Vienna State Opera: Beethoven's Fidelio
Conducted by Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler
Harold Schonberg's book Lives of the Great Composers is divided into chapters based on the life and work of a single composer and entitled descriptively. Schonberg's chapter on Ludwig van Beethoven is entitled, "Revolutionary from Bonn. This chapter is aptly entitled as Beethoven made it a habit of changing everything in music as he composed. His first nuclear musical device was the performance of his Third Symphony (Eroica). Staged at the height of the composer's depression over his increasing deafness, the Eroica turned Western Music on its ear. Up until the Eroica, Beethoven existed in an 18th Century state of mind, producing two individualistic symphonies that while novel remained firmly rooted in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart. But, in one convulsive fit, with his Third Symphony, Beethoven dragged the Viennese music society into the 19th Century by her hair.
Beethoven considered opera the highest form of art. It encompassed a synthesis of music, singing, stage, acting, poetry, and literature all combined into an artistic eutectic. Funny, with that in mind, that he would only have composed only a single opera, Fidelio. But what an opera it is.
In 1799, Beethoven began experiencing an annoying tinnitus, a ringing in his ears that began progressing rapidly toward deafness. He was quite aware of this and in the fashion typical of Beethoven, expressed that nothing worth producing was worth producing without struggle in his now famous Heiligenstadt Testament. Between 1799 and 1804, during his period of progressive deafness, Beethoven witnessed the production or performance of his oratorio Christus am Oelberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), the Third Symphony (Eroica), the Apassionata piano sonata. Wedged among these was the Leonore / Fidelio axis.
In 1803, Beethoven was commissioned to compose an opera, Vestas Feuer with a libretto by Schikaneder. After tinkering with this opera for the better part of a year, Beethoven went AWOL instead for the German translation of the French opera, Leonore, whose libretto by Bouilly was translated by Joseph Sonnleithner. Beethoven's efforts were to result in three different versions, with four different overtures before finally finding adaptive stasis in Fidelio with a revised libretto by Treitschke in 1814. Basically, between 1803 and 1814, Beethoven took full advantage of his popularity, which came and went during the period, by revising his opera several times, benefiting progressively as the piece edged incrementally toward completion. Fidelio in the form we hear it today was first performed on May 23, 1814 at the Kärnthnerthor Theatre in Vienna. It is conducted by Beethoven and Umlauf. It was well received and enjoyed many more performances during the composer's lifetime.
Fidelio is an opera in two acts (Act I | Act II). The libretto was by Sonnleithner after Bouilly; first revisions by Stephan von Breuning; second by Georg Friedrich Treitschke. There are four overtures to the work, three entitled Leonore (Nos. 1, 2, and 3) and one Fidelio.
FLORESTAN, a Spanish Nobleman, Tenor
LEONORE, his wife, in male attire as FIDELIO, Soprano
DON FERNANDO, Prime Minister of Spain, Bass
PIZARRO, Governor of the prison and enemy to FLORESTAN, Bass
ROCCO, chief jailer, Bass
MARCELLINA, daughter of ROCCO, Soprano
JACQUINO, assistant to ROCCO, Tenor
Soldiers, prisoners, and miscellaneous people
Time: 18th century.
Place: A fortress, near Seville, Spain employed as a Prison for political prisoners.
In the story of the Fidelio, Florestan, an aristocratic Spaniard, has surfaced on the radar of the irascible Pizarro, governor of a dank castle, used as storehouse for Spanish political prisoners. Pizarro has covertly enabled to kidnap Florestan and put him into solitary confinement, while, at the same time spreading the errant news of his death. Pizarro actually plans to murder Florestan by starvation; or if, necessary, by methods more efficient.
