This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
The one with the prisoners’ chorus and where a woman disguised as a prison worker liberates her husband and strikes a blow for freedom, feminism and prison reform. CAST Bass Soprano Tenor Soprano Tenor Bass-baritone Bass
Rocco, senior warder at Pizarro’s prison Marzelline, his daughter Jaquino, menial prison employee Fidelio, Leonore, disguised as an assistant warder Florestan, her husband, a political prisoner Don Pizarro, prison governor and fascist Don Fernando, Home Secretary
Solo prisoners 2 acts: running time 2 hrs
STORY Act I A composite set including a prison courtyard, a gatehouse and the warders’ quarters
We are looking at life in a prison near Seville Spain in the eighteenth century. [Sing] Marzelline irons her Dad’s vests: security guard Jaquino pesters her to marry him. She rebuffs him: you promised he says: not quite promised says she. Jaquino exits to investigate a mysterious knocking. Marzelline exposes a strong fancy for assistant screw Fidelio (Leonore of course). [Spiel] Fidelio returns from the repair shop with chains fetters etc. Rocco quizzes him about quality and price. Good lad he says you will get your reward: slyly glances at Marzelline. [Sing] The silly girl is falling for me what a bore thinks Leonore: Jaquino thinks: her Dad wants to see those two fixed up. Zut! [Spiel] I will set up marriage for you two soonest says Rocco but you will need some cash. [Sing] Adequate money supply is an important matter in life says he (tritely). [Spiel] That’s true boss says Fidelio but there’s another thing, let me assist you in the care of the political prisoners. Steady boy says Rocco the boss is funny about them: maybe the fellow travellers but not the Commie leader in the deep hole dungeon with big security around him. Bin there two years. The boss ordered starvation rations poor sod. Don’t take Fidelio to any scene too shocking says Marzelline. Nuts says Leonore: I’m a toughie: take me. [Sing] You got guts boy says Rocco I will ask the boss for permission today. Good-o says Leonore (hopes to find Florestan of course). Good-o says Marzelline (thinks promotion means a quicker route to marriage). [Spiel] Pizarro and security guards parade in: Pizarro sorts through the mail and finds a fax informing him that a surprise visit from the Home Sec is imminent. Home Sec suspects there are men imprisoned improperly. Crumbs! He’ll discover Florestan! thinks Pizarro. [Sing] I’ll
kill him that’s what I’ll do and with some satisfaction too. [Spiel] Post a sentry to watch the Seville road he says: as soon as the Minister’s black limo appears sound a trumpet! Geddit? [Sing] Hey Rocco says Pizarro here’s two hundred quid. What for? asks Rocco. To kill that Communist toad in service of our country says Pizarro. Couldn’t says Rocco. OK if you chicken out I’ll do the murdering you dig the grave says Pizarro. Well says Rocco a merciful release for him I suppose (both exit murderwards). Leonore jumps in: God what a bastard she cries what dastardly plot is afoot? (But she sees a hallucinatory rainbow which calms her down.) [Spiel] Let’s let the prisoners up for a breather she says to Rocco (returned). Without the boss’s permission? says Rocco. Marzelline pops in. You and Pizarro are as thick as thieves she says to Rocco. You keep him in play while we let the prisoners out. Jaquino and Leonore do so. [Sing] Appreciative sentiments are expressed by the prisoners: keep it down boys says the leading prisoner or the boss will hear you (but a spying officer observes them and runs off to Pizarro). Rocco comes on and tells Leonore: Good news the boss agrees you can visit the dungeons also marry Marzelline: now we are going to go down to the special prisoner. To be released? asks Leonore. No killed says Rocco. By you? she asks: no by Pizarro he says: you and I dig the grave (maybe for my husband she thinks): she weeps. There there says Rocco you stand behind. Not on your life says she I am OK it’s just a fly in my eye. Let’s go says Rocco. But Jaquino and Marzelline run on shouting that Pizarro has found out about the prisoners. Get ’em in fast says Rocco. Pizarro storms in: abuses Rocco. It was a treat for the King’s birthday today says Rocco [very weak: Ed.] anyway your priority is killing the chap down the hole not bothering over perks for prisoners [stronger: Ed.]. Get down and dig that grave says Pizarro. The prisoners are herded back into the cells. Grumble grumble they say only just got out and it’s back again into the dark.
