Beethoven's Fidelio

Read this article for an overview of the history and creation of Beethoven's sole operatic work, Fidelio.

In his lifetime, Beethoven wrote one opera, Fidelio. Since its creation, this opera has been a topic of debate in the opera world. Why has this opera been so unpopular? And did the composer plan another operatic work, or did he stop at this? Read this article for an overview of the history and creation of Beethoven's Fidelio.

Beethoven's operatic training can be traced from his early days. During an early apprenticeship in Neefe as a lad, Beethoven was a cymbalist and rehearsal conductor for the Kapellmeister of an operatic house while he was away. After years of service as a court apprentice and church organist, he moved to Vienna for a brief while, and it is suspected that he viewed some operas at this time. Beethoven's work in Vienna probably instilled in his a desire to write a long operatic work in his later years. Under the tutelage of composers such as the Italian Salieri, he probably received information on the Italian bel canto opera style. His association with operatic performers such as Magdalena Willmann, whom he was engaged to in 1794, may also have contributed to his interest in the genre.

Fidelio is based on a story by the French writer Bouilly. Meaning "Conjugal love," it is a tale of redemption and love between a husband and wife. Beethoven chose for his librettist a famous writer of his day named Treitschke. Their collaboration was a good one, and Beethoven credited his librettist several times as being a savior of the work. Beethoven's music in this opera contains an almost Mozart-like quality, and one can see hints of Mozart's recent hit, The Magic Flute, several times in the show. Despite his hard work on this opera, however, it's never been well-received for any long length of time by the public.

When Fidelio premiered in 1805, it was a disaster. The performance took place before a group of French officers who had occupied Vienna a short time before the composition took place, the opera fell flat and there was hardly any applause. Beethoven was convinced to alter the score after this, and the opera was shortened from three acts to two acts. Radical alterations were also made to the choral parts and orchestral score. The composer attempted to show the work again in 1806 , and it was more successful, but a business dispute caused Beethoven to withdraw his work. He did see one success of the work in 1814, eight years later. Fidelio was played at the Kartnertor Theater and conducted by the composer himself. The work received an ovation, but whether this was meant to applaud the work itself or the superior conducting of Beethoven, no one will ever know. Fidelio went on to receive lukewarm success in the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Russia, the Netherlands, France, England, and eventually the United States.

In order to understand Fidelio, one must look at the story. Florestan is imprisoned by his evil enemy, Pizarro. Hearing this news, his lovely wife Lenora dresses herself as a young man, Fidelio, and goes in search of him. In her search, she makes herself the assistant to Florestan's jailer Rocco, and the jailor's daughter falls in love with Lenora, still disguised as Fidelio. The opera ends with the triumph of Lenora through the entrance of the Prince, or the heroic element of the opera, and justice is restored.

This opera contained the themes that Beethoven held most important throughout his life, brotherhood, marital commitment and triumph. Beethoven was a fan of the "Enlightened" outlook, which treasured triumph over injustice as the greatest ideal of man. Fidelio contains a stalwart wife, her noble husband, a Prince and an evil tyrant. It is an adaption of a French Revolution tale, where Jacobin persecutions of noble French lords led to a reign known as the "Terror." Fidelio is a "rescue opera," or an opera that contains a plot of persecution where good triumphs over evil. Given the political turmoil surrounding the opera's time period, it's highly possible that the style of the opera itself could have contributed to its success. It is also important to note that while Fidelio was being written, the composer was going deaf. Beethoven attached a piece of wood inside his piano to aid him in feeling the vibrations of the notes while he played. While this did not affect his work in any detrimental ways, it did lead some critics to view his output with a measure of caution, and this may have contributed to the rocky success of the opera. The opera itself contains exceptional scoring, which allows the viewer to glimpse the extent of his phenomenal talent even with huge impediments.

Fidelio has achieved great success in modern times, considering its rocky start. It's been performed at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera of New York, to name a few. Audiences continue to respond to its heroic plot and beautiful scoring.

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