The opera tells how Leonore, disguised as a prison guard named "Fidelio", rescuesher husband Florestan from death in a political prison. Bouilly's scenario fits Beethoven's aesthetic and political outlook: a story of personal sacrifice, heroism and eventual triumph (the usual topics of Beethoven's "middle period") with its underlying struggle for liberty and justice mirroring contemporary political movements in Europe. Some notable moments in the opera include the "Prisoners' Chorus", an ode to freedom sung by a chorus of political prisoners, Florestan's vision of Leonore come as an angel to rescue him, and the scene in which the rescue finally takes place. The finale celebrates Leonore's bravery with alternating contributions of soloists and chorus.
The theatrical mask contemplated by a putto on the Beethoven monument by Kaspar von Zumbusch(Vienna, 1880) commemorates Beethoven's sole opera in the city where it made its debut
Fidelio underwent two extensive revisions by Beethoven. Although he used theTITLELeonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe ("Leonore, or The Triumph of Married Love") the first performances were billed as Fidelio at the theatre's insistence, to avoid confusion with the 1798 opera Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal byPierre Gaveaux, and the 1804 opera Leonora by Ferdinando Paer (a score of which was owned by Beethoven). Beethoven published the 1806 libretto and, in 1810, a vocal score under the title Leonore, and the current convention is to use Leonorefor both the 1805 (three-act) and 1806 (two-act) versions and Fidelio only for the final 1814 revision.
The first version with a three-act German libretto adapted by Joseph Sonnleithnerfrom the French of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly premiered at Vienna's Theater an der Wien, on 20 November 1805, with additional performances the following two nights. The success of these performances was hindered by the fact that Vienna was under French military occupation, and most of the audience were French military officers.
After this premiere, Beethoven was pressured by friends to revise and shorten the opera into just two acts, and he did so with the help of Stephan von Breuning. The composer also wrote a new overture (now known as "Leonore No. 3"; see below). In this form the opera was first performed on 29 March and 10 April 1806, with greater success. Further performances were prevented by a dispute between Beethoven and the theatre management.
In 1814 Beethoven revised his opera yet again, with additional work on the libretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke. This version was first performed at the Kärntnertortheater on 23 May 1814, again under the titleFidelio. The 17-year-old Franz Schubert was in the audience, having sold his school books to obtain a ticket. The increasingly deaf Beethoven led the performance, "assisted" by Michael Umlauf, who later performed the same task for Beethoven at the premiere of theNinth Symphony. The role of Pizarro was taken by Johann Michael Vogl, who later became known for his collaborations with Schubert. This version of the opera was a great success, and Fidelio has been part of the operatic repertory ever since.
Beethoven cannot be said to have enjoyed the difficulties posed by writing and producing an opera. In a letter to Treitschke he said, "I assure you, dear Treitschke, that this opera will win me a martyr's crown. You have by your co-operation saved what is best from the shipwreck. For all this I shall be eternally grateful to you."
The full score was not published until 1826, and all three versions are known as Beethoven's Opus 72.
The first performance outside Vienna took place in Prague on 21 November 1814, with a revival in Vienna on 3 November 1822. In its two-act version, the opera was staged in London on 18 May 1832 at the King's Theatre, and in New York on 9 September 1839 at the Park Theatre.
Fidelio was Arturo Toscanini's first complete opera performance to be broadcast over the NBC radio network, in December 1944, by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, featuring soloists from the Metropolitan Opera (though a shortwave broadcast of one act, conducted by Toscanini, had earlier been relayed from an 16 August 1936 performance at Salzburg.) Divided into two consecutive broadcasts, the 1944 performances were later issued by RCA Victor on LPs and CDs. Toscanini made it clear that Beethoven believed in liberty and was opposed to tyrants such as Napoleon; in the conductor's opinion, Beethoven would have likely opposed Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini as well.
Fidelio was the first opera performed in Berlin after the end of the World War II, with the Deutsche Operstaging it under the baton of Robert Heger at the only undamaged theatre, the Theater des Westens, in September 1945. At the time, Thomas Mann remarked: "What amount of apathy was needed [by musicians and audiences] to listen to Fidelio in Himmler's Germany without covering their faces and rushing out of the hall!"
[T]he conjugal love of Leonore appears, to the modern individual armed with realism and psychology, irremediably abstract and theoretical.... Now that political events in Germany have restored to the concepts of human dignity and liberty their original significance, this is the opera which, thanks to the music of Beethoven, gives us comfort and courage.... Certainly, Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician for the theater, or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary. That which disturbs us is not a material effect, nor the fact of the 'imprisonment'; any film could create the same effect. No, it is the music, it is Beethoven himself. It is this 'nostalgia of liberty' he feels, or better, makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears. HisFidelio has more of the Mass than of the Opera to it; the sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a 'religion of humanity' which we never found so beautiful or necessary as we do today, after all we have lived through. Herein lies the singular power of this unique opera.... Independent of any historical consideration ... the flaming message of Fidelio touches deeply.
