When a man rescues his husband: Beethoven’s Fidelio at Utah Opera

07 Oct

This Saturday October 8th, the Utah Opera company unveils its 33rd season with Beethoven’s one and only opera Fidelio. This unique work, a cornerstone in both Beethoven’s canon and Western music, is sufficient draw to make your friends at take a weekend trip to beautiful Salt Lake City. The promising cast does not hurt either. Utah Opera’s line up includes Brenda Harris in the title role, Corey Bix as Florestan, Mark Schnaible as Pizarro, Gustav Andreassen as Rocco, Peter Tantsits as Jaquino and Shannon Kessler Dooley as Marzelline. Richard Buckley conducts. As we pack our essentials before heading to the airport in a couple of hours, we thought it wise to gather a few thoughts on Fidelio.

Detail of an 1804 portrait by Joseph Willibrod Mähler, around the time he was stressing over Fidelio

The genesis of the opera can be traced back to the following note published on the pages of Die Zeitung fur die elegante Welt on June 29, 1803 “Beethoven is composing an opera by Schikaneder”. Said Emanuel Schikaneder was also the producer and writer of the libretto for Mozart’s Die Zauberflote, who also debuted the role of Papageno back in 1781. Only the year before, in 1802, a major shift in musical trend had besieged Vienna. The great musical capital had begun to demand an alternative to the fairy tale pantomimes and magical peagantry presented in its popular music venues, and when Schikaneder presented Cherubini’s Lodoiska at the Theater an der Wien in March of that year, the public recognized what it had been looking for. Soon, the operas of Cherubini, and others associated with the French Revolution style, had overtaken the musical reigns of Vienna. As far as Beethoven was concerned, he would not have had it any other way. A great admirer of the operatic compositions of Cherubini and Etienne Mehul, Beethoven hoped to write his own work for the lyric stage in similar fashion, and the arrival of this more serious brand of music making would surely set the stage for his intensions. While Schikaneder’s commission opened the doors to this project, the initial assignment concerned one of the impresario’s own pieces entitled: “Vestas Feuer”, which Beethoven quickly dismiss as insufferable. As late as November of 1802, Beethoven set his sights to a different subject, one which had already been set to music by such luminaries as Pierre Gaveaux, Ferdinand Paer, and Simone Mayr, and matched his political and Kantian philosophical proclivities: Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s “Leonore, ou L’amour conjugal”. Beethoven was spared the inevitable confrontation with Schikaneder when the management of the Theater an der Wien switched hands to the Baron von Braun in 1804. Free to pursue his muse, Beethoven wrote to his librettist Joseph Sonnleithner, rushing the poet so that the opera could be made ready by June, but progress was inexplicably delayed until 1805 when the opera, titled Fidelio was scheduled to premiere in October with a cast that would include Friedrich Christian Demmer as Florestan, Anna Milder as Leonore, Sebastian Mayer as Don Pizarro, Louise Muller as Marzelline, and Rothe as Rocco. Here the fate of the work took a left turn when the censors delayed the premiere until November 20th, not a substantial setback at first glance until one realizes that the French army marched into Vienna 7 days earlier. The opening night cast found itself performing to an audience comprised of soldiers of the French army, and needless to say, the reception was not enthusiastic. Rather then blaming the opera’s failure on the military occupation, Beethoven reworked the opera with the help of Stephen von Breuning to rid the score of some inherent shortcomings. They condensed the work from three to two acts, and introduced a new, majestic overture which is known nowadays as “Leonore No. 3”. This new version was enthusiastically received on March 20, 1806, but disagreements with the theater management culminated in Fidelio’s early withdrawal, and Beethoven shelved the work for the next seven years until relations with von Braun improved. The opera was once again revamped with the assistant of the librettist Georg Friedrich Treitschke, and this third version premiered in May 23, 1814 at the Kartnertortheater with the talents of Giulio Radichi as Florestan, Anna Milder as Leonore, Carl Friedrich Weinmuller as Rocco, Theresa Bondra as Marzelline and Johann Michael Vogl as Don Pizarro. For this occasion, Beethoven wrote a new overture yet again, which remains the piece we hear in modern performances today. (There’s even a 4th overture lurking in the shadows, known as Leonore No. 1, which Beethoven wrote for an aborted unveiling of the opera in Prague in 1808.) The success of these performances all but guaranteed Fidelio’s place in the repertoire, until the involvement of a rising German soprano would propel the work to international prominence.