Leonore, the wife of Florestan, believes something is amiss. Her faithfulness, to Florestan and the final triumph of conjugal love over the base intentions of Pizarro form the center "Fidelio." The title is derived from the name assumed by Leonore, when, disguised as a man, she is employed as assistant to Rocco, the chief jailer of the prison. Fidelio has been at work and has won favor with Rocco, as well as with Marcellina, the jailer's daughter. In a superb gender layering, it is Marcellina who ultimately much prefers the gentle, androgynous youth, Fidelio, to Jacquino, the turnkey at the prison. Jacquino believed himself to be Marcellina's accepted lover. Leonore cannot make her gender known to the Marcellina. It would wreck her chances to save her husband. Such as it is when the curtain rises on the first act, which illuminates the courtyard of Pizarro's castle.
The curtain opens with a sprite duet between Jacquino and Marcellina, where he encourages her to accept him and she skillfully puts him off. Alone Marcellina expresses her regret for Jacquino, but wishes she were united with Fidelio ("O wär ich schön mit dir vereint"- O, were I but with you united).
Following the aria, Marcellina is joined by her father and then Leonore (as Fidelio) enters the courtyard. Leonore has a basket of provisions and also is carrying some fetters which she has taken to be repaired. Marcellina, witnessing the weary Leonore, runs to help the supposed youth of his burden. Rocco, the fool, teases Marcellina about what he believes to be a crush Fidelio and Marcellina have for each other. This leads up to canonic quartet form, "Mir ist so wunderbar" (How wondrous the emotion). Being a canon, the theme enunciated by each of the four characters is the same, but expresses the different sentiments of each character. The participants are Leonore, Marcellina, Rocco, and Jacquino, who appears toward the close of the quartet.
Once Jacquino returns to his abode, Rocco sings a song about money and how much newlyweds need it ("Wenn sich Nichts mit Nichts verbindet"When you nothing add to nothing). The circumstances are a bit surreal for Leonore, but rescuing her husband remains her ultimate goal, so she remains disguised as a man. Moreover there is an excuse in the palpable fact that before she entered Rocco's service, Jacquino was Marcellina's golden boy and should have no problem taking up with her again, once the attractive Fidelio, reveals herself to be Leonore.
In conversation regarding the prison and prisoner, Rocco confirms what Leonore has suspected. Her husband is held in solitary confinement in the prison's deepest dungeon.
A brief march (in grand German style) announces Pizarro. He looks over his employees and one of them warns him that Fernando, the State Minister, is about to inspect Pizarro's fortress. This inspection arises because of accusations that Pizarro has used his power as governor to extract vengeance upon his private enemies. Pizarro immediately determines to dispatch Florestan at once. Pizarro's aria, "Ha! welch ein Augenblick!" (Ah! the great moment!) is one of the more difficult Bass Voice solos in operatic repertoire.
Pizarro places a bugler on the ramparts with a sentry to monitor the road from Seville. Once Fernando's entourage is seen, the bugler is to alert Pizarro with a signal. Having protected himself from surprise, Pizarro tosses a well-filled purse to Rocco, and winks at him saying, "for the safety of the State," to murder Florestan. Rocco declines the job, but agrees to dig the grave in a secret place after Pizarro does the deed. This would make the murder covert to the visiting dignitary.
Leonore, who is privy to plot, expresses her pathos in the dramatic recitative: "Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin!" ("Accursed one! Where hasten'st thou!"); immediately followed by, "Komm Hoffnung" (Come, hope!). Soon afterwards Leonore learns that, as Rocco's assistant, she is supposed to help him dig the grave. She reasons that she will at least be close to Florestan so that she may either help him or die with him.
As Act I closes, Leonore intervenes on behalf of the upper-tier prisoners to be allowed a chance to breathe the open air. The cells are unlocked and they are allowed to stroll in the garden of the fortress, until Pizarro, hearing of this, angrily puts an end to it. Then chorus of the prisoners, subdued like the half-suppressed joy of fearsome beings, is one of the significant passages of the score.
The scene is solitary confinement where Florestan is in chains. To one side is the old cistern covered with rubbish. Musically the act opens with Florestan's recitative and aria, a descent companion to Leonore's "Komm Hoffnung. The soto voce duet between Leonore and Rocco as they dig the grave impresses the listener with the macabre significance of this act.
