‘Fidelio’ is the one opera in the repertory that has the power to sway audiences even when it is indifferently performed. Yet it is a highly problematic work whose triumphant conclusion and the impression it is designed to convey of goodness winning out over evil do not go to the heart of what Beethoven was grappling with. Not that its plot is complex, or that, like many of the French operas of the day which influenced Beethoven and whose brilliance he admired, it is a long and complicated work: Fidelio’s success in the theatre derives in part from its compactness and intensity – in the course of two extremely taut acts, a devoted wife rescues her unjustly imprisoned husband, foils a tyrannically cruel Spanish grandee, and manages to release all the other prisoners arbitrarily imprisoned in his dungeons. Unlike most other operas, however, Fidelio is burdened with the complexities of its own past as well as the huge effort it cost its composer before he was able to present it in its ‘final’ form in Vienna on 23 May 1814. It is the only work of its kind he ever completed; it caused him a great deal of pain; yet despite the attention he lavished on it, he failed to get the satisfaction from it, in terms either of popular success or of aesthetic conviction, that his efforts entitled him to.
What we know today as Fidelio is the third version of a three-act opera originally produced as Leonore in 1805 and again, in a somewhat truncated two-actversion, in 1806, and finally, in an even more edited and reconfigured two-act version, in 1814 and 1815, as Fidelio. And that isn’t all. Fidelio must be the only opera whose composer wrote no fewer than four overtures for it (three to Leonore and one to Fidelio, composed for the 1814 version): these works are still played in the concert hall, although, of the four, only the overture to Fidelio makes no musical reference to the opera itself. Thanks to musicologists and musicians there now exists a fairly accurate composite version of the 1805-6 Leonore, which in recent years has been performed and recorded. Indeed, I know of two important performances of Leonore in 1996, one in New York and the other some weeks later in Salzburg, in a lean, semi-staged concert rendition by John Eliot Gardiner and his period-instrument Orchestre Romantique et Révolutionnaire. This was followed, again in Salzburg, by Georg Solti conducting several staged performances of Fidelio, and in New York by Kurt Masur and the NY Philharmonic doing one extremely loud and stodgy concert version which highlighted Gardiner’s much more dynamic conception and execution.
Gardiner’s commitment to Leonore as a more interesting work than Fidelio was buttressed by a spirited essay he wrote for the New York programme booklet. ‘With the Leonore of 1805,’ Gardiner suggests, ‘Beethoven was struggling to recover the fiery revolutionary fervour and idealism of his Bonn years after the relatively cosy time he had been having in Vienna. If Leonore could be said to spring from that self which continually searches for the ideal in the face of fear, Fidelio, by contrast, represents Beethoven’s more settled, static response to tyranny and injustice, freedom and self-sacrifice.’ Leonore’s effectiveness, Gardiner continued, comes from the ‘power and purity of its emotion’. Gardiner is very harsh about Fidelio, which he claims reinforces ‘its abstract, collective and philosophical message’ at the expense of ‘personal and human complexity’. It was Fidelio and not Leonore that was, he says, ‘hijacked to honour Hitler’s birthday’ because of its ‘unfortunate nationalistic baggage’, and Fidelio again that, along with Germania and the Battle Symphony, put the remains of Beethoven’s heroic style at the service of the reactionary impulse in Europe. But he is certainly right to suggest that the 1815 Fidelio, whose associations with the Congress of Vienna lent weight to its authoritative density, never satisfied Beethoven, who often complained that the work needed rewriting from the beginning, despite the inordinate labour he had already expended on it over a period of ten or eleven years. Thus Gardiner in conclusion: ‘it is a fallacy to claim that in Fidelio Beethoven in every case refined and strengthened his first idea.’ And this leads him to add that there is ‘no final version that subsumes all that is good in the others’.
Whether or not we agree with Gardiner’s judgment in favour of Leonore over Fidelio, it is important to consider the later version as a continuation of developments that occur in Leonore, as a later opera, therefore, rather self-consciously encumbered with its own past – a past that persists as a central theme in all three versions of the work, that won’t settle down and co-operate, that keeps coming back to dislocate the certainties of the ‘rescue opera’ form that Beethoven was using. My reading of Fidelio sees the later version as extending and deepening rather than ending the work, or struggle, in progress that Gardiner discerns in Leonore.
Maynard Solomon notes that 1813 was an unproductive year for Beethoven, immediately after which he resorted to an ‘ideological/heroic’ manner which yielded a series of noisily inferior works ‘filled with bombastic rhetoric and “patriotic” excesses’ that ‘mark the nadir of his artistic career’. Such works as Wellington’s Victory and several compositions written for the Congress of Vienna belong to the same period as the revisions to Leonore that resulted in the 1814 Fidelio. Solomon suggests that this ‘ideological/heroic style can be traced back to the 1790s in such works as the Joseph and Leopold Cantatas, as well as the Friedelberg war songs, yet in central works – Solomon cites the Third and Fifth Symphonies, Fidelio and the Incidental Music to Egmont – this aggressive, quasi-militaristic style ‘was sublimated into a subtle and profound form of expression’. It is not surprising that, as the last work in this series, Fidelio explicitly recalls some of its predecessors, perhaps as part of its own obsession with the past. A well-known example occurs in the second scene of Act Two: given permission by Don Fernando to release her husband from his chains, Leonore steps forward to perform the task of liberation. The music modulates from A major to F major, and proceeds to a moving oboe solo and chorus borrowed almost literally from the Joseph Cantata. In the opera, the episode bestows a majestic calm on what has so far been a turbulent and confused scene. Again, it would be hard to miss the echoes of the finale of the Fifth Symphony in the opera’s last scene; however animating the words and voices, there is in both a similar, pounding use of C major to possess the tonic and thereby dispel any lingering shadows.
Fidelio can also be interpreted as a terrific counter-blow to Così fan Tutte, an important antecedent and part of the past that Beethoven is working with. On the one hand, he incorporates the disguises, if not the malice of Così: on the other, he uses unmasking to assert the bourgeois ideal of matrimonial fidelity. Memory in Così fan Tutte is a faculty to be done away with in the pursuit of pleasure: in Fidelio it is a vital part of character. Yet at the heart of what Beethoven is arguing for – persistence, constancy, personal character as a source of continuity – there seems to be a contradiction that will not disappear. Every affirmation, every instance of truth carries with it its own negation, just as every memory of love and conjugal fidelity brings with it the danger, and usually the actuality, of something that will obliterate it. Most critics who have written about Beethoven’s heroic middle period – most recently, Scott Burnham, but also Paul Robinson, for whom Fidelio is a relatively uncomplicated enactment of the French Revolution – can see nothing except the triumphalism with which he appears to end these works. If we look a bit more closely at Fidelio, however, keeping its incorporated and cancelled versions in mind, we will see a more gripping, much more ambiguous and self-conscious struggle going on – one which makes Fidelio a more challenging opera than it often appears to be.