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Opera Review

Michigan Opera Theater
Brings Beethoven’s Fidelio to Detroit

by Susan Bowen
April 2013

Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Opera by Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner and Georg Friedrich Treitschke
Based on the drama by Jean Nicolas Bouilly
Premiered in Vienna, 1805, Final revision premiered in Vienna, 1814

Michigan Opera Theater - April 2013
Leonore (Fidelio) Christine Goerke, Soprano
Florestan: John MacMaster, Tenor
Jailer Rocco: Per Bach Nissen, Bass
Marzelline:† Anglea Theis, Soprano
Jacquino: Cameron† Schutza, Tenor
Pizzaro:Carsten Wittmoser, Bass
Don Fernando: Ricardo Lugo, Bass
Prisoners: Nicholas Fitzer and Errin Brook
Director: John Pascoe
Conductor: Christian Badea †
Chorus Master: Suzanne Mallare Acton

The true purpose of classical drama is to transform those who partake, such that they emerge as better people when they exit the performance, than when they first arrived. As the curtain fell on the Michigan Opera Theater’s “Fidelio” on April 20, 2013 and the entire hall rose to its feet, there was a sense that Ludwig van Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio” served that purpose there. It is the power and the “magic” of Beethoven’s creation that moves the soul of an audience, rather than any story line, action, or simple moralizing of good versus evil. When the musicians and singers can perform such a drama following precisely what the composer wrote, and then include that which is “in between the notes,” the performance will be an expression of both truth and beauty.† To their credit, and despite some distraction, this was accomplished.

Beethoven’s subject is creativity itself, utilizing the story of courage and love, to confront and inspire mankind to overcome all obstacles to attaining true freedom. Vienna itself was becoming a police state when he wrote and also revised his opera – there were wars everywhere on the continent of Europe, and mediocrity and cultural degeneration were promoted by the oligarchy in the hope of stopping the spread of the American revolutionary ideas. Similarly today, in the face of the looming danger of nuclear war, economic disintegration, financial collapse and terrorism, we oppose the same British Imperial policy that opposed the “Ideas of 1776.” Fortunately, now, as then, a handful of great statesman, thinkers or artists can rise above their circumstances to be “greater than their fate” and shift the course of history, as demonstrated in the just-concluded Schiller Institute conference in Frankfurt, Germany. Ludwig van Beethoven was a lover of truth, and he composed to create the future. And with this opera, he was openly challenging the crowned leaders of Europe with the story of the French Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, who was freed from prison by his wife Adrienne. Beethoven even immortalized the evil British Prime Minister William Pitt, who demanded Lafayette's incarceration, in the character of the prison governor Pizarro.

The Story of the Opera

Detroit Opera House/John Grigaitis
Angela Theis (Marzelline), Christine Goerke (Leonore).

In Fidelio, set in 18th century Spain, Leonore Florestan secures employment at a prison, dresses as a boy, under the name of Fidelio, in hopes of locating and freeing her husband, Florestan, who has been unjustly imprisoned for two years for speaking the truth and exposing his enemies. As assistant to the jailer Rocco, the disguised Leonore discovers that there is a prisoner on the verge of death who is either very dangerous “or has very dangerous enemies” down below.† She is determined to reverse this injustice.† Meanwhile, Rocco’s young daughter Marzelline is so impressed with the new “young man” that she falls in love with ‘him”, and Rocco agrees to the marriage, much to the chagrin of Jaquino, the other young jailer and Marzelline’s suitor there. Leonore works to get Rocco’s trust. She convinces Rocco to let the prisoners outside, hoping to find her husband among them. The tyrant in charge of the prison, Pizzaro, orders that the prisoner below be killed to avoid discovery of Pizarro’s crime against him. †Pizarro plans the murder himself after Rocco refuses to kill outright, and orders him to dig the grave. In the dungeon, Florestan is wasting away in the dark, but he arises with an inspired vision of his angel Leonore, before collapsing again. Rocco and Leonore enter the dungeon to dig the grave, she recognizes Florestan, gives him a wine and bread. Pizarro enters and reveals himself before planning to plunge the dagger in his heart, but is stopped and defeated by Leonore, who reveals herself to the surprise of everyone. Pizarro lunges again, but is met with her pistol, and at that moment, the trumpet heralds the arrival of the Minister, don Fernando, and justice can be served. The reunited couple share their profound happiness. (“namenlose Freude.”) †Don Fernando in the finale hears of Pizarro’s crimes, releases the prisoners, and celebrates the Good with Florestan and Leonore.

Detroit Opera House/John Grigaitis
John Mac Master (Florestan), Christine Goerke (Leonore).

The Real Story: Adrienne Lafayette

“Fidelio” was inspired by the true story of Adrienne de Noailles de†Lafayette, wife of the Marquis de Lafayette, and the adopted son of George Washington, who was imprisoned from 1792 to 1797. Adrienne herself had been imprisoned and her family sent to the guillotine, but with the help of an organizing campaign by (future US President)† James Monroe and his wife, she was released in 1795. After regaining her health, and with the assistance of the American Consul in Hamburg, she went to Vienna on an American passport and was able to meet the Emperor, who would not release Lafayette, but permitted Adrienne and her two daughters to share his captivity in Olmutz prison. Excerpted from the article “Lafayette Gains His Freedom from the Prison of Olmutz”:

His daughter described their journey:

"We arrived at Olmutz the next day but one, at eleven o'clock in the morning, in one of those open carriages that one finds at all post houses, for ours had broken down. I shall always remember the moment when the postillion pointed out to us the far-away steeples. My mother's emotion is still visible before me. For some time she was suffocated by sobs, but when she could speak, she blessed God in the words of the canticle of Tobias: 'Blessed be God that liveth forever, and blessed be his Kingdom.'

