Overture to Fidelio, op. 72

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        While today, opera—for any number of reasons—is not heard as frequently as the symphony orchestra, before the twentieth century it dominated the musical scene. Only gradually did permanent instrumental ensembles evolve that focused upon symphonies and the like. Composers made their reputations, or not, as composers of opera, and that’s what the nobility (who paid the bills) largely wanted to hear. And they wanted to hear the latest ones—not last year’s. Mozart’s greatest works were his operas, Haydn certainly composed them, and Beethoven arrived in Vienna as a young composer shortly after Mozart’s death. Money, reputation, and professional respect lay in that direction, so it was only natural that Beethoven aspired to write one. Alas! It was a tortured affair for Beethoven, he labored over it (and he is famed for revising his work) with more effort than any of his other works. He spoke frankly of his frustration, and claimed a “martyr’s crown” for the pain it caused him. That there are three versions of the opera and four overtures, alone, speaks volumes about the process of its genesis.

          He started the process in 1804, with the wildly popular French “rescue operas” of Cherubini and Méhul as models. The genre was a proto-romantic inspiration from the trials and terror of the times of the French Revolution, with heroines and heroes saved from death and disaster in the nick of time. “Heroic” imagery and noble sacrifice fascinated Beethoven—he had just finished the Eroica symphony about that time. And, of course, Beethoven’s idolization of noble women with whom he could never connect on a meaningful personal level is part of the mix, as well. The story of the opera is slender, almost painfully so, and only Beethoven’s inimitable music saves the day. Lesser music could not have sustained the flimsy libretto, no matter how much it was trimmed, revised and rewritten by helpful friends. Leonore dresses up as a man in order to sneak inside the prison and liberate her husband, the noble Florestan, who is unjustly held by the evil Don Pizarro. The latter comes to murder Florestan, just ahead of the arrival of Don Fernando, the king’s minister, who will free Florestan and initiate a sunny era of liberty and justice for all. Rocco, the jailer, his daughter, Marzelline, and Jaquino, jailer’s assistant, provide minor dramatic diversions, aided by the prisoners (representing oppressed folks everywhere).

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan