Schiller Institute on YouTube Schiller Institute on Facebook RSS

Home >

Los Angeles Opera Presents Superb "Fidelio"
Does Justice to Beethoven's Masterpiece

September 2007

by Harley Schlanger

Upon leaving the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion after a powerfully uplifting performance of Beethoven's great opera, "Fidelio," one is struck by the question, "Why is this opera so rarely presented?" Or, when it is presented, why is the setting so often changed arbitrarily to a different historical era from that chosen by Beethoven, to a more recent time -- say, Germany in the 1930-40s, a Soviet gulag or a Central American dictatorship in the 1960s, or perhaps, to Gitmo in the Bush years -- in an effort to make its message "relevant"?

The decision by the Los Angeles Opera to present "Fidelio" to open its 2007-08 season, and to do so in its original historic setting, is most commendable. That it was an outstanding production, with a wonderful orchestra, fine performers and an excellent chorus, makes it even more delightful.

View enlargement
Fidelio Finale. Robert Millard, courtesy of LA Opera

The performance in Los Angeles demonstrates why great classical culture is always relevant, and does not need "help" from a director, such as a more modern setting, for the audience to "get it." One could not leave the opera house in Los Angeles without being profoundly moved by Beethoven's passionate commitment to one of the most important universal ideals upon which human civilization has depended for advancement: the principle of justice, the achievement of which necessitates the triumph over fear, sustained by agape, a deep, true love of mankind.

In his heroine, Fidelio/Leonore, Beethoven provides a beautiful soul who, despite fear and uncertainty, acts courageously to save her husband Florestan, who has been unjustly imprisoned. To save him, Leonore must triumph not only over an evil tyrant, Pizzaro, but must move those around her, particularly her employer Rocco, the jailer, to get into a position to save Florestan. The power of the opera is centered on the unfolding of the higher nobility of Leonore, who exemplifies those qualities of the beautiful soul, which Beethoven drew from his lifelong study of the beloved Poet of Freedom, Friedrich Schiller.

The Real Leonore

What makes the opera even more compelling is that Beethoven's Leonore was not a fictional, idealized figure, but a real life historical figure. While the program notes produced by most opera companies identify the story of "Fidelio" as coming from the genre of the "rescue" stories, which were popular at the time, the play by Nicolas Bouilly -- from which the libretto for "Fidelio" was adapted -- was actually the story of Adrienne Lafayette, the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette, who had been a hero of the American Revolution.

View enlargement
Eike Wilm Schulte, Anja Kampe, Matti Salminen and Klaus Florian Vogt. Robert Millard, courtesy of LA Opera

According to historian Donald Phau ("Fidelio: Beethoven's Celebration of the American Revolution," in "Campaigner" magazine, August, 1978) Adrienne went into an Austrian prison in Olmuetz, to rescue her husband, who was held there in solitary confinement from 1792 to 1797. He was imprisoned by the Austrians as part of a secret arrangement between England, Austria and Prussia, on orders of British Prime Minister William Pitt (Pizarro). Adrienne arrived at Olmuetz in October 1795, and remained there, in the prison with her two daughters, until Lafayette was freed in September 1797, largely due to the international pressure catalyzed by Adrienne's heroism. Among those who sent letters to Austria's Emperor Francis II seeking his release were U.S. President George Washington, and the scientist Lazare Carnot, who served Napoleon, as the architect of his armies.

This story, of the vengeance of Pitt towards Lafayette, and the courage of his wife in her relentless efforts to free him, must be seen against the backdrop of the general turbulence in extended European civilization from the time of the American Revolution through Napoleon's final defeat, and the "conservative" balance-of-power imposed by the British Empire through its diplomatic machinations at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. It was during this period, which included within it the French Revolution and its Jacobin reign of terror, which unleashed bloody chaos and the Napoleonic Wars, that a grouping of creative geniuses emerged, with a commitment to bring the ideals of the American Revolution, with its "Declaration of Independence" and its republican Constitution, to Europe.[1]

View enlargement
Klaus Florian and Anja Kampe. Robert Millard, courtesy of LA Opera

Among this group were Mozart, Schiller and Beethoven, who deployed their powers as artists in the classical tradition to inspire a generation to overcome the brute force of the landed nobility of Europe, to replace monarchies with republics, in which aristocratic privilege would give way to the brotherhood of man. Such is the subtext of Mozart's brilliant "Marriage of Figaro" and "The Magic Flute"; of Schiller's dramas, such as his youthful "The Robbers", followed by his sublime "Don Carlos", "William Tell", and "The Virgin of Orleans".

