22 Sep 2011

“Fidelio:” The Problem of Beethoven and his Only OperaLesson 3: AN “ORCHESTRAL OPERA”

by Luke Howard

Many consider the ensemble pieces the most successful examples of vocal writing in Fidelio. The Act 1 quartet (discussed in Lesson 2), the “Prisoners’ Chorus,” the final trio, the concluding rejoicing—these are precisely the places where Beethoven can treat the voices symphonically, and that is his métier.

Image of the Prisoner’s Chorus from Utah Opera’s 1999 production of Fidelio

Image of the Prisoner’s Chorus from Utah Opera’s 1999 production of Fidelio


Next, the famous “Prisoners’ Chorus:”

There is no question this is gorgeous music—a terrific 7-minute chorus in the style of a German Männerchor. But how does it propel the drama? It doesn’t. Absolutely nothing happens on stage during the chorus, and the theme of its text is only incidental to the opera. For all the lofty philosophizing about freedom and liberty in this chorus, the opera itself is about the love of a woman for her husband, and her bravery. A brave wife’s love is what the final chorus celebrates, and what the original subtitle of the opera underscored. This is another example where Beethoven’s remarkable music is far more important than the dramatic pacing or the story at this point.

Finally, the “stand-off” in Act II, “Er sterbe”:

The music in this scene is amazingly vivid—impassioned, emotional, moving—and yet Pizzaro, Leonore, Florestan, and Rocco stand there virtually stock-still for a full five minutes, with daggers and pistols drawn, making sure to reveal their true identities to all before the drama can continue. Then everyone freezes when the trumpet signals the arrival of the Minister, and they sing at length again about Leonore’s love and courage. The most exciting scene of the story, and the most musically animated, is actually one of the most visually static parts of the opera.

There is no issue at all with Beethoven’s musical instincts. He develops themes, varies the melodies, sustains the musical interest with masterly perfection. That is Fidelio’s greatest strength, and undoubtedly the reason for its continued success. But dramatically, in terms of the action on stage, these scenes are weak. (I personally find them almost farcical, for opposite reasons. The Act I quartet is a comic scene, but is treated as a very serious theme and variations. “Er sterbe,” on the other hand is a serious scene, the most intense of the opera, but the dramatic pacing so attenuated as to make it almost ludicrous on stage.)

Fidelio, Act II, Scene 3 (“Er sterbe”), an engraving from 1815

Fidelio, Act II, Scene 3 (“Er sterbe”), an engraving from 1815

What carries the day is Beethoven’s music. It is proof, if it were needed, that opera is essentially a musical genre, not a dramatic genre. Otherwise (as a critic once claimed) Meryl Streep would be hired to sing every mad scene, and Sigourney Weaver would do everything else. We forgive opera for not being totally realistic because there is compensation in the music itself. And with Beethoven’s Fidelio, there is more than enough compensation for the weaknesses in dramatic pacing and libretto. Wilhelm Fürtwangler, the great German conductor, once observed, “Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician for the theater, or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary.” So the struggle Beethoven experienced in producing Fidelio wasn’t so much a struggle to write a good opera. It was the struggle to write an opera on his own terms, a symphonic opera that breaks all the “rules” of staged drama and allows the music itself to be the lead character. It is what he excelled at in his symphonies, and in that struggle to symphonize the opera genre with Fidelio, he succeeded beautifully.