Act II Sc 1 The deep dungeon and the staircase down into it
[Sing] Florestan tries to equate his frightfully unfair situation with ideas of divine justice (fails). He hallucinates: thinks he sees an angel: the angel is Leonore. [Spiel to music i.e. melodrame] Rocco and Leonore arrive: Florestan is asleep: they prepare to dig the grave in an old well: Leonore is nervous: [Sing] Keep at it boy says Rocco: I will try to save that poor sod whoever he is thinks Leonore. [Spiel] Florestan wakes up: tell me he asks Rocco who runs this frightful prison? (Leonore recognizes his voice!) Pizarro says Rocco. That bastard says Florestan send for the wife to help me. Can’t do that says Rocco. Got anything to drink? asks Florestan. Drop of wine says Rocco. [Spiel] Thanks a lot says Florestan that young ‘un looks a bit peely-wally eh? (She sure is peelywally.) Can I give him this piece of bread? she asks Rocco. No says Rocco. Come on says she. OK OK says Rocco give it to him. [Spiel] Rocco gives the signal for Pizarro that the grave is dug: all ready for murder. Pizarro enters. Pizarro confronts Florestan. [Spiel] I’m going to kill you you punk informer Commie bastard he cries: he draws his dagger: Leonore interposes: you must first kill his wife she says: he Florestan me Leonore. Pizarro is about to kill both — the trumpet sounds! [Spiel] The Home Sec is here! shouts Jaquino down the hole. Coming up! says Rocco. [Sing] Pizarro exits Florestan and Leonore exult.
The Good Opera Guide
Act II Sc 2 Castle parade ground: statue of King visible
Hail and hooray shout the crowd of locals. Justice at last! The King has sent me to sort things out here says Fernando. Here’s Florestan says Rocco. Good Lord I thought you were a goner says Fernando. Also his wife Leonore: she came as a boy assistant screw says Rocco then saved her husband Florestan. Pizarro was about to murder him, you see. Pizarro you horrible man you are under arrest says Fernando. All is well I love you says Florestan to Leonore. I will recommend Leonore for DBE says Fernando. All is well says everyone and well done Leonore.
LOOK OUT FOR Act I
MINUTES FROM THE START
0** 6: Jetzt, Schätchzen, jetzt sind wir allein** 12: O wär ich schon** 16: Mir ist so wunderbar*** 26: Gut, Söhnchen, gut** 35: Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!* 39: Jetzt, Alter, jetzt** 44: Abscheulicher!** 52: O welche Lust*** 59: Nun sprecht, wie ging’s?** 67: Leb wohl, du warmes Sonnenlicht**
The overture0 is the fourth out of four — the perfectionist Beethoven doing his nut to get it absolutely right. One and Two are OK, Three an absolute knock-out but too powerful for the opera’s low-key opening number. It (No. 3) is sometimes played before the last scene — a mistake, because even there it climbs to such dizzy heights that the opening of the final scene cannot really top it. Also you feel you have had a complete meal and have no appetite for any more Leonoring. The last effort does its job nicely. In the opening duet6 Jaquino pesters Marzelline to marry him, but she has gone off him and on to Fidelio. The piece has the air of a number that has strayed in from the concert hall and tells us at once that we are not in an opera but a Singspiel and that this is one of the sings before the next spiel. It is a neatly structured piece, precise and tuneful. Marzelline does, however, flower into some looser and more romantic stuff when Jaquino leaves the stage for a moment. The singing is interrupted twice by a mysterious knocking by the orchestra (Fate knocking at the prison door? Prisoners rattling the bars? Builders? Faulty central heating?). After a short spiel the next song12 is Marzelline having hopeful thoughts about Fidelio. Love and marriage not impossible she thinks (Ho Ho). It is a sparkling piece coming straight from the heart and almost painfully innocent. Again, although formally structured, it breaks into a bit of a romantic whirl at the end of each verse. And now the world stops. Not only the stage world but the world of the listener, whatever he may be doing and wherever he may be. The grave string introduction casts its spell ahead of the first entry (Marzelline) and then the magical canon16 grows and swells as next Leonore then Rocco and lastly Jaquino, join in. Wonder heaped on wonder as the other three voices weave a