Pizarro shows up and makes himself known to Florestan. He draws his dagger for the fatal thrust and Leonore throws herself in his way. Pushed aside, she again interjects herself between Pizarro and Florestan, and, pointing a pistol at him, cries out: "First slay his wife! (you silly bastard [I am sure!])"
A trumpet call rings alerts from the direction of the fortress wall. Jacquino appears at the head of the stone stairway leading down into the dungeon. The Minister of State is finally here. His guards are at the gate. Florestan is saved [Hooray!]. There is a duet, "O, namenlose Freude" (Joy inexpressible) for him and the devoted wife.
In Florestan the Minister of State recognizes his friend, whom he thought to have perished, according to the reports set float by Pizarro, who himself is now incarcerated. To Leonore is assigned the joyful task of unlocking and loosening her husband's chains and freeing him from his chains. A chorus of happiness: "Wer ein solches Weib errungen" (He, whom such a wife has cherished) brings the opera to a close.
Now that is a Beethoven theme if I ever heard one. Beethoven was all about the "Brotherhood of Man as he expressed in the text of his Choral Fantasy and the conclusion of his Ninth Symphony. The maestro got so mad at Napoleon Bonaparte after the emperor declared himself emperor that he recast the Eroica Symphony from "Dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte to "Dedicated to a Great Man. Beethoven was cagy like that. Beethoven did not approve of imperialism not one bit. He would have been entertained by Berlioz, but would have thought him too emotional. He would have first appreciated, then been ashamed of Wagner more than anyone, the one composer who employed the Beethoven canon for the promotion of Wagner's "Modern Music ideal, (a performance philosophy that did result many fine performances). Beethoven would have forgiven Mahler for the neurotic he was.
First Disc: 1 Overture; Act I 2 "Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind wir allein" (duet: Jaquino, Marzelline); 3 "Amer Jaquino" - "O wär ich schon mit dir vereint" (aria: Marzelline); 4 "Mir ist so wunderbar" (quartet: Marzelline, Leonore, Rocco, Jaquino); 5 "Höre, Fidelio" - "Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben" (scene and aria: Rocco); 6 "Vater Rocco! Oft sehe ich Euch" (scene: Leonore, Rocco, Marzelline); 7 "Gut, Söhnchen, gut" (trio: Rocco, Leonore, Marzelline); 8 March of the Guards; 9 "Drei Schildwachen auf den Wall" (scene: Pizarro, Rocco); 10 "Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!" (aria: Pizarro, Guards); 11 "Jetzt, Alter" (duet: Pizzaro, Rocco); 12 "Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?" (recitative and aria: Leonore); 13 "Fidelio, du hier" ("Aber Marzelline") (scene: Rocco, Jaquino, Leonore, Marzelline); 14 Finale: "O welche Lust" (Prisoners' Chorus); 15 "Nun sprecht, wie ging's?" - "Ach, Vater, eilt!" - "Verwegner Alter" (Leonore, Rocco, Marzelline, Jaquino, Pizarro); 16 "Leb wohl, du warmes Sonnenlicht" (Prisoner's Chorus, Marzelline, Leonore, Jaquino, Pizarro, Rocco).
Second Disc: 1 "Gott, welch Dunkel hier!" (introduction and aria - Florestan); 2 "Wie kalt ist es" (melodrama and duet - Leonore, Rocco); 3 "Er erwacht!" (scene - Leonore, Rocco, Florestan) 4 "Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten" (trio -Florestan, Rocco, Leonore); 5 "Ist das der Vorbote meines Todes?" (scene - Florestan, Leonore, Pizzaro, Rocco); 6 "Er sterbe!" (quartet - Pizarro, Florestan, leonore, Rocco); 7 "Mein Leonore" - "Onamenlose Freude" (scene and duet - leonore, Florestan); 8 Overture "Leonore III", Op. 72a; 9 Finale: "Heil sei dem Tag, Heil sei der Stunde" (Chorus, Don Fernando, Rocco, Leonore, Marzelline, Florestan, Jaquino)
Karl Bohm, 1944 Ludwig van Beethoven, Fidelio Vienna Konzerthaus, 5-7 February 1944, Source: Recorded by Deutscher Reichsrundfunk, Studio Wien, Vienna State Opera Live, Edited by Vienna State Opera. Hans Schweiger (bass) - Second Prisoner; Herbert Alsen (bass) Rocco; Paul Schöffler (baritone) Pizzaro; Irmgard Seefried (soprano) Marzelline; Hilde Konetzni (soprano) Leonore; Peter Klein (tenor) Jaquino; Torsten Ralf (tenor) Florestan; Hermann Gallos (tenor) - First Prisoner; Tomislav Neralic (baritone) - Don Fernando; Karl Böhm (conductor); Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera.
