Beethoven's Leonore

Sunday, March 5, 2017
6:00 pm

Presented at Lisner Auditorium.

See below for Program Notes and Synopsis for Sunday's performance.

Program Notes

By Peter Russell

Beginning in 1805, Ludwig van Beethoven worked steadily over the span of a decade at tweaking and strengthening his only opera to make it more stageworthy. The result is that Fidelio, the 1814 final version of the combined efforts of Beethoven and several wordsmiths and advisers with keener stage savvy than the composer, has long been embraced as one of the literature’s iconic, undisputedly great works. It is easy to point out its flaws: the characters are all melodramatic, black and white archetypes, and the structure of the opera is weirdly bifurcated, blending the mundane and domestic with super-charged matters of life and death. Yet the cumulative effect of Fidelio is far greater than the sum of its parts, inspiring musicians and audiences alike for over two centuries.

At the invitation of opera impresario, librettist, and performer Emanuel Schikaneder, Beethoven spent several months straddling 1803-1804 lodging for free in an apartment on the grounds of the Theater an der Wien, with the intent of composing a new opera for that venue during his stay. More than fifteen years earlier, Mozart had also sojourned as a lodger at a Viennese theater under Schikaneder’s management, the Theater auf der Wieden, while composing Die Zauberflöte, for which Schikaneder had also written the book. Beethoven greatly admired elements of that masterpiece—the nobility and lofty ideals of the high priest Sarastro and his followers, as well as the pure-hearted hero and heroine, Tamino and Pamina, who together reach enlightenment through trials and adversity. But the book Schikaneder provided Beethoven, an ancient Roman potboiler titled Vestas Feuer, proved hopelessly uninspiring to the composer, despite his dutifully setting a couple musical numbers in good faith. Schikaneder’s firing as director of the Theater an der Wien in 1804 both freed Beethoven from the obligation of completing Vestas Feuer and allowed him to begin work instead on writing an opera based on a book that held far greater appeal: a “rescue drama” by the French Jean-Nicolas Bouilly. Already successfully set to music by Beethoven’s contemporaries Pierre Gaveaux, Ferdinando Paer, and Simon Mayr, and newly translated for him into German by the court poet Joseph Sonnleithner. 

Léonore had repeatedly proven its appeal to Viennese audiences. Any dramatic scenario that dealt with the downtrodden rising up to overcome oppression particularly inspired Beethoven, and Bouilly’s tale of a wife’s devotion to her husband leading to both her beloved’s liberation and his corrupt enemy’s downfall ideally suited Beethoven’s aesthetic. He held strong political views throughout his career: a champion of the French Revolution, and fervent admirer of Napoleon, he had originally given his Symphony No. 3 the title “Buonaparte.” Upon learning that Napoleon had appointed himself Emperor, 

a disillusioned Beethoven hastily changed the title of the symphony, first performed in Vienna in 1805--the same year as the first version of Fidelio--to “Eroica.” 

Beyond Beethoven’s political leanings, he was also a pragmatist. While historians disagree as to how intimately he knew the settings of Bouilly’s libretto by Gaveaux, Paer, and Mayr, it is clear that he was well aware of all three. Further, he both knew and revered another popular opera of this same “rescue” genre that he had recently seen in Vienna, Les deux journées by Luigi Cherubini. Like the Bouilly book that inspired Fidelio and its operatic antecedents, the Cherubini opera told a tale of great risk and personal sacrifice undertaken by a commoner to save the lives of others in peril, exactly the type of drama that gripped the public imagination in the immediate wake of the French Revolution. In a coup that is as rare a treat for audiences as it is salutary for the music scene in the nation’s capital, Opera Lafayette will have presented Gaveaux’s Léonore, ou l’amour conjugal on February 19, a unique opportunity to compare and contrast an opéra comique setting of the Bouilly book that inspired Beethoven, cheek by jowl with that composer’s first pass at his own operatic version of the same story as we hear it this evening. 

The fact that the premiere of Fidelio on November 20, 1805, at the Theater an der Wien was not a great success cannot be ascribed entirely to its artistic merits. Beethoven’s disenchantment with Napoleon’s overreach continued throughout the Napoleonic Wars, which witnessed a massive occupation of Vienna by French troops during the period that encompassed the premiere of Fidelio. Many Austrians, including some of Beethoven’s staunchest supporters, saw fit to flee the city during the invasion; for those who remained, it must have seemed unsettling indeed to witness so politically charged a drama unfold onstage with occupying troops all around them in the theater. 