free pattern around the last entry. Suddenly the shades lengthen and the light fades and we have a hushed coda over a lingering tonic pedal. Then a forceful, final full close. The strands in the ‘thinks’ combo are as follows: Marzelline: (conning herself of course) Fidelio loves me for sure, goody, Leonore: Bit of a problem here, she thinks I’m a chap, Rocco: They’ll make a stunning couple, Jaquino: O dear, o dear, Marzelline’s gone cold on me. After the tic-toc, tic-toc of each entry in the canon we can hear the anguish, hope, joy, etc. in each part as it stands against the others. This Olympian piece surpasses all the ‘thinks’ ensembles in Donizetti and Verdi. Theirs may have been longer, more complex and have called on mighty choral and orchestral support, but better they could not be. After the quartet this trio26 has something to live up to and good though it is, it can’t quite do it. It is Beethoven at his most brave and bouncy but our characters have once again become singing actors not living people. The middle section sounds like a symphonic development and the burden of the piece is quite plotty. Rocco: You need guts to go down into the frightful torture cells, Leonore: I have loads of guts, Rocco: Happiness is built on fearing God and respecting justice, Leonore: That’s me, Rocco: I’ll ask the boss today if you can go with me, Marzelline: Yes do, it may speed up our marriage, Rocco: I’m getting on a little and if I hang up my dinner pail Fidelio could take over, Marzelline: Don’t talk like that; all, again and finally: You must have guts to get on in life. Pizarro (one would have thought unwisely) trumpets his delight in revenge35 and in the agreeable prospect of murdering his old enemy Florestan. His troops listen to him a bit bemused. A robust ‘rage’ aria: the strings work away to good effect in a properly furious accompaniment. Now we get nearer to opera. Pizarro asks Rocco to partner him39 in his dread design to murder Florestan. Rocco demurs, but only mildly, because he cons himself into thinking death for Florestan would come as a merciful release. This duet makes compulsive listening: never a dull bar and every thought driven home with clarity and despatch. Tremendously workmanlike. Leonore’s first solo44 — a powerful recitatif of hate against Pizarro until she sees a rainbow and turns a bit soppy: there is a sweet intro to her aria and three horns range along in company with her in good style until we reach what one would hesitate to call the cabaletta, but which is certainly a fast bit at the end. This is really good: she is urged on by the friendly horns, now panting hotly beneath, to fine sentiments of duty and devotion and twice strikes a memorable high note. The prisoners’ chorus.52 A grave strophe from the strings tells us that something serious is about to happen and then, as the prison gates are thrown open, a sinuous little motif in the woodwind weaves its way around the voices of the prisoners, distant at first, but rising to full-throated shouts of delight in the sunlight and fresh air. A solo prisoner tells them to keep their peckers up and they respond so noisily that a second has to tell them to belt up a bit. They heed his advice for a while, but finish by repeating their greeting to the sunlight pretty loudly. Here, interestingly enough, is a piece which in an oratorio would seem only pretty good but when coupled with the sight of the poor wretches groping upwards into the light, is quite overwhelming. Now at last we are into true opera country:59 the dialogue between Leonore and Rocco, the arrival of Marzelline in a mucksweat, the fury of Pizarro: this sequence flows along unchecked, part recitatif, some melody, lots of orchestral colour, and we take aboard the drama and the music as a single message. No stop-start, no spieling.
The Good Opera Guide
The final ensemble:67 under cover of chivvying the prisoners back into the cells each character has his ‘thinks’ line: Pizarro: Get a move on Rocco and let me get murdering, Rocco: OK I’m going but I’m scared stiff, Leonore: Will no-one stop this bastard?, Marzelline: Poor dears, they were so enjoying themselves, Jaquino: Some funny stuff going on between Pizarro and Rocco, eh?, prisoners: Here we go, down again. Although each part in itself is fine, the finale doesn’t quite come up to snuff. There is no real climax, catharsis, orgasm or whatever. But onstage the sight of the poor devils being herded back into darkness is a great help, also the calm little orchestral coda.
