In 1803 Emanuel Schikaneder, who collaborated with Mozart on The Magic Flute but was then director of Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, approached Beethoven with an operatic libretto – Vestas Feuer (Vestal Flame). Initially the composer reacted favourably and completed almost two scenes before becoming disenchanted and laying it aside. However, two of its arias would re-emerge elsewhere.
The following year, Beethoven came across a subject more to his liking. It was a play – Léonore – by French writer Jean Nicolas Bouilly. It had already been set to music by Pierre Gaveaux and Ferdinando Paër, both contemporaries of Beethoven but now almost forgotten.
The story appealed to the composer who identified himself with heroic figures and held the belief that worthwhile goals are only to be achieved through great effort. So his opera would portray good over evil, liberty over captivity.
Viennese musician and lawyer Joseph Sonnleithner supplied a German trans-lation of the French libretto and the satisfied Beethoven completed his score re-markably quickly. Leonore (or The Triumph of Married Love) was produced in Vienna on November 20, 1805. With the overture we know as Leonore No.2, the opera was not a success and ran for only three performances. Beethoven had already replaced his original overture – Leonore No.1.
Another of Beethoven’s friends, Stephan von Breun-ing, took matters in hand and abridged the libretto. This version, seen at the Theater an der Wien on March 29, 1806, was preceded by the overture Leonore No.3. Success still eluded the piece leaving Beethoven disappointed.
Eventually, Leipzig-born playwright, actor and stage manager Georg Treitschke rewrote the text and, now called Fidelio, the opera was enthusiastically received at the Theater Kärntnertor on May 23, 1814. It had a new, shorter overture.
The plot enfolds in and around a jail in Seville, where political opponent and prison governor Pizarro incarcerates nobleman Florestan. Despite reports that Florestan is dead, his wife Leonore believes otherwise. Disguising herself as a man – Fidelio – she persuades prison guard Rocco to engage her as his assistant working in the dungeons.
On hearing reports of serious injustices in the jail, Minister Don Fernando decides to inspect. Pizarro acts swiftly to execute Florestan. Terror and despair strike the heart of Leonore/Fidelio and in her powerful aria ‘Komm, Hoffnung’ (Come, hope) she vows her everlasting love for Florestan will give her strength.
The emaciated Florestan resigns himself to death and in an impassioned aria imagines seeing an angel resembling Leonore. She and Rocco arrive to dig his grave. Pizarro, intent on murder, follows them but is confronted by Leonore who reveals her true identity and threatens to shoot him.
At this point trumpets announce Fernando’s arrival and Pizarro’s downfall. Leo-nore and Florestan, in one of Beethoven’s superlative moments, sing an ecstatic duet affirming that hope overcomes despair and the opera ends with a magnificent chorus praising love and faith.
In a Lyric Opera pro-duction, with soprano Sinead Campbell Wallace and tenor Sam Sakker in the principal roles, Fidelio comes to the National Concert Hall on Saturday and Sunday, February 22 and 23.