When Beethoven’s health failed him, his genius did not
By Pat Suarez
In 1801, Beethoven was in despair over his increasing hearing loss. In his words, “Let me tell you that my most prized possession, my hearing, has greatly deteriorated. Needless to say, I am resolved to overcome all this, but how will it be possible?”
The answer was to work… to write and, more specifically, to write an opera. After toying with a libretto from the pen of Emanuel Schikaneder, the impresario responsible for Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” Beethoven turned to a stage work by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly that two other composers had set to music.
The story centered on a woman named Leonore who disguised herself as a prison guard assistant named Fidelio to infiltrate the prison holding her husband (Florestan) who was sentenced to death as a political prisoner.
Beethoven wrote a three-act opera for the November 1805 premiere. Many complained that the opera was too long, so, for an 1806 production, Beethoven trimmed one act and opened the opera with a new overture, “Leonore Overture No. 3.” Because “Leonore Overture No. 3” tended to musically overshadow the first act that followed the overture, Beethoven had to scale back that overture. So, eight years later, Beethoven again revised his opera and penned yet another overture, finally matching the name of the overture with the name of the opera.
At 123 minutes over two acts, “Fidelio” is short by opera standards. Yet, it’s a compact powerhouse of efficiency of both time and action on the order of Richard Strauss’s “Salome.”
Beethoven employed a considerable amount of spoken dialogue that fills in plot detail and ties together the sung dialogue. There is no dry recitative (harpsichord with short bursts of sung dialogue); Beethoven’s characters literally talk to one another, for the most part unaccompanied by music. The Dayton Opera’s Kathleen Clawson, the director for this production, will add narration in addition to the surtitles over the stage.
The Dayton Opera will “semi-stage” the performances, which is a smart move. “Fidelio” is one opera where a concert performance doesn’t lessen the impact of the experience. Semi-staging also puts more emphasis on the music and the voices, which (ironically) increases the musical wallop that “Fidelio” can give.
As if he were a conduit from the past before him and the future after him, Beethoven provided echoes of Mozart and musical precursors of operas to come. The airy opening duet in Act One is reminiscent of Papageno’s and Papagena’s exchanges in “The Magic Flute.” Like “The Magic Flute,” Beethoven wrote a score with forward propulsive flow throughout opera. Again invoking the spirit of “The Magic Flute,” Rocco’s aria about marriages needing money recalls Papageno. Florestan’s Act Two opening aria is eerily Wagnerian: It is easy to conjure up Lohengrin when listening to Beethoven’s music that accompanies Florestan’s description of his predicament. Additionally, the rising opening notes of Florestan’s first aria are, for the tenor voice, similar to (and as demanding as) how Wagner’s “Rienzi” Overture is for an orchestra’s principal trumpet.
Beethoven presented a true test for those who tackle the roles of Florestan and Leonore. Beethoven was notorious for stretching the capabilities of his singers in his choral music and in his “Ninth Symphony,” but the results have been memorable for two centuries. In fact, the last four minutes of “Fidelio,” for soloists, choruses and orchestra provide as grand a Beethoven experience as the finale of his “Ninth Symphony” or his “Choral Fantasy.”
Beethoven preferred that people sing in groups. While solo arias abound in “Fidelio,” the opera is full-up with duets, trios and quartets. If one remembers Mozart’s challenge to the emperor in the film “Amadeus” (“How many voices can you have singing at the same time?”), then the Act One quartet (Marzelline, Leonore, Rocco, Jaquino) makes a significant case for Mozart’s principle that many people talking is just noise, but many people singing is glory defined. It’s also the definitive challenge for the Mead Theater staff that manages the surtitles. Keep an eye on how they handle all of those words from four people singing in unison!
The story is a thriller, slowly amping up the tension, bit by bit throughout the opera, making the most of its 123 minutes. The Act Two scene, in the dungeon, with Rocco, Florestan and Leonore will tempt some in the audience to scream out, “Just tell him who you are!”
Beethoven exploits many levels of tension, worthy of anything Verdi or Puccini ever wrote: How will Leonore reveal herself to Florestan and what will happen when Rocco discovers that Leonore is really a female? What will happen to Florestan when Pizzaro shows up to kill him after Rocco has dug his grave? What will Leonore do to stop Pizzaro? Will Leonore fire the pistol into Pizzaro that she unexpectedly pulls out after shielding Florestan from Pizzaro’s dagger and revealing herself to be Florestan’s wife? What will Marzelline think when she realizes that she is losing a potential husband and that potential husband was, in fact, a woman?
For the Schuster Center performances on Friday, Jan. 28 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 30 at 3:00 p.m., Neal Gittleman will lead the Dayton Opera Chorus, Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Chorus and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. You might not associate Beethoven with opera, but after “Fidelio,” that connection will be made permanent.
Reach DCP classical music critic Patrick Suarez at email@example.com