Nonetheless, several allies close to Beethoven opined that the opera was too long, or lacking in dramatic impetus. Revisions for an 1806 revival only helped to a degree. Bouilly’s three acts were tightened down to two. Rocco’s ditty about the importance of money to the happiness of marriage was excised entirely. A few internal snippets and rewrites were made within several of the musical numbers, and some others were rearranged. On the one hand, Leonore’s great aria, “Komm, Hoffnung,” which in 1805 had been separated from the duet in which Pizarro both shares his plan to murder Florestan with Rocco and solicits his help in so doing, now followed that duet immediately, which made more sense dramatically. On the other, two gently domestic numbers—a lyrical duet with Marzelline about the importance of fidelity and honesty between spouses, and a strophic trio led by Rocco about long-term marital happiness—now followed Leonore’s aria, undercutting a buildup of tension toward the Act I finale. The act itself concluded, as it did in 1805, with Pizarro exhorting his henchmen on to murder, with both music and text similar to his “Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!” at the opening of the same act. Beethoven also composed a new overture for the 1806 revision, the “Leonore #3,” generally considered not only the finest of the four different overtures he composed for this opera, but one of his finest overtures, period. Grandly heroic in character and symphonic in sweep, it unfortunately pulls the rug out from underneath the lighthearted music that opens the opera. The tradition of playing this overture not as a curtain raiser, but following the “O namenlose Freude!” duet in Act II, often attributed to Gustav Mahler’s years at the helm of the Vienna State Opera between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, still prevails in some modern performances. Its placement at this point in the drama neatly serves three purposes: building on the euphoria of the duet that precedes it, recapping the excitement of the trumpet call that had heralded Florestan’s imminent salvation a few minutes earlier, and allowing sufficient time for a change of scenery from the dungeon’s gloom to the prison courtyard’s daylight. 

While musicologists have given the title Leonore to both the 1805 and 1806 versions of the opera to distinguish them from the 1814 version, the truth is that all forms of the score were advertised at the time they were first performed as Fidelio, chiefly to avoid confusion with other works billed as Leonore set to Bouilly’s book. But the revisions to the work in 1814, largely the handiwork of Georg Friedrich Treitschke, were much greater than those of 1806. A new overture (the “Fidelio Overture”) is appropriate in scale and length to the music that immediately follows, and to the opera overall. While Rocco’s aria in the first scene about the importance of money was reinstated, both Marzelline’s duet with Leonore and the strophic trio led by Rocco about marriage were cut. Leonore’s aria still followed the Pizarro/Rocco duet in the first act, but with a more forceful recitative accompanied by the orchestra that reacted directly to Pizarro’s murderous nature. Her concluding allegro, while retaining its virtuosic intervallic leaps, eschewed the coloratura furbelows that previously had resulted in one brief passage of vocal fireworks requiring an entirely different type of soprano voice in the role of Leonore. The setup to the prisoners’ chorus made it clear that their freedom to wander the courtyard was unprecedented, rather than an occasional treat, making Pizarro’s wrath at their liberty much clearer. The Act I finale, with the prisoners resignedly returning to their cells, and Leonore left uncertain as to what will happen next, at last builds to a quiet, yet heightened, tension.

Florestan’s big solo to open the second act is as transformed as Leonore’s Act I aria: now with a longer, bleaker orchestral introduction, punctuated by even more pronounced brass chords and timpani tritone thwacks, it leads into a howl of despair in accompanied recitative. The lyrical central theme of his two-part aria, simply stating that he has been cut down in the prime of life for daring to tell the truth, and that his comfort in confinement comes in knowing that he did the right thing, remains similar to earlier versions. However, an oboe solo now introduces a delirious vision of Leonore come to rescue him in the concluding movement, replacing the sadder, more resigned concluding section of 1805 and 1806. In the 1805 and 1806 editions, Pizarro had exited the dungeon later in this scene after confiscating the pistol with which Leonore had threatened his life as he had prepared to murder Florestan. This made the future still uncertain for Leonore and Florestan as they began their duet, “O namenlose Freude,” a burden of which they are relieved in 1814 when Leonore manages to retain her weapon. That duet had also been preceded by accompanied recitative and dialogue in the earlier versions. Surely as moving as any musical moment in Fidelio—when delivered by singing actors with a flair for dialogue—is the very simple spoken exchange, now de rigueur in modern performances, just before Leonore and Florestan burst joyously into song together, when he asks her, “O meine Leonore, was hast du für mich getan?,” and she softly responds, “Nichts, nichts mein Florestan” (“Oh, Leonore, what have you done for me?” “Nothing, nothing, my Florestan”). It is also in the 1814 version that the final scene at last shifts outside the dungeon to the prison courtyard, with musical proportions more evenly balanced between solemnity and celebration, solo and choral/ensemble writing than heard in either previous iteration of the score.

