Opera in two acts (1814)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Joseph von Sonnleithner and Friedrich Treitschke
Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera was inspired by a French libretto »Leonore ou L’amour« by Jean Nicolas, written in the late 18th century and based on a true story. Pierre Gaveaux had already set this play to music for a stage work in Paris. Beethoven’s path to his final score was long. In 1805 and 1806, he presented his opera at the Theater an der Wien to an unenthusiastic response, only to restage it in 1814 at the Kärntnertortheater in a thoroughly revised form. Beethoven’s »Fidelio« went on to become one of the central operatic works of the Classical period in the German-speaking world and beyond, with its rounded characters and impressive, memorable moments. These include the great arias of Leonore and Florestan, the trumpet fanfare announcing Florestan’s rescue, the mood of the prison chorus that wavers between hope and fear, and the grandiose and joyful finale »O what a moment!«
Florestan has been incarcerated in the dungeon of a state prison near Seville now for two years for daring to uncover the crimes of Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison. Nothing from Florestan should reach the outside world, whom Pizarro at a whim decided to keep chained up in the lowest of the prison’s cells. Leonore, Florestan’s wife, has not given up the search for her lost husband. She fervently hopes to find him and liberate him. Dressed as a man, she has entered the service of the prison guard Rocco and taken on the name Fidelio.
Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter, is in love with Fidelio, who has proven to be a reliable helper. The doorman Jaquino, who would like to marry Marzelline, is out of luck. Rocco would be very happy to have Fidelio as a son in law, while Leonore, in contrast, is afraid that her true identity will be discovered, destroying her plans.
Don Pizarro receives the news that the minister is on his way to inspect the prison. If it is revealed that Florestan is being held here, he will be held accountable. Pizarro decides to kill Florestan and then to do away with all the evidence. Rocco is supposed to help him. The guard refuses to murder Florestan, but declares himself willing to prepare the grave in the lowest underground chamber.
Leonore has learned of Pizzaro’s plans, and would like to do everything to stop him. She convinces Rocco to allow her to descend with him down to the hidden dungeon where she thinks she will find Florestan. Before that, she was already able to convince him to open the dungeon doors briefly for the “lighter” prisoners: Florestan is not among them. The prisoners enjoy just a brief moment of air and sun before Pizzaro has them locked up again. He insists on getting the deed done with all haste, while Rocco and Leonore look on in horror.
Deep down in the dungeon, Florestan mourns his fate, although he does not regret his striving for truth. In a feverish vision, his wife Leonore appears to him.
Rocco and Leonore have descended and begin to dig the grave. Leonore has still not been able to recognize whether the prisoner is actually Florestan. She still wants to save him under any circumstances. Florestan asks for something to eat and drink, and Rocco fulfils what he thinks to be his last request.
Upon a signal of Rocco’s, Pizarro appears. He recognizes Florestan and walks forward to kill his enemy. In the greatest danger, Leonore throws himself before Florestan, and reveals that she is Florestan’s wife, forcing Pizarro with his pistol drawn to abandon his plan. A trumpet signal announces the arrival of the minister. Pizarro is taken away, and Leonore and Florestan are happily united. In the presence of the prisoner and the people, minister Don Fernando announces his plan to investigate injustice and tyranny.
Among the prisoners brought before him, he recognizes his friend Florestan, who he thought was dead. Rocco reports on events, astonishing those present, while Marzelline is deeply disappointed. The minister calls on Leonore to remove her husband’s chains and to restore Florestan’s freedom, while Pizarro will be brought to trial. All feel the magic of the moment and celebrate Leonore’s courageous rescue.