We realize that for us Europeans, as for all men, this music will always represent an appeal to our conscience.
The first night of Fidelio at the Semperoper in Dresden on 7 October 1989 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the DDR (East Germany) coincided with violent demonstrations at the city's main train station. The applause after the "Prisoners' Chorus" interrupted the performance for considerable time, and the production by Christine Mielitz (de) had the chorus appear in normal street clothes at the end, signifying their role as representatives of the audience.Four weeks later, on 9 November 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of East Germany's regime.
Beethoven struggled to produce an appropriate overture for Fidelio, and ultimately went through four versions. His first attempt, for the 1805 premiere, is believed to have been the overture now known as "Leonore No. 2". Beethoven then focused this version for the performances of 1806, creating "Leonore No. 3". The latter is considered by many listeners as the greatest of the four overtures, but as an intensely dramatic, full-scale symphonic movement it had the effect of overwhelming the (rather light) initial scenes of the opera. Beethoven accordingly experimented with cutting it back somewhat, for a planned 1808 performance in Prague; this is believed to be the version now called "Leonore No. 1". Finally, for the 1814 revival Beethoven began anew, and with fresh musical material wrote what we now know as the Fidelio overture. As this somewhat lighter overture seems to work best of the four as a start to the opera, Beethoven's final intentions are generally respected in contemporary productions.
While some believe that Gustav Mahler introduced the practice of performing "Leonore No. 3" between the two scenes of the second act, something which was common until the middle of the twentieth century, Cairns states that it goes back to the middle of the 19th century and was therefore prior to Mahler.In this location, it acts as a kind of musical reprise of the rescue scene that has just taken place. A new, modern-styled production that premiered in Budapest in October 2008, for example, features the "Leonore No. 3" overture in this location.
Two years prior to the opening scene, the nobleman Florestan has exposed or attempted to expose certain crimes of the nobleman Pizarro. In revenge, Pizarro has secretly imprisoned Florestan in the prison over which he is governor.
The jailer of the prison, Rocco, has a daughter, Marzelline, and a servant (or assistant), Jaquino. Florestan's wife, Leonore, came to Rocco's door dressed as a boy seekingEMPLOYMENT, and Rocco hired her.
On orders, Rocco has been giving Florestan diminishing rations until he is nearly starved to death.
Place: A Spanish state prison, a few miles from Seville
Jaquino and Marzelline are alone in Rocco's house. Jaquino asks Marzelline when she will agree to marry him, but she says that she will never marry him now that she has fallen in love with Fidelio. She is unaware that Fidelio is actually Leonore in disguise. ("Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind wir allein" [Now, darling, now we are alone]). Jaquino leaves, and Marzelline expresses her desire to become Fidelio's wife ("O wär ich schon mit dir vereint" [If only I were already united with thee]). Rocco enters, looking for Fidelio. Fidelio enters carrying a heavy load of newly repairedCHAINS. Rocco compliments Fidelio, and misinterprets her modest reply as hidden attraction to his daughter. Marzelline, Leonore, Rocco, and Jaquino sing a quartet about the love Marzelline has for Fidelio ("Mir ist so wunderbar" [A wondrous feeling fills me], also known as the Canon Quartet).
Rocco tells Leonore that as soon as the governor has left for Seville, she and Marzelline can be married. He tells them, however, that unless they haveMONEY, they will not be happy. ("Hat man nicht auchGOLDbeineben" [If you don't haveMONEY on the side]). Leonore says that she wants something else at least as much asMONEY: to know why Rocco will not permit her to help him in the dungeons, because he always comes back out of breath. Rocco says that there is a prison where he can never take her, and inside is a man who has wasted away for two years because of his powerful enemies. Marzelline begs her father to keep Leonore away from such a terrible sight. Instead Rocco and Leonore sing of courage ("Gut, Söhnchen, gut" [All right, son, all right]), and soon Marzelline joins in their acclamations.
All but Rocco leave. A march is played as Pizarro enters with guards. Rocco gives Pizarro a message with a warning that the minister plans a surprise visit tomorrow to investigate accusations that Pizarro is a tyrant. Pizarro exclaims that he cannot let the minister discover the imprisoned Don Florestan, who has been thought dead. Instead, Pizarro will murder Florestan ("Ha, welch ein Augenblick!" [Hah! What a moment!]). Pizarro orders that a trumpet be sounded at the minister's arrival. He offers Rocco money to kill Florestan, but Rocco refuses ("Jetzt, Alter, jetzt hat es Eile!" [Now, old man, we must hurry!]), and instead Pizarro orders him to dig a grave in the ruined well in the dungeons. When the grave is ready, Rocco should sound the alarm. Pizarro will then come disguised into the dungeon, and kill Florestan himself. Leonore has seen Pizarro plotting. She is agitated, but thoughts of her husband calm her down ("Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? ... Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern" [Scum! Where are you going? ... Come, hope, let the last star]).