Clearly, Beethoven and his advisers recognized that the juxtaposition of comic and noble characters that made this opera part of the German Singspiel tradition (paraphrased as, “Sung Play”), so popular in his era, required a more balanced deployment within the dramatic framework of Fidelio. Unlike beloved works that preceded it, such as Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (1791), or those that followed (Weber’s Der Freischütz, 1821), Fidelio was neither a fairy tale nor a folk legend/ghost story. As such, the lighthearted comic characters and their music, which hearkened back to Mozart and Salieri, seemed even more anachronistic as Beethoven’s drama progressed. Inevitably, Marzelline and Jaquino all but disappear in the final version after the opera’s first scene. Rocco, the jailor, gains humanity through his association with Fidelio/Leonore, and his music grows more complex with his character. Pizarro may be all snarl and bite, but he serves as an ideal foil for Leonore’s compassion. The revised versions of both her great aria and Florestan’s, each in two distinct sections preceded by recitative, and each ferociously demanding vocally, capture the full gamut of humanity’s noblest feelings.

Fidelio served as a touchstone in the years leading up and subsequent to World War II for countless music lovers seeking catharsis and solace from oppression and unspeakable horrors. Although the Nazis did not invade Austria until 1938, Arturo Toscanini led a famous production of Fidelio starring the great German soprano Lotte Lehmann at the Salzburg Festival in 1936—the same year in which Hitler hosted the Olympics in Berlin, and Mussolini both invaded Ethiopia and described Italy’s relationship with Germany as an “axis”—starring the great German soprano Lotte Lehmann. Both Lehmann and Toscanini were to immigrate to the U.S. to escape Fascism and the Nazis. Toscanini also selected Fidelio in 1944 as the first complete opera to be broadcast over the airwaves with his NBC Symphony, later issued as a complete commercial recording on RCA. It became the first opera in 1945 to be performed in Berlin after World War II had ended, and the opera that reopened the repaired Vienna State Opera in 1955. In the autumn of 1989, a new staging of the opera at Dresden’s Semperoper coincided with violent anti-Communist protests outside the theater; by November 9 of that year, the wall separating East and West Berlin had fallen.

There is a case to be made that the simple “normalcy” of domesticity with which Fidelio begins—albeit in the grim locale of a political prison—heightens the opera’s drama once Fidelio/Leonore enters and we realize how much is at stake. Certainly the canon quartet after her entrance, “Mir ist so wunderbar,” while limned by Beethoven with relatively simple musical means, instantly lifts the tone to one of mystery and uncertainty. Even in their formative stages, the musical characterizations of Leonore and Florestan are unique in the genre for their nobility of utterance. It is also fascinating to hear the sweetly lyrical duet Marzelline sings with Fidelio/Leonore, later excised, that provides a softer, fuller dimension to her character, as well as Rocco’s gently paternal musings on conjugal fulfillment. The sketches for a masterpiece by a craftsman of Beethoven’s monumental talents are always worthy of special consideration. Hearing Leonore in its original version provides a unique opportunity to witness and hear Beethoven gradually beginning to make his original, deeply moving voice heard within the strictures of the Singspiel form, with an extra measure of appreciation for what his genius, determination and maturity brought to full flower in Fidelio.

Peter Russell is the General Director of Vocal Arts DC and co-founder, with Stephen Crout, of Washington Concert Opera.



Marzelline, daughter of the jailer Rocco, sings of her love for Fidelio, her father’s young assistant (“O war’ ich schon mit dir vereint,” O, if only I were already united with you). She is unaware that Fidelio is really Leonore, wife of Florestan, a political prisoner who so angered the governor Don Pizarro that he has been kept in a secret prison for two years. Leonore has disguised herself as a man in an effort to find her husband. It is rumored that Florestan is dead, but Leonore still hopes to find him alive in this prison. 