Portrait of Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient by Carl Joseph, circa 

Wilhelmine Schroeder-Devrient was born in 1804 to a family of famous stage artists. Her mother, Sophie Burger Schroder, was a celebrated actress commonly known as the German counterpart of the legendary Sarah Siddons. On his part, her father, Friedrich Schroder, was known in his country as a finest Don Giovanni. At the age of fourteen, young Wilhelmine made her stage debut as Aricia in Schiller’s Phadra (her mother played the title role), and her theater repertoire grew to include Schiller’s Beatrice in Die Braut von Messina and Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Operatic engagements soon followed, and in January 1821, the barely sixteen Wilhemine Schroeder-Devrient made her operatic debut as Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote. In November of that year she sang Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischutz under the composer’s directions. Weber was besides himself: “She is the best Agathe in the world.” A revival of Beethoven’s opera sent the soprano to Vienna in 1822, and it must have been no surprise to Webber that these performances attracted international attention. Her interpretation of the part of Leonore was hailed as revolutionary, and Beethoven was impressed enough to promise to compose an opera tailored to her individual talents (a promise that, unfortunately, he did not keep). The success of her Leonore, however, was not rooted in the great bel canto tradition that had up until that point become the cornerstone of operatic singing. Schroder-Devrient was different, and her genius was founded on her extraordinary theatrical deportment and how this affected the musical value of her performance. Nowhere was this relationship more striking than in Fidelio – Chorley recalled: “From her first entry upon the stage, it might be seen that there was a purpose at her heart which could make the weak strong and the timid brave, quickening every sense, nerving every fibre, arming its possessor with disguise against curiosity, with persuasion more powerful than any obstacle…There was a life’s love in the intense and trembling eagerness with which she passed in review the prisoners when they were allowed to come forth into the air- for he might be among them! There was something subduing in the look of speechless affection with which she undid the chains of the beloved one, saved by her love – the mere remembrance of which makes the heart throb and the eyes fill.” She soon became the star of the Dresden Opera, but her reputation opened the doors to London and Paris, where she was tested via the Italian repertoire that all queens must be measured against in order to ascend the throne. Alas, the music of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini laid bare the limitations of her vocal endowments, so much so that it put into question the reputation of German singing as a whole (The arrival of Henriette Sontag would put a stop to such bias, if at least during her lifetime). An assessment of the voice turns us back to Chorley: “A man whose fingers cannot control the strings would hardly have a second hearing did he attempt instrumental music, but a woman, supposing she can correctly flounder through the notes of a given composition has been allowed, too contemptuously, to take rank as a singer…” He was particularly critical of her resorting to speak or shout a phrase instead of singing it, seemingly for dramatic effect.

Madame Schroder-Devrient during the confrontation scene in Fidelio

It was this very brand of artistic resolution that impressed the young Richard Wagner, and he claimed that her performances in Fidelio forever changed his life: “It was to this solution that Schroder-Devrient was impelled at that moment of most frightful tension in Fidelio, where she points the pistol at the tyrant. In the phrase ‘One more step and you are – dead!” with a ghastly accent of desperation she suddenly and literally spoke the last word. The indescribable effect struck everyone as a sudden plunge from one sphere into another…” There more old school Chorley would have singled this out as a cheap way out of a musical challenge best not attempted, but Wagner’s name would eventually carry more weight, and his admiration for the German prima donna was unwavering (despite the various tests she would later unleash against him).

She went on to create several important roles in the Wagnerian canon, including Adriano in Rienzi, Senta in Der Fliegende Hollander, and Venus in Tannhauser. Wagner’s ideal of “talking in music” was perhaps inspired by this extraordinary artist, and for that alone we owe her much.

If Schroder-Devrient directed international attention to Beethoven’s opera, its reputation as a singable vehicle for the prima donna was owed to the most famous of them all, the legendary Maria Malibran. Very aware of the rising popularity of Schroder-Devrient, la Malibran made it her business to assess the qualities of her potential rival. To this purpose, she attended a performance of the German soprano’s Leonore in London in 1833. That Schroder-Devrient’s artistic values were diametrically opposed to hers must have been immediately apparent to Malibran. Both singers were renowned for their dramatic stage deportment, but while Schroder-Devrient had no issue distorting the musical line to make an artistic point, Malibran would not entertain this practice. Her school held that even the most extreme expression of passion must be delivered through the artful deliverance of song, and she set out to prove that the new opera by the German master could be expressed with equal success in this manner. The decision was a veritable risk, as Beethoven’s Fidelio made very different vocal demands from the star soprano than those made by her previous thirty-two bel canto roles.

