The enigma of Beethoven’s rêve solitaire
© George Fleeton mmxx
This Article was written for Lyric Opera Ireland’s production of Fidelio in the National Concert Hall Dublin on 22 and 23 February 2020.
In that magnificent panoply of European opera stretching, by general consensus, from Monteverdi’s La Favola d’Orfeo (1607) to Puccini’s Turandot (1926)
there is but one substantial and significant Rettungsoper/ ‘rescue’ opera: Fidelio (1814). Purists will disagree but very few of the rescue works which they champion are staged anywhere today.
Yet a great favourite of mine - Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) - is rarely referred to in this context.
It is a ‘reform’ opera, seeking a better balance of music and drama, and, as melodramma,it is ample, energetic, calm and sublime.
It has all the credentials too of a rescue opera: Orfeo mourns the death of his wife Euridice … he journeys to the House of Hades to reclaim her through the power of his music … on condition that he does not
look back at her … which he does … and she dies … but on the strength of his second lament Che farò senza Euridice? she is restored to life …
Not quite our Leonore and Florestan, but close.
Poor Beethoven: he wrote only this one opera – three times. He
gave it two titles and composed four overtures for it, all in the course of about ten years. Badly in need of rescuing himself, I could say; hardly born to the opera house at all, you might add.
But like Leonore and Florestan he got there in the end and we - the watchers in the dark, in Dublin tonight, and across a world marking his 250th birthday this year - are immeasurably better
off as a result.
Beethoven’s power and glory reside fundamentally in his orchestral and instrumental music: he was the most original spirit in the European musical world of 200 years ago.
In this context, his sole opera Fidelio seems like an unexpected
but self-conscious aberration, in the singspiel tradition, yet the Act 1 quartett Mir ist so wunderbar and the prisoners’ chorus O welche Lust are on a par with anything that Verdi was to write in the years immediately following
Beethoven’s death. Act 2 is redolent of what constitutes great opera – a big tenor aria, the indispensable love duet O namenlose Freude! and a deus ex machina show-stopping trumpet-call - all most effectively written
regardless of Beethoven’s personal and fundamental difficulty with the piece, to say nothing of the curse of his deafness.
Fidelio is set
near Seville, which must be opera’s favourite city, given that Figaro, Don Giovanni and Carmen were all locals.
The appeal to Beethoven of an innocent political prisoner trapped in a state of living death by a dark figure (the fascist Governor Don Pizzaro), and the added appeal of a rescue narrative engineered by the enterprise of his wife Leonore,
the first important dramatic soprano role in German opera, and the most pro-active, determined and courageous figure in this story - an amalgam of Shakespeare’s proto-feminists Portia, Viola and Rosalind – all
sat right across the composer’s musically proclaimed support for social re-birth and political change in post-revolutionary Europe.
As to its structure,
the nuance and interplay of light, shadow and darkness – chiaroscuro: those blacks, whites and infinite shades of melancholic grey – give this opera an unprecedented depth and texture, something later developed by Wagner, then partially
explored in mature Verdi, still resonating in Italian verismo opera at the end of the 19th century and used extensively in early silent cinema.
The translation into music of his most profound beliefs about social justice and the rights of mankind forced Beethoven to the very limits of how staged melodramma could express all that, an experience which drained him.
In all his music he sought tirelessly to proclaim his faith in the transcendent value of humanity, where good will ultimately triumphs over evil, and this hard-won opera is the assertive expression of that personal credo.
One of the interesting parallels between plot, character and the music which underpins the narrative is that each element is based on a sequence which we anticipate will come to a resolution,
if not a catharsis.
Dig deeper into the figurative metaphors of Fidelio and we begin to appreciate how the music commands our attention by its
masculine power; it appeals to our intellect by the formal subtleties of its structure; it moves us by its feminine grace and delicacy - all free-flowing life-forces which elevate us by evoking something outwith ourselves and lead us to a sense
of arrival where the journey has been at least as interesting as the destination.
Like multifarious Handel, Gluck and Mozart before him Beethoven achieved
this plateau - but in just one opera - where the clarity of his writing for the orchestra, voices and chorus set new standards and was widely considered a welcome antidote to Rossini and Donizetti who were in full flights of fancy at that time as they set
out to undermine the stuffy and pretentious baroque opera tradition that was still hanging around many European houses.
political shocker played its small part in all this new musical shape-shifting.
Lots of us today admit to being driven even liberated by our rêves
Given that Beethoven composed more music than Mozart, given that his 9 symphonies, 5 piano concertos, 16 string quartets and 32 piano
sonatas were the undeniable peaks of his imagination and his talent, Fidelio enigmatically occupies tiny territory in the context of that output – which is why I have always seen it as his rêve solitaire.
is not a perfect opera. Do you know of one that is? It is rather one of the art form’s rarities, an ethical opera, featuring a convincing mature married couple in an ode to freedom and light triumphant.
Its early pedestrian passages - those scenes from the mundane family life of a middle-aged prison warder - are all without a hint of the power and the passion of what is to come, and Aristotle’s
dramatic unities are brought in to play, in the libretti which Beethoven worked from, in order to correct a potential imbalance between the composer’s wider interest in concepts than in people and to ensure some modicum of theatrical flow.
Would the opera have fared better without the little people? What standard would then exist by which to measure the deeds of the heroes? Does not Leonore’s
noble bearing have ennobling influence on the other dramatis personae?
The character of Florestan her husband will, by contrast, always sit uncomfortably
across this opera: starved and chained to a wall, hallucinating in the dark, it is a taxing and thankless role and it says a great deal about Beethoven’s operatic inexperience that he gives his principal male voice only one aria, in which the tenor has
to come in on a high note Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier! after a prolonged symphonic introduction.
He doesn’t give the villainous Pizzaro
enough music to hang himself; the input of Marzelline and Jaquino is dispatched with early on; yet, in the final scene, newly arrived government minister Don Fernando gets more than his share of the best music of the evening as he pulls all the loosely related
strings of the drama together.
The musical forms are symphonic and the style instrumental but, as we climb to substantial operatic peaks, all that Act
1 awkwardness and irrelevance are forgotten.
What makes the opera memorable is Beethoven’s uncompromising seriousness about its celebration
of marital love, and the single-minded pains he takes to give substance to his rêve solitaire by ensuring that every bar of music contributes to that raison d’être.
Furtwängler remarked, when conducting it for the final time in 1953, that it felt more like a Mass than an opera (and we recall that Leonore eases her husband’s pain with a
piece of stale bread and the dregs of wine).
Leading German dramaturg Sigrid Neef wrote recently that Beethoven’s only opera is both disparate
and magnificent, uniting many musical ideas; there is hardly a criticism that has not been levelled at it and hardly an expression of praise that has not been bestowed on it.
From the dramatic punch of the prisoners’ chorus onwards the piece holds its powerful thrust fed by those other life-forces comprising Beethoven’s passionate advocacy of liberty, his fearless hatred of tyranny and the
opera’s unambiguous political message.
‘Waving his baton to and fro, with violent movements, a puzzled expression on his face … he stood among the playing musicians and did not hear a note!’ - so wrote 17
year old Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient of Beethoven at rehearsals as she made her sensational début as Leonore - in the opera’s 1822 revival - and helped copper-fasten its place in European music history.
After World War II many of Europe’s greatest opera houses pointedly opened their first peace-time seasons with Fidelio and it can still be read as an ardent manifesto against
state oppression and political injustice of all kinds since its narrative is bound to no time, place or culture.