A Teutonic Struggle

Classic Arts Features   A Teutonic Struggle
The Dallas Opera's music director spotlights Beethoven's Fidelio as one of the greatest operas in the canon.

When one looks at Mozart's manuscripts, there is rarely a smudge, a crossing-out, a wrong note; the Salzburg-born maestro was, with the flick of his quill, able to perfect his craft on crisp sheets of manuscript paper in an effortless flow of brilliance. How different was the struggle for Beethoven in the creation of Fidelio, his only opera.

Fidelio's subject matter is taken from Jean-Nicholas Bouilly's French libretto, Leonore, subtitled The Triumph of Married Love. What is central to the plot is Leonore's determination to rescue her husband, Florestan, from the clutches of his archenemy, Pizarro, the Governor of a royal prison near Seville, Spain. It is Leonore's unwavering devotion to her husband, her remarkable persistence and courage, and the predicament of all the incarcerated political prisoners that make this deeply emotional opera so heartfelt and so difficult to ignore.

The great German conductor Otto Klemperer considered Fidelio to be the natural successor to Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte. In my opinion, post-Fidelio, we may then add Weber's Freischütz and Euryanthe (two operas on my wish list for Dallas), leading up to the masterpieces of Wagner.

Yet Fidelio had to undergo many compositional changes before achieving final form. It began life in three acts at the famous Theater an der Wien (Vienna), on November 20, 1805. Vienna at the time was occupied by French troops, most of Beethoven's followers had left the city, and the opera received only three performances. It was considered overlong, prompting cuts prior to a revival four months later. The version regularly performed these days underwent considerably more restructuring before it finally saw the light of day at the Kärntnertor Theater on May 23, 1814.

Thanks to the surviving sketchbooks, we can see Beethoven's compositional struggle at work.

"In the Leonore sketchbook," says Thayer in his Life of Beethoven, "are copied eighteen different beginnings to Florestan's aria, 'In des Lebens Frühlingstagen,' and ten to the chorus, 'Wer ein holdes Weib.' Inborn genius for musical composition, untiring industry, and the ambition to rival Cherubini in his own field, sufficiently explain the extraordinary merits of this work of Beethoven; want of practice and experience in operatic writing, its defects."

The undisputed truth, made clear by so many magical moments in this opera, is that it is indeed a work of "inborn genius." In Western Classical Music, the nine symphonies of Beethoven are ingrained in our culture. We are able to instantly recall the stirring, pounding, E-flat chords at the start of the "Eroica"; the fate motif at the start of the Fifth Symphony; the restless energy of the Seventh (which Wagner described as the apotheosis of the dance); and finally the great paean of praise in the "Ode to Joy" in the Ninth. Perhaps its gloomy subject matter has prevented Fidelio from receiving the acclaim it surely deserves. Yet is not Leonore's predicament as painful to witness as Violetta's death in Traviata, or Mimí's demise in La bohème? Is not the flame of her devotion as bright and unquenchable as Floria Tosca's?

Here then are a few of my musical highlights from the opera:

For the revision of 1814, Beethoven wrote an entirely new accompanied recitative to Leonore's aria, "Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?" Just let that word "Abscheulicher" ("Monster") roll around on your tongue. The German language is brilliant in its onomatopoeic qualities and, in performance, a great Leonore will bite on the word. The enormous emotional turbulence that burns within Leonore is brilliantly depicted by the swirling strings and the jagged nature of the music. But because of her unwavering love, she will stick to her purpose and rescue her husband, whatever the price. There is a moment of beauty and radiance, expressed in C major, when a rainbow appears amidst the gloom. The music calms into the sustaining warmth of E major, led by three intrepid horn players who need nerves of steel to do justice to this astonishing music.

Another moment of great power is the first time the prisoners are released from the cells. In Harry Kupfer's celebrated production of recent years, all the prisoners moved to center stage with much extraneous chain noise, culminating in a heart-stopping still life in which these forgotten men formed a soundless and motionless tableaux challenging the audience to meet their gaze. Only then did the ensemble raise its collective attention to the pure strands of light penetrating the darkness, as the low B-flat sounded from the celli and double basses, leading into a soft, delicate string passage that had audiences weeping before the members of the chorus had taken their first breaths.

It is a moment of tremendous theatrical impact made still greater by the passage of time. Beethoven's original audiences shared no recollections of the soul-searing newsreel images that exposed the inhumanity and depravity of the Nazi death camps to an incredulous world. It took the horrors of the 20th century to make Beethoven's highly attuned consciousness our own.

At the beginning of Act Two we descend into the subterranean vault that houses Florestan. The depressingly dark and dank environment is echoed in the music‹soft string chords alternating with cries of despair from the woodwinds and then, like some trapped prehistoric monster, the strings themselves seem to writhe in pain and anguish. Florestan has been imprisoned for far too long without trial. He is weak and starving, and senses his approaching death. Florestan's first phrase, "Gott welch Dunkel hier," stabs straight through the heart.

Allow me to once more jump onto my soapbox: This is one of the greatest moments in all of the operatic repertoire, designed to make us consider our system of justice even as it reminds us to give thanks. We have the good fortune to live in a democratic republic where we needn't face the threat of incarceration for living and worshiping as we choose or for expressing unpopular political views. Beethoven's music is infused with outrage over man's injustice and our indifference to the oppression of our fellow men. Florestan's thoughts turn to his wife ("What an angel!") and, in another 1814 revision, a single oboe rises from this pit of despair.

On the point of Florestan's death, Beethoven writes a quartet in which evil confronts good head-on: Pizarro, the vile commandant, leads off with "Er sterbe" ("He dies"), music marked by ugly, venomous stabs of brutality from a cold-blooded murderer hungering for revenge. Then comes the moment when Fidelio reveals herself as Leonore, the prisoner's wife, prepared to die and to take Pizarro with her. At this climactic moment of truth, the signal of the Minister's arrival is sounded by an offstage trumpet. Florestan is saved! Never has a single trumpet fanfare provided such solace to a suffering prisoner.

In the Act Two Finale, when Don Fernando has punished Pizarro and released all the prisoners, Leonore's instrument, the oboe, provides the opening musical breath of the ensemble "O Gott, welch ein Augenblick," echoing the words of Salieri about Mozart's Gran Partita Serenade for Winds from the play Amadeus: "A note on the oboe…It seemed to me I had heard the voice of God."

Time stops. From the ink of Beethoven's quill, via the beauty of the performer's interpretation, to the mute soul of the listener, the genius of the composer weaves its magic. We listen transfixed, breathless, as the music (and the message) intensifies.

I conclude with the words of Thomas Peacock writing in the Examiner in the wake of the first London performance of this work on May 27, 1832:

"Fidelio combined the profoundest harmony with melody that speaks to the soul. It carries to a pitch scarcely conceivable the true musical expressions of the strongest passions and gentlest emotions, in all their shades and contrasts. The playfulness of youthful hope, the heroism of devoted love, the rage of the tyrant, the despair of the captive, the bursting of the sunshine of liberty upon the gloom of the dungeons, which are the great outlines of the feelings successively developed in the opera, are portrayed in music, not merely with truth of expression, as that term might be applied to other works, but with a force and reality that make music an intelligible language, possessing an illimitable power, pouring forth in sound."

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