Major Operas | Fidelio by Ludwig van Beethoven | Early Romantic

Premiered at Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater on 23 May 1814, the final version of Fidelio is a fundamentally different opera from the 1805 original. There is now much less emphasis on the gaoler’s daughter Marzelline and her world of Singspiel domesticity.

Although the fate of Florestan and Leonore remains central, the individual characterization becomes more idealized and stereotyped. The human element is now subordinate to the opera’s moral message; and the prisoners, released from darkness into daylight, become archetypes of oppressed humanity. Fidelio in its final form is above all a celebration of abstract ideals dear to Beethoven: freedom, heroic courage in the face of tyranny, perfect womanhood and the brotherhood of man.

The insistent, emphatic tone of Fidelio’s choral finale, drawing its power from massed forces and sheer reiteration, shows Beethoven’s debt to Cherubini and the composers of the so-called French Revolutionary School. A more pervasive influence on the opera is Mozart, though a movement like the quartet in Act II has a dynamic force unique to Beethoven. The quartet encapsulates the opera’s movement from oppression to liberation, and contains its most thrilling coups, above all the offstage trumpet call that heralds the final denouement. It is strokes like this, together with such moments as Leonore’s aria of hope and resolve ‘Komm, Hoffnung’ (‘Come, Hope’), and the dazed emergence of the prisoners into daylight in the first-act finale, that can make Fidelio the most elementally moving of all operas.

Composed: 1805; rev. 1806, 1814
Premiered: 1805, Vienna (early version)/1814, Vienna (final version)
Libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner (early version)/Friedrich Treitschke (final version), after Jean-Nicolas Bouilly

Act I

In a Seville prison, Marzelline, daughter of Rocco the jailer, rejects the advances of Jacquino, her father’s assistant and porter, whom she had previously agreed to marry. Although feeling pity for Jacquino, Marzelline is smitten by the conscientious new assistant, Fidelio. Fidelio is in reality the noblewoman Leonore; she has disguised herself as a boy and gained employment at the prison in the hope of finding her husband, Florestan, who disappeared two years previously under suspicious circumstances. Knowing that Pizarro, the prison governor, was an enemy of Florestan, she has high hopes of finding him here. Fidelio is understandably disturbed by Marzelline’s affections, especially when Rocco blesses their union, but Leonore sees that she can use it to her advantage.

Leonore asks Rocco whether she can accompany him to the deepest dungeons, where the most closely guarded prisoners are kept. She learns of one prisoner that only Rocco is allowed to see; he has been there for about two years, is near death and is treated harshly by Pizarro. Believing it to be Florestan, Leonore again pleads to assist Rocco on his rounds; the jailer agrees to ask Pizarro.

Pizarro receives news that Don Fernando, the Minister for Justice, is coming to inspect the prison, after hearing reports of unjust imprisonment. Panicking, Pizarro organizes a watch and, paying Rocco, orders him to murder the prisoner. Rocco refuses, but is...

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