Maria Malibran

In June of 1835, Malibran debuted the part at Covent Garden, shocking an audience not accustomed to hearing German music through the throat of a belcantista. By the evening’s end, while the memory of Schroder-Devrient’s dramatic portrayal was certainly not forgotten, the audience was forced to make room for Malibran’s unique impersonation, complete with her own coup de theatre of pulling two guns against Pizarro during the prison scene. To the critics, the assumption was a revelation: “One of the most perfect exhibitions of singing combined with dramatic action that we ever witnessed”….”Malbran has at length found a character worthy of her unrivalled powers”…”The beauty and richness of her voice, and her graceful and energetic style of singing were displayed in all their most enchanting force”. Thus if the German soprano had called attention to the merits of Beethoven’s opera, Malibran had proven that it could be sung.

Malibran ended the remainder of the season in London, alternating Fidelio with performances of Bellini’s La Sonnambula sometimes even on the same day. Such feat of superhuman vocalism was singled out by non other than Maria Callas to her students during her famous Julliard Masterclasses in 1971. The mere mention brought gasps from the students, which those familiar with the works would surely echo. They fed them differently back then.

Fidelio is a Singspiel, a genre of German opera characterized for its alternating musical number and spoken dialogue, and it if commonly performed today in its two act version. The overture to the opera, I trust, will serve good company as the reader browses through this brief synopsis.

Prior to curtain’s rise, several key events have taken place setting the stage for the action that will transpire. We are in 18th century Spain, near Seville. The nobleman Florestan has been kidnapped by his political enemy, the governor Pizarro, and chained inside the dungeon of Pizarro’s prison. In the meantime, Pizarro has spread false reports that Florestan has died, convincing all except Florestan’s wife Leonore. Suspecting her husband’s fate, Leonore infiltrates the prison in search of her husband by disguising herself as a young man named Fidelio and securing employment as the jailer Rocco’s assistant. As the curtain rises on the first act of Fidelio, two years have passed. We are in the courtyard of Pizarro’s prison, where a soprano and tenor are engaged in a lively duet. Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline has turned down Jaquino’s (his turnkey) request for marriage because she has secretly fallen in love with her father’s handsome new assistant Fidelio. Rocco enters the courtyard and soon Leonore (Fidelio) follows. The four join privately assessing the implications of Marzelline’s obvious attraction to Fidelio in the quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar” (I feel an emotion so strange).

Pizarro arrives. He has heard that the Prime Minister is coming to the prison to inspect conditions, and he is sure to discover the half starved Florestan languishing in the bowels of the dungeon. Intent on killing the prisoner before he is discovered, Pizarro tries to recruit Rocco in his murderous deed, but the jailer recoils at the though. Instead, Pizarro orders Rocco to prepare a grave and resolves to kill Florestan with his own hands. Unbeknownst to them, Leonore has heard their dialogue and expresses both her horror and the strength of her resolve in the dramatic aria “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin!” (Monster! Where do you hurry to!)

In the hopes of potentially seeing her husband, Leonore asks Rocco to allow the prisoners out of their cells to get a glimpse of the sun. Rocco concedes, and as the prisoners slowly gather around the courtyard in the chorus “O welche Lust” (Oh what joy to breathe in the open air,) Leonore desperately surveys their faces in search of Florestan, to no avail.

Rocco returns, and informs Leonore that Pizarro has sanctioned the marriage between Fidelio and Marzelline. Furthermore, Fidelio has been allowed to accompany him to the dungeon to assist him in preparing the grave for an unnamed prisoner. Leonore is both jubilant and horrified at this turn of events. The act ends as Pizarro reenters the courtyard, angered by Rocco’s magnanimous treatment of the prisoners, and orders them back to their cells.

For the first scene of act two, Beethoven takes us to from the lightness of the prison’s courtyard to the dark, gloomy depths of the prison’s dungeon. Following a gloomy introduction, we see the bedraggled Florestan chained to a stone. In his aria “In des Lebens Fruhlingstagen” (In the spring days of life) he laments his fate, and feeling that death draws near, has visions of an angel resembling Leonore leading him to freedom. Exhausted, he collapses.