Act II Sc 1
MINUTES FROM THE START
4: 13: 18: 24: 30:
In des Lebens* Nur hurtig fort* Euch werde Lohn*** Er sterbe! Doch er soll* O namenlose Freude!**
The first bars of the introduction tell us that we are now into a pretty gloomy mood. This sombre piece is interrupted by a fearful shout of ‘Gott!’ from the trapped Florestan, who then tells us what a hard time he has had in exchange for doing his duty. A pure, clear little motif introduces his aria4 which is forceful, but halfway through changes gear, for he sees a vision of an angel, Leonore, leading him up to heaven. There is a piquant oboe accompaniment — maybe it is Leonore’s spirit or something. The digging duet13 is interrupted by powerful gusts of emotion as Leonore wonders if the prisoner is Florestan. This impedes her spadework considerably and poor old Rocco has to keep nagging her with an eerie underground sort of tune, but her voice soars up into the light. The combination is both fearful and rather wonderful. And now another piece of pure magic — the trio Florestan, Rocco, Leonore18 — half ‘thinks’ half actuality. Florestan starts with a suave main theme, saying to the other two thanks a lot for being so decent to me, Rocco replies don’t mention it but Leonore tells us, not them, that she is all of a flutter. Florestan notices Leonore is acting a bit funny, Rocco and she debate the propriety of giving Florestan a bit of bread, and the pulse of the music stops as she offers it to him. So back to the main theme with Rocco and Leonore joining in a most glorious ensemble (again with a mixture of ‘thinks’ and duet dialogue) and finally a quick coda and lingering final notes before Florestan actually eats the much-sung-about piece of bread. A really strange jumble of noble thoughts and ornery chitchat to inspire music of a sort that people used to call ‘sublime’, a word we don’t use but we know what it means. Now things get moving, high drama as Pizarro enters the cell and viciously confronts Florestan.24 He tells him he is going to kill him, Leonore interposes, shouts that she is his wife and pulls a gun on Pizarro. Then the great coup de théâtre: the distant trumpet. So often in opera when things get physical and go fast the music makes no more than stock melodramatic gestures, but Beethoven here supports the action with gutsy stringent stuff that makes the air crackle. After the trumpet, a moment of calm: each one reflects what the news means. After the second trumpet and Jaquino’s shouted message, all hell breaks loose again and Pizarro and Rocco exit.
Shouts of joy.30 It’s you! Yes it’s me! (or I! if you prefer it). Florestan! Leonore! What bliss! Etc.! Pent-up emotion escaping like steam released through an opened valve. Beethoven is particularly strong on joy (as the European Union has reason to know).
Act II Sc 2
MINUTES FROM THE START
33: Heil sei dem Tag* 40: O Gott! Welch ein Augenblick!***
The orchestra opens the finale as if it were going to play a dance tune, but soon switches to Pomp & Circumstance. In comes the chorus Hailing33 away and we are off into Fernando’s recitatif as he begins winding up the plot for us with the occasional but noisy assistance of the chorus. Then a moment of calm. An oboe leads into Leonore’s entry;40 she sings a gentle melody and is joined by Florestan, then Fernando, Rocco and Marzelline, this time not in canon but conjuring up the same magic sense of wonder as in the Act I quartet. The chorus quietly slips in behind them and the spell holds until the mood changes and the chorus bursts in with gusty and noisy shouts of jubilation. From here on it is all gas and gaiters, the soloists tripping along on top, everyone going for bust, a little hectic perhaps, but then that’s Beethoven, and indeed it is hard not to think of the finale of the Choral Symphony.
