Delivery from Despair: Beethoven's 'Fidelio'

From the Hungarian State Opera

THE HIT SINGLE

We first meet Florestan at the top of Act Two, in the dungeon, where he sings a dramatic solo scene called "Gott! Welch Dunkel" — "God! What darkness." Here it is in a classic, 1962 recording, sung by tenor Jon Vickers.

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  • Album: Beethoven: Fidelio
  • Artist: Otto Klemperer
  • Label: EMI
  • Released: 1994
 

The B Side

Leonore's big aria is called "Abscheuliger!" — "Monster!" It comes towards the end of Act I, as she reflects on Pizarro's cruelty and the danger that Florestan will soon be executed. Also from the 1962 recording, this performance is by soprano Christa Ludwig.

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  • Album: Beethoven: Fidelio
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Have you ever heard an opera by Pierre Gaveaux, Simon Mayr or Ferdinando Paer? No? Well, a couple of centuries ago, all three of them wrote operas about a daring wife who infiltrates a dangerous prison to rescue her condemned husband.

"Fidelio" in Budapest

hide captionThe principals join in a kaleidoscopic curtain call in Budapest. Soprano Tunde Szaboki, as Leonore, (center, in red) is flanked by tenor Thomas Moser as Florestan (left) and conductor Adam Fischer.

Vera Eder/Hungarian State Opera

There were others who wrote operas on the same subject, and most of them are just as obscure. That's because Ludwig van Beethoven also took the story into the opera house, with Fidelio, and that brilliant drama has long since overshadowed all the rest.

Fidelio falls into a genre known as "rescue opera," a loosely defined term that was coined well after the fact. It's generally used to describe a type of opera that developed in France at the time of the French Revolution, and quickly became popular all over Europe. And why not? At some point or another just about everyone needs to be rescued, emotionally if not physically.

At their finest, rescue operas involve more than just the heroic rescue of an individual from mortal danger. They also portray a rescuer so heroic that he or she willingly risked everything in the cause, and an outcome that signals nothing less than the triumph of human will and freedom over injustice and tyranny. Fidelio provides all that, with plenty of drama and emotion to spare.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents an unusual and innovative production of Beethoven's only opera, from the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest. While the singers portray the principal characters on one level of the multi-tiered stage, the drama is also presented on another level by actors, playing symbolic, silent roles. Soprano Tunde Szaboki and tenor Thomas Moser star as the troubled couple Leonore and Florestan, in a performance led by conductor Adam Fischer.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

The Story of 'Fidelio'

"Fidelio" in Budapest

hide captionUsing a multi-tiered stage, the Budapest production of Fidelio plays out on a number of physical and symbolic levels.

Vera Eder/Hungarian State Opera
Friedemann Kunder and Zita Varadi

hide captionBaritone Friedemann Kunder sings the role of Rocco, the jailer, with soprano Zita Varadi as Rocco's daughter, Marzelline.

Vera Eder/Hungarian State Opera

WHO'S WHO?

  • Tunde Szaboki ..... Leonore/Fidelio
  • Thomas Moser .......... Florestan
  • Friedemann Kunder ......... Rocco
  • Zita Varadi ................. Marzelline
  • Attila Fekete .................. Jaquino
  • Bela Perencz ................. Pizarro
  • Gabor Bretz ......... Don Fernando
  • Hungarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
  • Adam Fischer, conductor

As ACT ONE begins, Florestan has been unjustly jailed as a political prisoner, and his loyal wife Leonore has a daring plan to save him. She dresses as a young man, adopts the name Fidelio, and lands a job at the prison where Florestan is being held in secret, chained in an underground dungeon.

The jailer who runs the prison is called Rocco, and after Beethoven's dramatic overture winds down, we find Rocco's daughter, Marzelline in the courtyard, ironing. Jaquino, Rocco's assistant, is in love with Marzelline. But she only has eyes for her father's newest employee, Fidelio.

In a beautiful quartet, Beethoven gives us a glimpse of what's on everyone's mind. Marzelline is elated, thinking Fidelio is in love with her, and Fidelio is worried about Marzelline's obviously deep feelings. Rocco, is happy that his daughter is in love, and poor Jaquino is growing more jealous by the minute.

Rocco offers Fidelio his daughter's hand in marriage, and in a light-hearted aria he warns the two that besides love, money is also important. But Leonore has only one immediate goal in maintaining her Fidelio disguise: She's hoping Rocco will authorize her to help out in the dungeon, so she can find out if Florestan is still alive.

Along the way we meet the bad guy, Don Pizarro. He's the man who ordered Florestan's imprisonment. Pizzaro warns that the regional minister is planning an inspection of the prison, to see how well the inmates are being treated. Pizarro tells Rocco that before the minister shows up, he wants the mysterious political prisoner in the dungeon silenced — for good. He orders Rocco to prepare a grave. Leonore has overheard the conversation. In her long, dramatic aria, she's shocked by Pizarro's cruelty — and she wonders if the unnamed dungeon prisoner might be her husband.

The act closes with a small act of human kindness. Rocco goes against his better judgment and allows the prisoners to leave their cells for a brief moment, to catch a glimpse of the sun and get a breath of fresh air — that is, all the prisoners except Florestan. As the inmates mill about in the sunshine, singing a luminous chorus, Rocco tells Fidelio that she now has permission to help out in the dungeon. Meanwhile, Pizarro arrives to find the prisoners outside, and sternly orders Rocco to lock them all back up.

We don't meet Florestan at all in the first act, but Beethoven makes up for it at the opening of ACT TWO, when Florestan gets an entire, highly emotional scene to himself — a long sequence filled with passion and despair. Florestan is half starved and chained to a rock, deep in the dungeon, but he will not be broken. In a momentary hallucination, he envisions Leonore in the form of an angel, coming to save him. Then he collapses.

Rocco and Fidelio enter the dungeon to dig a grave, as Pizarro has ordered. When Florestan wakes, Fidelio recognizes him immediately, and nearly faints from emotion. But Florestan fails to recognize his wife in her disguise.

As the digging begins, Don Pizarro puts his bloodthirsty plan in motion. His intent is to murder Florestan and shove him into the freshly dug grave. But he can't leave any witnesses, so Fidelio and Rocco will have to meet the same fate. Pizarro approaches Florestan with his knife ready, but Fidelio steps between them, draws a pistol and shouts "You'll have to kill his wife first!"

At first, it seems like a stalemate — but at that very moment a trumpet is heard, announcing the arrival of the regional minister, Don Fernando. Pizarro's plan has failed, and Lenore and Florestan are left to sing a blissful duet.

Up in the courtyard, a crowd gathers around Don Fernando. He declares freedom from tyranny — and orders all the prisoners to be released. Everyone, led by Florestan, joins in a chorus praising the resourceful, dedicated Leonore, who has saved her husband's life.

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Beethoven: Fidelio

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Purchase Featured Music

  • Album: Beethoven: Fidelio
  • Artist: Otto Klemperer
  • Label: EMI
  • Released: 1994
 

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