‘Fidelio’ or ‘Conjugal Love’ was a grand opera in two acts, with music by Ludwig van Beethoven and a libretto freely adapted by Sonnleithner from the French of Bouilly, and was first given to the public in Vienna in 1805.
It appeared at an unfavorable time, for the French had just entered the city, while Napoleon was at Schonbrunn and more serious problems than that of being amused were occupying the people.
In addition, it received a most inadequate interpretation and, after three nights, was withdrawn as a failure. It was revived, however, several years later and the decision was reversed.
The opera was originally in three acts but proved overlong and several numbers were dropped.
- Don Fernando de Zelva, state Minister
- Don Pizzaro, Governor of the State Prison
- Florestan, an imprisoned Spanish nobleman
- Leonre (Fidelio), his wife
- Rocco, the jailor
- Marcelline, his daughter
- Jacquino, turnkey, lover of Marcelline
- Captain and Lieutenant of the Guard, prisoners and peasants
The action of Fidelio is placed in Spain, near Seville, and has throughout the somber setting of a prison.
The Story of Fidelio
Florestan had been reckless enough to censure Don Pizzaro for some cruel deed and, cast forthwith by the tyrant into a dungeon to starve, is already reported dead.
His wife Leonore, who is brave and faithful, believes that he is still living and contrives a plan to save him.
In man’s attire and calling herself Fidelio, she gains an entrance to the fortress where she believes Florestan to be imprisoned and wins the good will of Rocco, the jailor.
She is even more successful with his daughter Marcelline, who falls in love with the dainty youth to the neglect of her own lover, Jacquino.
At last, her capacity as assistant to Rocco, she manages to see the prisoners when they take the air in the court, and, greatly to her dismay, she finds that Florestan is not among them.
Meanwhile, the wicked Pizzaro gets a letter which apprises him that Fernando, the minister of Seville, will come on the morrow to inspect the prison. In consternation at the thought of his possible discovery of the starving Florestan, he decides that he really must be done away with.
Rocco is obdurate in his refusal to kill Florestan but reluctantly consents to dig the grave in which all traces of the crime are to be hidden. Rocco confides his dread secret to Fidelio and accepts her offer to help him dig the grave. Pizzaro, glad to have the work hastened, consents.
In the second act, Rocco and Fidelio find Florestan chained to a pillar, wasted to a shadow and fast losing his reason; the name of his wife constantly recurring in his delirium.
Fidelio gives him a crust of bread and the wine in Rocco’s flask. When the digging of the grave is done, Rocco sends word to Pizzaro and bids Fidelio depart but she hides behind a pillar, resolved at the worst to die with her husband.
Pizzaro enters, intending to do away with the witnesses of his deed. He first advances to stab Florestan but Fidelio springs forward, runs between them and aims a pistol at Pizzaro. At this instance, a trumpet announces the arrival of Don Fernando and Don Pizzaro is forced to retreat baffled.
In the last scene, Don Fernando puts a number of prisoners at liberty, among them being Florestan. Pizzaro, disclosed in his odiousness, is himself imprisoned; Florestan and Fidelio are reunited; Marcelline recovers from her chagrin and, finding she still loves Jacquino, consents to marry him.
Fidelio is Beethoven’s only opera, and, as is befitting the work of the greatest of composers, is imbued with high nobility of sentiment and melody. It is equally strong both as drama and as opera, and although the words of the text are oftentimes bourgeois, Beethoven treats them with the same dignity he would have bestowed upon Homeric or Shakespearian lines.
He was greatly desirous that Fidelio should be a fine work and probably no opera ever had more painstaking treatment in its creation. It is intensely melodramatic at times and the incident in the prison after the trumpet call is said to be ‘probably the most overwhelming moment of sheer unbridled fury in all opera.”
Confusion through the opus numbers borne has arisen over the four overtures which Beethoven wrote for Fidelio. That known as number two was played at the first three performances in Vienna, November 20, 21 and 22. Number three was played at Vienna, March 29 and April 10, 1806. This is most generally admired.
Number one was written for a proposed production at Prague in 1807, which did not take place. Number four was played at Vienna, May 26, 1814.
Among the famous numbers are:
- The duet of Rocco and Marcelline, who is ironing in the prison courtyard
- Marcelline’s Hope aria
- The Canon quartet of Marcelline, Leonore, Rocco and jacquino
- The Gold song, sung by Rocco
- Don Pizzaro’s aria Ha! Welch ein Augenblick (Ha! What a Moment)
- Fidelio’s impassioned recitative and aria Abscheulicher! (Vile Monster, Thou1)
- Florestan’s song in prison In des Levens Fruhlingstagen (Life was Still so Fresh and Joyful)
- The rapturous duet of Florestan and Leonore O namenlose Freude (Oh! Joyful day)
Beethoven called his opera “Leonore” but in order to distinguish it from others bearing that name, it was afterward given its present title.
There were four different overtures written for the opera, generally known as the Leonore Overtures, and distinguished only by numbers.
One, however, is now often spoken of as the Fidelio Overture, and was the one written for the final revision of the opera in 1814. It is a brilliant work, beginning with a rather rapid movement, then changing to adagio for a short passage, then again allegro, which we afterward find in Lenore’s theme, and a return to the slower tempo.
Next we hear a theme which appears in a duet between Rocco and Pizzaro; again a brilliant rapid movement begun by the horn, taken up by clarinets, then the violins join, and finally the whole orchestra. There is a return to the opening phrase for the close.
Throughout the orchestra score we find a free use of trombones to express sinister and gruesome meaning.
During Pizzaro’s aria in the first act, Ha! Welch eim Augenblick, which is a masterpiece of its kind, the trombones first enter and impress us with the dark intent of Pizzaro, and the horror of the situation.
Even though after the first three performances Fidelio was withdrawn, it has, since its revision in 1814, been heard everywhere, and today is called one of the most exquisite we posses.
“The music is so grand and sublime, so passionate and deep, that it enters into the heart of the hearer. The libretto is also full of the highest and most beautiful feeling.”