First night Reception Libretto Source Beethoven’s one and only opera Mark 1: Theater an der Wien, Vienna, 20 November 1805 Mark 2: ditto, 29 March 1806 Mark 3: Käartnertortheater, Vienna, 23 May 1814 See below 1. Sonnleithner 2. (Revision) Breuning 3. (Revision) Treitschke French play by Bouilly 1794
NEWS AND GOSSIP
Fidelio had a rocky start in life. In 1805 Napoleon was on the move and Vienna was packed with French soldiers. Most of opera’s regular clients had pushed off into the country and the run-up to the first night had been bugged by threats of censorship (the statue of ‘the good monarch’ which originally stood centre stage in the last scene was designed with the pathetic hope of softening the Emperor’s attitude). Also the rehearsals had been chaotic. The opera was too long (exactly how long we don’t know) and ran for only three performances. Beethoven, no doubt with his well-known bouts of fury and despair, cut the three acts to two, junked a couple of first act numbers and shortened the dialogue. The second version was put on six months later and went a little better. But he immediately got at it again, revising, cutting, patching,
The Good Opera Guide
rewriting, and eight years later the third version was staged, again in Vienna, and this is the one we know and love today. As a revolutionary work Fidelio caught the mood of the day and was played all over Europe as something of a political shocker. Rather as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger torpedoed the run of Aunt Edna plays in the London of the 1950s, so in 1805 did Fidelio discredit the stuffy and pretentious baroque opera tradition that was still hanging around in Vienna. But the old order was probably doomed anyway, for as well as Napoleon, Rossini was soon to be on the march. Fidelio was soon seen to be a masterpiece and it has held a hallowed position in the opera repertory ever since. And here’s a note to clear up the confusing matter of the overtures: Leonore No. 2: Leonore No. 3: Leonore No. 1: Fidelio: composed for the first performance in November 1805. composed for the first performance in March 1806. The big one. Sometimes (mistakenly) played before the last scene. adopted as a concert piece 1807. (quite different) composed for the 1814 performance and nearly always played before the opera.
Beethoven would be the first to admit that Fidelio is a bit of a mess. For one thing the Singspiel form never really worked. It had been forced on the Viennese houses by Imperial decree because the Emperor was mad at the Italians and the French for their dominance in opera. Mozart suffered from it and Beethoven picked up the fag end of this hybrid old thing, which was bad luck on him. So Fidelio starts with alternate bursts of singing and spieling and the songs seem to have come in from outside and do not form a part of a living and breathing music-drama. Beethoven himsel said, when he chucked out a couple of numbers from the first version, that they were too like concert pieces. But so are the ones that stayed in, including even the wonderful, wonderful quartet. What is more, the spieling is pedestrian stuff. Sonnleithner’s lines have no spring in their step, and read about as well as a telephone directory. Traditionally, the job of the recitatif was to tell the story and of the arias to reflect the sentiment, but in Fidelio the sing bits do a lot for the plot and the spiel bits tend to stop the action dead in its tracks and let all the steam out of the mood built up by the marvellous music. It’s not until the prisoners come lurching out of their cells that we are gripped by the power of true opera. Again the story up to this point has been toy-town stuff — scenes from the family life of an elderly prison warder — with no hint of the passion and nobility of what is to come. Except that the music is wonderful, the first scene of Fidelio is, in fact, a pretty fair old disaster. But the music wins us over, for here is Beethoven at his greatest and best. It does not matter that the forms are symphonic and the style instrumental, he bowls us over just the same. And as the opera progresses and we climb the true operatic peak of Act II all the awkwardness and irrelevances (it couldn’t matter less whether Marzelline wants to marry Jaquino or Fidelio) are forgotten. From the prisoners’ chorus (one of the most moving scenes in all opera) onwards, the piece holds its power, we can tolerate the spiels and, indeed, the melodrame (spoken word against musical backing) between Rocco and Leonore is a positive plus. The tension builds through the trio and quartet leading up to the trumpet call and then the joy and the passion of the Leonore/Florestan duet makes it the real climax of the opera. It is Beethoven’s ability to make
his absolute music pack such a dramatic punch that lends such enormous power to Fidelio: his passionate advocacy of liberty, his hatred of tyranny speak to us directly through the music and make Fidelio one of the greatest of all operas. Only the weakness of the beginning stops it being an alpha-plus: a mighty alpha.
Figaro see Marriage of Figaro, The
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.