Leonore and Rocco enter the dungeon, and after determining that the prisoner is asleep, the two begin the task of digging the grave that will soon house his lifeless corpse. The conflicted Leonore tries her best to make out the prisoner’s features as she digs alongside Rocco, and moved by his sorry state decides to save the prisoner regardless of his identity. The prisoner wakes and stands, he asks Rocco the name of he who governs the prison, and Leonore’s heart sinks as she recognizes the voice of her husband. After Rocco answers him with Pizarro’s name, Florestan begs the jailer to send word to his wife Leonore of his whereabouts, but Rocco assures him this is impossible. The prisoner’s next request is to be granted a drink of water, and as Rocco can only offer him wine, he instructs Fidelio to fetch the ale. The nervous Leonore hastily complies. Florestan thanks the young Fidelio for his generous gesture in the trio “Euch werde Lohn in besser’n Welten” (May you be rewarded in better worlds,) Leonore pressure Rocco into allowing the prisoner a crust of bread, while Rocco expresses his general distaste at the task he has been assigned to carry out.

Assessing that the conditions are ready for the governor, Rocco signals Pizarro to enter. The malicious governor enters wielding a dagger, and intent on showing Florestan the face of his assassin, he presents himself before the prisoner. In the opera’s climatic musical number, the four principals join in the famous quartet “Er Sterbe” (Let hm die!). It is not only an extraordinary moment in the opera, it may also be a revolutionary leap in the evolution of Western music. Pizarro announces himself before Florestan, and the orchestra casts doubles his introduction with a dark, menacing shadow. As Florestan takes note of what is about to transpire, he weakly rises, the orchestra surges in a righteous but insecure figure in the horns, perhaps justice’s last cry before it is smothered by evil. Underneath this is brewing a tense rumble in the strings (it happens at about 1:00 in the featured clip below) signifying Leonore’s realization the moment upon where all depends has arrived, a mixture of fear, joy and superhuman courage. These emotions converge in a rush of panic, and as she stands before Pizarro and her husband, she erupts with the word “Zuruck!” (Stand back!). Pizarro and Rocco are confused by Fidelio’s behavior until the young man declares that he is no man at all: “Tot’ erst sein Weib!” (First kill his wife!) she roars, and the dye is cast. Pizarro advances to strike Florestan regardless, and Leonore, brandishing a pistol, stops him dead in his tracks. The quartet is suddenly placed on hold as Jaquino enters to announce that the Minister has arrived. As the young man departs the music picks up again in exuberant sonority, and Leonore’s declamation grows steadily past the world of Lully, Mozart, Bellini, and even past Fidelio’s first act. It is as if a musical window has opened to reveal the troubles and splendors of a Wagnerian future. And for those wondering, my gay homosexual hands indeed trembled while writing these lines.

(caveat: Jaquino does not enter in this production for some reason, but this is the finest film of this scene available.)

Left alone at last, the couple reunites in the glorious duet “O namenlose Freude!” (O nameless joy!). If this did not serve as inspiration to the “Isolde! Geliebte!” scene in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, I don’t know what did.

The second scene of Act Two opens again in the courtyard of the prison. The scene, the final in the opera, is very short, and it is sometimes customary for the maestro to launch the orchestra into the Leonore No.3 overture between scenes as a sort of introduction. Whether this takes place in Utah Opera’s presentation of Fidelio this weekend remains to be seen (but we will keep y’all in the know). The townspeople have gathered in the courtyard, and the Minister (Don Fernando) asks Rocco to bring forth all the prisoners. Seeing Florestan among them, Don Fernando is shocked to see his friend, whom he thought dead. Don Fernando gives Leonore the key to Florestan’s chains, and before the townspeople, Leonore frees her husband. In the concerted finale: “Wer ein holdes Weib errungen” (He who has won a lovely wife,) the chorus joins the happy couple as all praise the virtues of womankind.

Non-profit organizations would be smart to set up donation booths outside the opera house following each performance of Fidelio…no?

Utah Opera’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio runs at the Capitol Theatre on October 8th, 10th, 12th, 14th and 16th. For tickets and more information about these performances, visit

-Daniel Vasquez

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Posted by on October 7, 2011 in Arts, Opera



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