Jaquino, the prison gatekeeper, begs Marzelline to name the day they will be married, but she explains that although she did care for him before, she is now in love with Fidelio (Duet: “Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind wir allein” Now my love, we are alone). Rocco arrives and in a trio explains to his daughter and Jaquino that marriage is not something to be entered into lightly.

The disguised Leonore arrives carrying a heavy load of newly repaired chains. Rocco praises his work and believes that his modest replies imply that he loves Marzelline. In the “Canon Quartet” Marzelline is certain Fidelio loves her; Leonore says her danger is great and her hopes so slight; Rocco promises his daughter shall marry Fidelio after the prison governor has visited, and Jaquino fears he cannot stop the marriage (“Mir ist so wunderbar,” A wondrous feeling fills me). Rocco points out the importance of wealth in marriage—without it you will not be happy (“Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben,” If you don’t have money).

Leonore is grateful but says that she has not fully earned Rocco’s trust since he will not let her visit the secret section of the prison. Rocco explains that is forbidden because the man held there has powerful enemies, but he will ask the governor Pizarro for permission to let Fidelio assist him. The jailer admits that he is slowly starving the prisoner. The three sing in praise of courage.


With an orchestral march Pizarro and his officers enter the prison.

Pizarro’s spy has warned him that the government minister Don Fernando, learning that Pizarro is mistreating prisoners, will arrive shortly for a surprise inspection. Knowing he must destroy “the evidence,” Pizarro contemplates the pleasure of stabbing Florestan (“Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!” Ha! What a moment!). Pizarro decides to bribe Rocco to kill Florestan, but the old man refuses. Pizarro will do it himself, but he places guards on the towers to warn him of the minister’s arrival, and he tells Rocco to dig a grave deep inside the prison.

In a duet, as Marzelline sings of their future happiness, Leonore bemoans the fact that she has to deceive the naïve girl, but she believes heaven will forgive her. 

Alone, Leonore expresses her faith that her husband lives and is the man held in the secret cell. Her duty as a loving wife will save him (“Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern” Come, hope, let the last star). 

In the next scene, the prisoners have been temporarily released from their cells and gratefully experience the sun and fresh air (“O welche Lust” O what joy).

Rocco tells Leonore that Pizarro has given his permission for the marriage between Marzelline and Fidelio, but that first Fidelio must help dig a grave quickly. Pizarro arrives to berate the two for taking so long with the grave. He tells his guards to keep a sharp watch for the minister.


Alone in his dark cell, Leonore’s husband Florestan sings of the terrible silence and wishes he could see his wife once more (“Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!” God! What darkness here... “In des Lebens Frühlingstagen” In the spring days of life).

Rocco and Leonore enter the dark space where Florestan has fallen asleep and begin to dig the grave (Gravedigging Duet: “Wie kalt ist es in diesem unterirdischen Gewölbe!” How cold it is in this underground chamber ... “Nur hurtig fort, nur frisch gegraben,” Now hurry up and dig away!). 

Leonore is trembling and vows to save the prisoner no matter who he is. When Florestan awakens, Leonore recognizes her husband and faints on the edge of the grave. Florestan asks Rocco to take a message to his wife and begs a drink of water. Rocco refuses the first request but says Leonore can give the prisoner a drink. Florestan does not recognize his wife in the young man helping him, but tells him he will be rewarded in Heaven (“Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten,” You shall be rewarded in better worlds). She also gives Florestan a crust of bread.

Pizarro enters in disguise and orders Fidelio to leave. She hides in a dark corner. In an aside, Pizarro realizes he will have to kill Rocco and Fidelio as well. In the following quartet (“Er sterbe! Doch er soll erst wissen,” Let him die! But first he should know) Pizarro reveals his identity and draws his dagger; Leonore steps between him and her husband declaring that Pizarro must “first kill his wife.” There is great confusion and disbelief. When Pizarro moves to kill them both, Leonore draws a pistol and at that moment, the trumpets announce the arrival of the minister. Pizarro and Rocco rush out as Leonore faints. 

Florestan cannot believe his good fortune. When Leonore revives, they sing of their boundless joy in being reunited. On hearing a chorus demanding revenge, the couple resolves to die bravely. But the minister Don Fernando arrives declaring that he has come to break Florestan’s chains. He condemns Pizarro to be chained in the same dungeon for the rest of his life, but Leonore and Florestan plead for mercy. Resolving to let the king make the final decision, the opera ends as all sing Leonore’s praises (“Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,” He who is blessed with a good wife).