Fidelio was Beethoven’s only opera, which was understandable given the trouble he took over it. He laboured, off and on, for over a decade, and in the end three different versions were published. Today it is usually the last of these that is performed.
In an art form in which love affairs are so often paired with jealousy, lust, murder, and all the other outsized elements of grand opera, Fidelio is a notable exception for being a drama in praise of faithful married love. Beethoven, for all his musical innovations and his emblematic role as Enlightenment hero, was no moral revolutionary. Florestan languishes in prison for exposing the corruption of a local authority, and his wife Leonora, disguised as a man and answering to the name “Fidelio”, is trying to gain access to the prison to comfort him. Strange to say, not much happens in the opera’s two-hour span: Leonora eventually does get into the prison just as a threat against Florestan’s life is coming to a head; the one prevents the other, and the couple are reunited and live happily ever after.
Let’s listen first to the Act I quartet Mir ist so wunderbar (How wondrous the feeling). The characters here are Leonora (that is, “Fidelio”), Marcellina (daughter of Florestan’s jailor, and the woman whom “Fidelio” has been courting in order to get close to her husband), Rocco (the jailor), and, toward the end, Jacquino (a third wheel who is genuinely in love with Marcellina). This quartet is written in a canon, so, at least initially, each character has the same melodic line, and they must differentiate their various thoughts and feelings through emphasis and tone. It’s an awfully pretty piece of music. Here it is, with English subtitles, assuming that I can get this video to start and stop where I want:
(Apparently I cannot get it to stop where I want. I want to stop at 23:15.)
Act II opens with what is probably the most famous aria in the opera. For the first time — already half-way through the opera — we see and hear Florestan, confined in his prison cell. He sings a long lament, Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! (God! What darkness here!) It’s a moving few minutes. Here is Ben Heppner; again, I am unable to stop this video at the end of the aria, but it comes to an end somewhere around 1:24:30.
Finally, near the end of the opera there is another lovely quartet in which the various principals reflect on what has happened: Florestan freed, reunited with Leonora, and justice done. It is a pool of quietness before the rousing closing number. It ends at about 1:56:30.
The most popular music in the opera is probably the overture. Personally I don’t care much for it, but I am in a minority. Here it is, Leonard Bernstein conducting:
Finally, a curiosity: here is Walter Berry, a famous mid-century bass-baritone, singing Pizzaro’s aria Ha! welch ein Augenblick (Ha! What a moment). Pizzaro is the evil genius in the opera, the powerful man at the top on whose orders Florestan has been unjustly imprisoned, and in this aria he expresses his determination to have Florestan killed. I post this clip not because it is well sung (though it is) but because I cannot believe how much Berry resembles George Clooney! See if you don’t agree: