bulging eyes, he looks more like a spiv or pantomime villain than anything else. In this role Lucio Gallo lacks the ideal tonal weight and bite to make a truly fearsome Pizarro. Melanie Diener as Fidelio also lacks the substance for the Abscheulicher (Chs.11-12). She sings adequately if without much depth of characterisation. A tall woman, she acts convincingly, except learning how to walk like a man, and reveals herself as a woman to Pizarro by tearing open her tunic to reveal naked female breasts; soft porn reaches opera! When she does undo her hair, the traditional manner of Fidelio revealing she is Leonore, Florestan’s wife, her long hair has a more revealing impact (double entendre intended). As Florestan, whilst not exactly looking like a starving man near to death, Roberto Sacca has the virtue of not looking grossly overfed as too many interpreters do. The trouble is that for this dramatic role a bigger voice is ideally needed. His is a more lyrical interpretation realised with good tone and expression making Florestan’s dire situation, before his wife’s intervention, more believable (Ch.17). As Rocco, Alfred Muff lacks impact (Ch.6). His is a bland interpretation and he fails to convey Rocco’s abject fear of Pizarro as well as his vacillating nature. As the young lovers, Sandra Trattnigg as Marzelline is suitably light of tone (Ch.4) whilst Christoph Strehl is convincing as the insistent Jaquino. The director’s touch of having Marzelline looking bereft and alone at the front of the stage at the otherwise happy conclusion is appropriate and pointed. As the Provincial Governor Krezimir Strazanac looks far too young and his voice whilst promising is just that.
The accompanying booklet has a topical essay titled A Timeless Message in English, French and German.
Robert J Farr