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8.557892 - BEETHOVEN: Fidelio, Op. 72 (Highlights)
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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Fidelio (Highlights)

The son of a singer and grandson of a former Kapellmeister in the service of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne at his court in Bonn, Beethoven became familiar, even as a boy, with theatrical repertoire. In 1782 his teacher Neefe used him as his deputy, employed in rehearsals of theatre music. In subsequent 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 Bonn Beethoven had contributed music for Count Waldstein’s Ritterballett of 1791. Ten years later he provided a score in Vienna for the ballet Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) by Salvatore Viganò. Although he wrote arias for use in operas by other composers, it was not until 1804 that he started work on what was to be his only opera, Fidelio. In 1798 the French writer Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s Léonore, ou L’amour conjugale (Leonora, or Conjugal Love) had been staged with music by the singer and composer Pierre Gaveaux. The plot was topical, dealing as it did, with unjust imprisonment and the rescue of a prisoner through the bravery of his loyal wife. The opera enjoyed success in Paris, and a similar reception was accorded Ferdinando Paër’s Italian version staged in Dresden in 1804. Bouilly’s libretto was translated into German by Joseph von Sonnleithner, who was appointed Secretary to the Court Theatre in February 1804 and had been given the temporary position of director of the Theater-an-der-Wien, replacing the actor-manager Emanuel Schikaneder, author of the libretto of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). In accordance with terms agreed with Schikaneder, Beethoven had occupied rooms at the theatre and this arrangement was renewed with Baron von Braun, the new lessee. The choice of libretto was undoubtedly influenced by the success in Vienna of Cherubini’s opera Les deux journées (The Two Days), known in English as The Water Carrier, again based on a libretto by Bouilly, a ‘rescue’ opera suggested by an incident in the French revolutionary Reign of Terror.

Beethoven’s opera, under the title Fidelio, insisted on by the theatre to avoid confusion with the Léonore of Gaveaux or the Leonora of Paër, was staged with limited success in Vienna in November 1805, introduced by the second of the four different overtures eventually written for the work. There were only three performances of this first version, mounted at a time when Vienna was occupied by the French and many of the composer’s supporters had taken refuge elsewhere. Beethoven was induced to shorten the opera, with a libretto now revised by Stephan von Breuning. This version was staged the following year on 29th March and 10th April, this time with the third of the Leonore overtures, the best known in concert performance. It was then withdrawn, apparently through Beethoven’s dissatisfaction either with the performance or the financial results. 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 stagemanager of the German Court Theatre, that Fidelio was again staged in Vienna. The Fidelio overture was not ready for the first performance on 23rd May but was available for the second performance, three days later. It is in this final revision, with the new overture, that the opera Fidelio is now generally known.

In the opera the name Fidelio is assumed by the heroine, Leonore, who disguises herself as a boy and 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 higher authority, to give Don Pizarro his due and allow Leonore and her husband their freedom together.

Keith Anderson

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