Wilhelm Furtwangler 1953 Ludwig van Beethoven, Fidelio Vienna Konzerthaus, 12 October 1953, Recorded by Sendergruppe RotweiBrot; Vienne State Opera Live
Edited by Vienna Opera. Franz Bierbach (bass) - Second Prisoner; Gottlob Frick (bass) Rocco; Otto Edelmann (baritone) Pizarro; Sena Jurinac (soprano) Marzeline; Martha Mödl (soprano) Leonore; Rudolf Schock (tenor) Jaquino; Wolfgang Windgassen (tenor) Florestan; Alwin Hendriks (tenor) - First Prisoner
Alfred Poell (baritone) - Don Fernando; Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor); Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Bohm and Furtwangler
Not everyone can conduct Beethoven's Fidelio, in the same way that only a chosen few can conduct Wagner's Parsifal. I suspect it takes a special temperament. Early in the life of recorded Fidelio the rule seemed to be "the more Austrio- German, the better, (though the earlier iterations of Leonore have been capably conducted by extra-Aryan conductors recently. The present release provides two noted performances of the opera, both performed by the Vienna State Opera but conducted by two different conductors, Karl Bohm and Wilhelm Furtwangler, with different soloists and performances separated by nine years (1944 and 1953, respectively).
Karl Bohm was born in Graz, Austria 28 August 1894. Trained as a Lawyer, Bohm had the equal avocation of music, for which he opted. Bohm passed through many of the finest German opera establishments: The Munich State Opera in 1921, Darmstadt in 1927, Hamburg, 1931, and Dresden in 1934, where he met and championed Richard Strauss.
Bohm served as director of the Vienna State Opera on two occasions, 1943-1945 and 1954-1956. The current production of Fidelio took place during the conductor's wartime stint.
Wilhelm Furtwangler was a son of Berlin, born January 26, 1886. Unlike Bohm, he was primarily known as a symphonic conductor and composer of some note. He is often considered the logical destination of the Wagner-Von Bulow-Nikisch thread of German conducting. He worked at the Breslau Stadttheater, then Zurich, then Strasborg (with Hans Pfitzner) before moving to Lubeck and then Mannheim. In 1922, after the death of Nikisch, Furtwangler was appointed musical director at both the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (what a dream job).
Ever the promoter of classical music, Furtwangler wrote broadly on musical themes and Fidelio was one of his favorites. Furtwangler viewed the opera not as a German drinking songspeil or a tired "rescue opera. In his greatest Wagnerian fashion, Furtwangler declared that Fidelio was more a "Religion of Humanity, more of a Mass than opera. His conducting betrays this in its grace and light.
Both conductors had long and storied associations with Fidelio. Where Bohm's 1944 Fidelio is electrically charged, glowing white-hot, Furtwangler's is precise and incandescent. Common to both performances is that in spite of primitive recording methods, both crackle exuberance and life. There is beautiful analog warmth to these performances, analog both in recording and approach. Neither performance suffers from the sterility imparted much classic recording after the advent of digital recording. Because of technology, the sonics place the opera in the back, leaving it a bit mysterious, as opera should be. The barnburners are not overpowering and the arias are sweet and yes, warm. A grand juxtaposition also of a German Opera performed in war and peace time. Both urgent and commanding, but for different reasons.