Beethoven's music: John Suchet explores Fidelio

Yes, just one. But what a gestation, what a struggle! It had begun life as the opera on which he agreed to collaborate with Schikaneder at the Theater an der Wien.

That was abandoned after six months, though some elements survived. Even when Beethoven began work on the new opera that was to become Leonore, it took him longer to complete than any previous composition, and he filled the equivalent of over three sketchbooks (the Eroica, by contrast, occupying about half a single book).

In other words, it was a struggle. So were attempts to stage it. Everything was in place in the spring of 1804 when Beethoven’s contract with the Theater an der Wien was terminated, and plans were abandoned. Later in the year he was reinstated and the plans revived. The following year was taken up with the first performances of the Eroica and the composition of the Appassionata Piano Sonata, but a date was finally set for the first premiere of Beethoven’s opera, Leonore: 15 October 1805.

On 30 September the theatre censor banned the opera on the grounds that it was seditious. After an appeal, and a few changes made, the ban was lifted. But the opening date had to be postponed for five weeks because the rehearsals went so badly, and Beethoven insisted on making revisions.

At one of the rehearsals the third bassoon was absent. Beethoven fretted and fumed. Prince Lobkowitz made light of the matter, saying two bassoonists were enough. Beethoven was so angry that on the way home, as he passed the Lobkowitz Palace, he shouted at the main entrance: Lobkowitzian ass!

A new date was set for 20 November. One week before, the French army invaded and occupied Vienna. For the first three performances the theatre was practically empty, the people of Vienna preferring to remain in the safety of their homes. What audiences there were consisted largely of French officers, who immediately grasped the larger message of the work – freedom from tyranny – and ensured the opera failed. After three performances it closed.

There’s some suggestion Beethoven was not as upset as he might have been. He realised straight away the opera, in three acts, was long and unwieldy and lacking in dramatic tension. He allowed himself to be persuaded to revise it (putting up token resistance), his friend Stephan von Breuning provided a new libretto, and the revised Leonore, now in two acts, was staged on 29 March 1806, conducted by Seyfried. By all accounts the standard of playing and singing was abysmal. Beethoven wrote after the first night, with characteristic self-pity:

Tonight I will stand at a distance. If I am near the orchestra I will have to listen to my music being murdered! I really think they must be doing it on purpose. I shall not say anything about the wind instruments but – all the pianissimos and crescendos, all thedecrescendos and all the fortes and fortissimos have been deleted from my opera! All desire to compose anything more ceases completely if I have to hear my work performedlike that!

But the newly revised work was, if anything, a success. Not by Beethoven’s standards. He was still not satisfied. He had a furious row with the theatre’s manager, accusing him of withholding receipts from him (he was on a percentage) – an argument he was to use nearly 20 years later after the first performance of the Ninth Symphony, and on neither occasion was it true. He demanded the return of his score, and forbade any further performances.

Leonore lay in a drawer untouched for a further eight years. In 1814, with Napoleon defeated and exiled to the island of Elba (Waterloo was still a year away), a new political climate, the great Congress of Vienna summoned to redraw the post-Napoleonic map of Europe, it struck the theatre directors as a good idea to get Beethoven to resurrect his opera.

A new librettist was brought in, Beethoven agreed on condition he could completely revise the work, and Fidelio – as the opera was now entitled – was a triumph and remains so to this day.

There are those who say Beethoven did not know how to write for the human voice. Well, they can point to Beethoven’s own words to back that up. Late in life he said: I am well aware of the value of my Fidelio; I know just as well that the symphony is my real element. When sounds ring in me I always hear the full orchestra. I can ask anything of instrumentalists, but when writing for the voice I must continually ask myself: Can that be sung?

They sometimes say too that if Fidelio had been composed by anyone but Beethoven, it would soon have been forgotten. Wrong!

The plot, admittedly, is one of those thoroughly believable operatic plots: Woman disguises herself as a man to get a job at the prison where her husband is held. Jailer’s daughter falls in love with the man/woman. Evil prison governor decides to murder husband. Jailer and man/woman dig grave for the husband. At the moment the governor raises his dagger to kill husband, man/woman steps between them with raised pistol, revealing herself as the prisoner’s wife. Trumpet sounds to signify arrival of Minister and guards. Evil governor arrested, husband and wife reunited, jailer’s daughter – disappointed the man she loves turns out to be a woman – succumbs to jailer’s assistant who’s been wooing her. Townsfolk rejoice. Freedom and love have triumphed over tyranny.

Who said opera plots have to be believable? Now treat yourself to the music. After the skittish wooing with which the opera opens, suddenly there comes a moment of utter beauty. Four characters, all expressing different hopes and emotions, sing a Quartet, Mir ist so wunderbar [It is so wonderful to me]. I find it difficult to breathe listening to this Quartet. It is quite simply heart-stopping. Beethoven knew how good it was – it survived all three versions of the opera.

Leonore’s main aria in Act I (she is the wife in disguise as a man), after she has heard the governor plotting to kill her husband, is a showpiece moment for the soprano. In it she is accompanied by solo horn, the ‘heroic’ instrument of the orchestra.

The Prisoners’ Chorus is universally known. Leonore has persuaded the jailer to allow the prisoners out into the daylight. The male chorus sing of the freedom they long for. (Not the occupying French officers’ favourite moment at the first performances.)

Act II opens with Florestan’s aria (he is the jailed husband) in the dungeon. It is his first appearance in the opera. He is on the brink of starving to death. He sings of his misfortune, but then in a passage of pure radiance he imagines his wife appearing before him like an angel.

After his dramatic rescue, and Pizarro’s arrest (the prison governor), there is a short passage of dialogue. On my favourite recording of this opera – arguably the greatest ever recording of it (Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, with Christa Ludwig and Jon Vickers as the principals, EMI 1962) – this is reduced to just two lines, but what lines:

O, meine Leonore, was hast du für mich getan? Nichts, nichts, mein Florestan! [Oh my Leonore, what have you done for me? Nothing, nothing, my Florestan!]

I cannot listen to these two lines without tears welling up in my eyes. Listen to them with the one you love, and you will understand what I mean.

Florestan and Leonore then sing a love duet of unsurpassed ecstasy, O namenlose Freude! [Oh joy beyond words]. Freedom has triumphed over tyranny, love over hate. Pure Beethoven.