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Opera Club: Beethoven’s ‘Leonore’ and ‘Fidelio’

Staatsoper Wien



Theater an der Wien


Rather than presenting a “Classic” and a “Discovery” in this weekend’s Opera Club, we invite you to dip your toes into Beethoven’s only completed opera in its various incarnations in the year of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.

Both productions are from Vienna, both from 2020, but neither present the “standard” 1814 Fidelio. The two lesser-known versions of the opera, from 1805 and 1806 respectively, boast different overtures and distinctive structural and other musical features, with Singspiel (spoken dialogues between musical numbers). While in 1805, the work was premiered as Leonore – named after the opera’s female protagonist and based on the opera Léonore ou l’amour conjugale (by French revolutionary Jean Nicolas Bouilly), it appeared under the title Fidelio for the first time in 1806, the title chosen by the administration at Theater an der Wien.

In early 2020, the two big Viennese opera theatres presented these versions in two exciting interpretations. At Theater an der Wien, Austrian actor and winner of an Academy Award Christoph Waltz (you might know him from Inglourious Basterds) directed the 1806 Fidelio, in a production that sets the story as a psychological drama, creating strong, unsettling, and decidedly filmic images in Barkow Leibinger’s colossal, warped staircase construction, dramatically lit by Henry Braham. The Vienna State Opera, for the first time in the history of this revered institution, presents Leonore, in a controversial production by Amélie Niermayer, which treats the original material with much artistic freedom and adds an alter ego figure to the central character of Leonore.

The genesis of Fidelio captures Beethoven’s interest in the French revolution and its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. The composer’s critique of social injustice is a strong guiding principle throughout the several revisions of the work, as is the resolve of undeserved suffering in the opera’s finale, where heroic courage and love win over political oppression. The original 1805 version, with its libretto and textbook by Joseph von Sonnleithner, differs from its later variation from 1814 mainly in the dramatic focus of the final scenes. Originally, the reunion of the principal characters Florestan and his wife Leonore, who disguises as Fidelio to rescue her husband from unjust imprisonment and fights off criminal nobleman Don Pizarro in his attempt to kill his prisoner Florestan, happens in the confines of the prison cell – the danger not yet averted, in an intimate scene highlighting the private joy of two lovers. The liberation is presented here as the personal achievement of the heroic woman at the centre of the narrative. With its gloomy dungeon scenes, Leonore did not make much of a positive impression. It was also felt to be too long, and closed after only three performances. To improve palatability for Viennese audience, Beethoven was asked to condense the score into two rather than three acts. The libretto was adapted by Stephan von Breuning, and Beethoven wrote a new overture for the 1806 reopening, which was much better received than the original version, but again closed early, allegedly following a dispute between Beethoven and the theatre director. The work was not performed again until 1814 – again in revised form.

In the 1814 version, with a new libretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke, and a new overture again, the final scene had been adapted in line with the stronger political tone of Treitschke’s writing. Here, the victory against the oppressor is a public scene, and Don Fernando’s announcement of the end of tyranny is a statement against all manipulation of power and moral corruption.

As has been argued in Beethoven scholarship, the emphasis on the hope for peace and personal freedom in this revision was apt, considering the socio-political background of the time: 1814 was the first year of the Congress of Vienna, where Europe’s monarchs laid out a peace plan to prepare for the end of the Napoleonic wars. The 1814 Fidelio, with its idealist message, now is the standard version. It is all the more interesting to hear the rare “ur”-Fidelio, complete with its original overture. The most noteworthy musical difference between the versions here mentioned is the lighter overall sound world of the original: the orchestration is slimmer, lacking the heavy opulence of its successor. This alone makes this rediscovery worthwhile.

The recent production at the Vienna State Opera was subject to much criticism, especially in its treatment of the original textbook, which was replaced with new dialogues. The part of Leonore is played by two performers, representing conflicting sides of Leonore’s personality; soprano Jennifer Davis was chosen for all sung parts and some dialogue, and actress Katrin Röver as her alter ego. The happy ending of the opera is presented here as nothing but a mere fantasy, turning this interpretation by director Amélie Niermeyer into its very own socio-political commentary. The role of Florestan is sung by Benjamin Bruns; Rocco by Falk Struckmann, Pizarro by Thomas Johannes Mayer and Marzelline by Chen Reiss. The musical director is Tomáš Netopil.

At Theater an der Wien, the 1806 Fidelio boasts a strong ensemble of soloists, with Nicole Chevalier possessing both the vocal and dramatic qualities to present a psychologically complex Leonore. The cast also includes Eric Cutler (Florestan), Gábor Bretz (Don Pizarro), Christopf Fischesser (Rocco) and Mélissa Petit as Marzelline, among others. The musical director is Manfred Honeck.

As always, please do contact us on Facebook or Twitter or if you’ve got any questions about these operas or productions: we would be delighted to help!

In case you missed it: last week’s recommendations: Parsifal and La Juive