BEETHOVEN: Fidelio, Op. 72
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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
The son of a singer and grandson of a formerKapellmeister in the service of the Archbishop-Electorof Cologne at his court in Bonn, Beethoven becamefamiliar, even as a boy, with theatrical repertoire. In1782 his teacher Neefe used him as his deputy,employed in rehearsals of theatre music. In subsequentyears in Bonn he became familiar with a wide operaticrepertoire, further extended by the variety of works thathe heard in Vienna, after he had settled there in 1792.
In Bonn Beethoven had contributed music for CountWaldstein's Ritterballett of 1791. Ten years later heprovided a score in Vienna for the ballet Die Geschopfedes Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) bySalvatore Vigan??. Although he wrote arias for use inoperas by other composers, it was not until 1804 that hestarted work on what was to be his only opera, Fidelio.
In 1798 the French writer Jean-Nicolas Bouilly'sLeonore, ou L'amour conjugale (Leonora, or ConjugalLove) had been staged with music by the singer andcomposer Pierre Gaveaux. The plot was topical, dealingas it did, with unjust imprisonment and the rescue of aprisoner through the bravery of his loyal wife. The operaenjoyed success in Paris, and a similar reception wasaccorded Ferdinando Pa?½r's Italian version staged inDresden in 1804. Bouilly's libretto was translated intoGerman by Joseph von Sonnleithner, who was appointedSecretary to the Court Theatre in February 1804 and hadbeen given the temporary position of director of theTheater-an-der-Wien, replacing the actor-managerEmanuel Schikaneder, author of the libretto of Mozart'sDie Zauberflote (The Magic Flute). In accordance withterms agreed with Schikaneder, Beethoven had occupiedrooms at the theatre and this arrangement was renewedwith Baron von Braun, the new lessee. The choice oflibretto was undoubtedly influenced by the success inVienna of Cherubini's opera Les deux journees (TheTwo Days), known in English as The Water Carrier,again based on a libretto by Bouilly, a 'rescue' operasuggested by an incident in the French revolutionaryReign of Terror.
Beethoven's opera, under the title Fidelio, insistedon by the theatre to avoid confusion with the Leonore ofGaveaux or the Leonora of Pa?½r, was staged with limitedsuccess in Vienna in November 1805, introduced by thesecond of the four different overtures eventually writtenfor the work. There were only three performances of thisfirst version, mounted at a time when Vienna wasoccupied by the French and many of the composer'ssupporters had taken refuge elsewhere. Beethoven wasinduced to shorten the opera, with a libretto now revisedby Stephan von Breuning. This version was staged thefollowing year on 29th March and 10th April, this timewith the third of the Leonore overtures, the best knownin concert performance. It was then withdrawn,apparently through Beethoven's dissatisfaction eitherwith the performance or the financial results. It was notuntil 1814, after further revision and changes in thelibretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke, an actor who hadquickly risen in 1802 to the position of poet and stagemanagerof the German Court Theatre, that Fidelio wasagain staged in Vienna. The Fidelio overture was notready for the first performance on 23rd May but wasavailable for the second performance, three days later. Itis in this final revision, with the new overture, that theopera Fidelio is now generally known.
In the opera the name Fidelio is assumed by theheroine, Leonore, who disguises herself as a boy andtakes employment under the gaoler Rocco in the prisonwhere her husband Florestan is kept by his enemy, theprison governor Don Pizarro. She is able to rescue herhusband from imminent death, as trumpets announce thearrival of higher authority, to give Don Pizarro his dueand allow Leonore and her husband their freedomtogether.Keith Anderson