Beethoven was inspired by both Mozart and Schiller. He studied the music of Mozart -- as early as 1792, before he left Bonn for Vienna, he composed variations for the pianoforte and violin on Mozart's "Se vuol ballare" from "Figaro", in which the servant sings of his intention to thwart the Count in his efforts to have his way with his fiancé. His lifelong concentration on Schiller's works was first revealed in a letter from Fischenich to Schiller's wife Charlotte in 1793, in which he wrote that Beethoven, "a young man of this place [Bonn] whose musical talents are universally praised...proposes also to compose Schiller's `Freude,' and indeed strophe by strophe. I expect something perfect for as far as I know him he is wholly devoted to the great and sublime."

(Fischenich, who later became a Municipal Councilor in Bonn, was right, though it took Beethoven more than thirty years, until 1823, before he found the appropriate setting for Schiller's "Freude" -- as the dramatic, soaring final choral movement in his Ninth Symphony! The idea, for Beethoven, that "all men on earth become brothers," driven by the mission to "endure for the better world," is central to his -- and Schiller's - conception, that this is a mission which artists must adopt.)

Schiller and Beethoven

By the time Beethoven moved to Vienna for good in 1793, Schiller's works had been banned by the secret police of the Hapsburg Empire. Vienna was essentially under police state rule, threatened from the west by revolutionary France, its oligarchs gripped by paranoia, fearful that the "dangerous" ideas of Schiller and his co-thinkers might bring down the Empire.

Ludwig von Beethoven

For a time, Beethoven placed his hopes on Napoleon, believing that he, as the embodiment of the ideals of the Rights of Man, would sweep through the Hapsburg's lands, bringing with him an end to the petty tyranny of the lords and nobles who held sway there. According to the famous report of Beethoven's friend, Ferdinand Ries, his admiration for Napoleon was shattered, when he heard in May 1804, that Napoleon was soon to be crowned Emperor.

"Is he then, too," Beethoven allegedly stormed, "nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he, too, will trample on all the rights of man and indulge his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, become a tyrant."

This occurred shortly before Beethoven began to work on his only opera, which was originally named "Leonore." Living in Vienna's Theater-an-der-Wien, which had recently been placed again under the direction of Mozart's collaborator, Emanuel Schikaneder -- who wrote the libretto for "The Magic Flute" -- Beethoven worked with Joseph Sonnleithner, who was translating Bouilly's play, "Leonore; ou l'amour conjugal."

Beethoven's revolutionary spirit during this time was revealed in a note to Sonnleithner, in which he criticized Baron Braun, the owner of the Theater-an-der-Wien. He wrote that he knows that Braun "has nothing good to say about me -- let it be -- I shall never grovel -- my world is elsewhere."

His world was one which he shared with Schiller, in which the beauty of art can uplift man, can imbue him with the courage to overcome his fears. In Schiller's twenty-fifth letter in his "Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man," he addressed this directly: "Man rises above any natural terror," he wrote, "as soon as he knows how to mold it, and transform it into an object of his art."

Schiller's concept, of the transformational power of art, is directly reflected by Beethoven in an entry in his "Tagebuch", in which he wrote, "All evil is mysterious... when viewed alone; it is all the more ordinary the more one talks about it with others; it is easier to endure because that which we fear becomes totally known; it seems as if one has overcome some great evil."