Jaquino begs Marzelline to marry him, but she refuses. Leonore, hoping to find Florestan, asks Rocco to let the poor prisoners roam in the garden and enjoy the beautiful weather. Marzelline also begs him, and Rocco agrees to distract Pizarro while the prisoners are set free. The prisoners, overjoyed at their freedom, sing joyfully ("O welche Lust" [O what a joy]), but, remembering that they could be caught, are soon quiet.
Rocco reenters and tells Leonore of his success with Pizarro: Pizarro will allow the marriage, and Leonore will be permitted to join Rocco on his rounds in the dungeon ("Nun sprecht, wie ging's?" [Speak, how did it go?]). They prepare to go to the cell of a prisoner who, says Rocco, must be killed and buried within the hour. Leonore is so shaken that Rocco tries to persuade her to stay behind, but she insists on coming. As they prepare to leave, Jaquino and Marzelline rush in and tell Rocco to run: Pizarro has learned that the prisoners are free, and he is furious ("Ach, Vater, Vater, eilt!" [O, father, father, hurry!]).
Before they can move, Pizarro enters and demands an explanation. Rocco pretends that they are celebrating the King's naming day, and suggests quietly that PizarroSAVE his anger for the prisoner in the dungeons below. Pizarro tells him to hurry and dig the grave, then announces that the prisoners will be shut in again. Rocco, Leonore, Jacquino, and Marzelline reluctantly usher the prisoners back to their cells. ("Leb wohl, du warmes Sonnenlicht" [Adieu, warm sunshine]).
Florestan is alone in his cell, deep inside the dungeons. He sings first of his trust in God, then has a vision of Leonore coming to save him ("Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!" [God! What darkness here]... "In des Lebens Frühlingstagen" [In the spring days of life]). He collapses and falls asleep. Rocco and Leonore come to dig his grave and find him asleep. As they dig Rocco urges Leonore to hurry ("Wie kalt ist es in diesem unterirdischen Gewölbe!" [How cold it is in this underground chamber] ... "Nur hurtig fort, nur frisch gegraben" [Come get to work and dig!]). This is the Gravedigging Duet.
Florestan awakes and Leonore recognizes him. When Florestan learns at last that he is in Pizarro's prison, he asks that a message be sent to his wife, Leonore Florestan, but Rocco says it is impossible. Florestan begs for a drop to drink, and Rocco tells Leonore to give him one. Florestan does not recognize Leonore but tells her she will be rewarded in Heaven ("Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten" [You shall be rewarded in better worlds]). She begs Rocco to be allowed to give Florestan a crust of bread, and he agrees. Florestan eats.
Rocco obeys his orders and sounds the alarm for Pizarro, who appears and asks if all is ready. Rocco says that it is and tells Leonore to leave, but instead she hides. Pizarro reveals his identity to Florestan, who accuses him of murder ("Er sterbe! Doch erSOLL erst wissen" [Let him die! But first he should know]). As Pizarro brandishes a dagger, Leonore leaps between him and Florestan and reveals her identity. Pizarro raises his dagger to kill her but she pulls a gun and threatens to shoot him.
Just then the trumpet is heard, announcing the arrival of the minister. Jaquino enters, followed by soldiers, to announce that the minister is waiting at the gate. Rocco tells the soldiers to escort Governor Pizarro upstairs. Florestan and Leonore sing to their victory as Pizarro declares he will have revenge, and Rocco expresses his fear of what is to come ("Es schlägt der Rache Stunde" [Revenge's bell tolls]). Together, Florestan and Leonore sing a love duet ("O namenlose Freude!" [O unnamed joy!]).
Here overture "Leonore No. 3" is sometimes played.
The prisoners and townsfolk sing to the day and hour of justice which has come ("Heil sei dem Tag!" [Hail to the day!]). The minister, Don Fernando, announces that tyranny has ended. Rocco enters, with Leonore and Florestan, and he asks Don Fernando to help them ("Wohlan, so helfet! Helft den Armen!" [So help! Help the poor ones!]). Rocco explains how Leonore disguised herself as Fidelio to save her husband. Marzelline is shocked. Rocco describes Pizarro's murder plot, and Pizarro is led away to prison. Florestan is released from hisCHAINS by Leonore, and the crowd sings the praises of Leonore, the loyal savior of her husband ("Wer ein holdes Weib errungen" [Who has got a good wife]).