This is the task which Beethoven undertook in composing "Fidelio", to show that evil, even the great power of a tyrant such as Pizarro, can be overcome, through the exemplary courage exhibited by Leonore. The nobility of the beautiful soul, which shines through in Leonore's powerful aria following her encounter with Pizarro, is an example of how man may "rise above any natural terror." The ultimate triumph over Pizarro at the end is foreshadowed in this stirring aria:

"I follow my inner desire, And waver not; I am strengthened by the duty Of true married love. Oh you, for whom I have borne all, Could I but reach the spot Where evil cast you into chains, And bring you sweet comfort!

"I follow my inner desire, And waver not; I am strengthened by the duty Of true married love."

Los Angeles Opera Faithful to Beethoven

The transcendent power of the agape of Leonore was beautifully evident in the performance by the Los Angeles Opera. Anja Kampe, who plays Fidelio/Leonore, overcame some early tightness in her voice to convey the full power of her love, and the impassioned determination to succeed in her mission, in the above-mentioned aria. Klaus Florian Vogt, who appears as Florestan, sang brilliantly, and the Leonore-Florestan duet following the vanquishing of Pizarro was transparently delightful.

Eike Wilm Schulte, who plays the evil tyrant Pizarro, was so convincing in this role that the audience greeted him at the curtain call with laudatory boos and hisses! Matti Salminen was a sturdy Rocco, and newcomer Rebekah Camm -- who will sing the role of Pamina in an upcoming performance of Mozart's "Magic Flute" in Houston -- conveyed, with her full, clear soprano voice, the innocent naiveté of Rocco's daughter, Marzelline.

Two other elements of the performance were most exciting to me. First was the excellent work of the Chorus, which was spectacular both vocally and visually in the haunting prisoners' chorus, "O welche Lust." The pathos evoked by their appearance moved the audience in a way which demonstrates what Schiller meant when he said that, with true classical drama, the audience leaves the theater as better people than when they entered.

View enlargement
James Conlon. Robert Millard, courtesy of LA Opera

The second striking feature of the L.A. Opera performance was the work of the orchestra, especially in its presentation of the Leonore Overture No. 3, between the first and second scenes of Act II. This overture, which was written for the second debut of the opera in 1806, is an early indication of the extraordinary powers of orchestration that one associates with Beethoven's later symphonic works. In its complexity and density of musical ideas, it exemplifies what Lyndon LaRouche means when he discusses Beethoven's compositional method as implicitly one which conforms to "a Riemannian conception of the characteristics of knowable physical space-time as a whole." (Lyndon LaRouche, "Music and Statecraft: How Space Is Organized," EIR, September 5, 2007)

James Conlon conducted with an intensity that was compelling, yet with a transparency that enabled the nuances of Beethoven's orchestration to emerge. Throughout the opera, one was constantly reminded that the orchestra was not there for mere "accompaniment," but to provide multiple additional voices to the intricate counterpoint demanded by Beethoven. I have never seen an audience respond with such gusto to an overture, giving Conlon and his orchestra a prolonged standing ovation following their performance of the Leonore Overture No. 3.

[1]. As part of the turbulence of the period, it should be noted that the week before the premiere of "Leonore" -- which was later changed to "Fidelio" -- French troops seized Vienna, and many of them were among the audience when the opera had its first performance.

Related pages:

More Opera and Book Reviews

Schiller Institute Listing Of Online Music Articles

Beethoven's Opera FIDELIO Teaches Hope to Americans

Setting Schiller's ‘Ode to Joy’

Fidelio Article: Beethovens’ Christ on the Mount of Olives

Fidelio Article: Beyond Bach:  Beethoven’s Studies of Bach’s Works.

Fidelio Article: Celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven's 225th Birthday

Fidelio Article –The 1782-1786 Mozart Revolution

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Interview

Mozart and American Rev. FIDELIO ARTICLE

Schiller Institute -Friedrich Schiller and America 

Study Friedrich Schiller

On Questions of Motivic Thorough- Compositionin Beethoven’s Late Works (PDF format)

Schiller Institute Music Page- Links to Many Articles

Music and Statecraft: How Space Is Organized