"We got out at the house of the commandant of the city. We did not see him. He sent the officer who was charged with keeping the prison, to conduct us. After we had gone through the first gate we passed down long corridors to two padlocked doors that opened into my father's room. 'I don't know,' my mother said the night before, 'how I can support what we are going to feel.'

Adrienne, Marquise de Lafayette.

The Marquis de Lafayette, also known as Gen. Gilbert Lafayette of the Continental Army.

"My father had not been notified of our coming. He had been given no letter at all from my mother. Three years of imprisonment, the last passed in complete solitude (for since his attempt at escape he had not seen his servant), anxiety for all he loved, sufferings of all kinds, had deeply affected his health. The change in his looks was frightening. My mother was hard hit by it; but nothing could diminish the delirium of her joy except the bitterness of her irreparable losses. (“O namenlose Freude” -ed.)

"My father, after the first happiness of reunion, did not dare to ask any questions. He knew of the reign of terror in France, but he did not know the names of the victims. The day passed without his daring to question her concerning his fears or her being able to muster strength to tell him. Only in the evening, after my sister and I had been shut into the next room, not connected, did she tell my father that she had lost on the scaffold, her grandmother, her mother, and her sister."

For the next two years, the Lafayettes shared the rigors of prison life. They were forced to eat filthy food, for which they had to pay. Adrienne was forbidden to write to her son, (George Washington Lafayette, living in the US with Alexander Hamilton and then George Washington) because "they did not wish any news concerning the prison to reach the United States." The stench from the latrines next door was unbearable, and then Adrienne fell ill. Her arms and legs became painfully swollen and she suffered from a constant fever. She asked permission to visit a physician in Vienna, but was told that if she left the prison she could not return, so she stayed with her husband.

A campaign involving the German republican movement, Americans and others led to news getting out about the prisoners' status, which led to increased international pressure on the Austrian Emperor and the British Government, which finally secured the release of the prisoners after two years. .” †The full story can be read here:† This Week in History, September 13 - 19, 1797: Lafayette Gains His Freedom from the Prison of Olmutz††

Michigan Opera Theater's Production

The American dramatic soprano Christine Goerke was wonderful in the title role of Fidelio (Leonore). She was able to convey a myriad of emotions with her expressive instrument, and she was able to bring the audience into the inner recesses of her character’s thoughts, fears, anxieties, and love. Of course, this is all written right into Beethoven’s musical score, but the combination of Ms. Goerke’s intention, along with her with expansive range and registral color, assisted the audience in entering into the thought processes of Leonore’s mind. †Some of the acting and staging “got in the way” of this, as I elaborate below, but I find it remarkable that she was able to return us to the higher plane of the imagination, and not just sense impression, even after such distraction. †

Detroit Opera House/John Grigaitis
John Mac Master (Florestan).

Florestan was sung by Canadian tenor John MacMaster, who did a powerful and very credible job in the famous Act II aria where, as he lay dying in the dungeon, he arises and sings out as he sees the vision of his “angel Leonore.”* The poet Friedrich Schiller wrote in a letter to Caroline von Wolzogen, “There is something mysterious in the effect of music, that it moves our inner self, so that it becomes a means of connection between two worlds. We feel ourselves enlarged, uplifted, rapt—what is that called other than in the domain of Nature, drawn to God? Music is a higher, finer language than words. In the moments, where every utterance of the uplifted soul seems too weak, where it despairs of conceiving more elegant words, there the musical art begins. From the outset, all song has this basis.” To do justice to this scene immortalizing the power of faith and love, the audience must see revealed the nobility of Florestan’s mind itself, which rises like a phoenix, to overcome his decrepit, weak and dying body. This worked, and the staging and lighting assisted.

The MOT young artist apprentice Angela Theis, soprano, as Marcelline the jailer’s daughter, and her suitor Jaquino, American tenor Cameron Schutza, portrayed their characters well, even when the orchestra did not give them sufficient room in their opening pieces. In the quartet however, the orchestra helped create the tension, taking a slower tempo and creating an interplay among the singing voices and orchestral colors (winds, strings). †Joined by the strong-voiced and really exceptional Danish bass Per Bach Nissen as Rocco the jailer and Leonore (Fidelio), the quartet increased the tension as each of the four voices sang the similar canonical line, but reflecting completely distinct emotions.

Almost all the ensemble pieces were successful in that respect, including the chorus of the guards, the townspeople and notably the prisoners’ chorus, whose two soloists Nicholas Fitzer and Errin Brooks are also to be commended. It was not a staging I would have expected, to have the prisoners emerge from two different doors, sing out, and then lie down under the outdoor sun, as armed guards stood above with pointed muskets. But the marked shift to a sotto voce as they realized that they were being watched was effective. †

German bass Carsten Wittmoser was indeed evil as the prison overseer Pizarro, but singing against many forte passages in the orchestra, he had to compensate for the lack of malice conveyed in his voice, with his good acting ability. Puerto Rican bass Richard Lugo as Don Fernando, like Pizarro, had a fine instrument, but may have seemed less powerful in his role because of the odd staging of the final scene.

Detroit Opera House/John Grigaitis
Carsten Wittmoser(Don Pizarro), Per Bach Nissen (Rocco).

As one can tell, I enjoyed the overall presentation of this very political opera which is very near and dear to my own heart. But I am very irked by certain decisions that are made, as if to upstage Beethoven himself, which detract from, rather than enhance the performance.† Directors must trust in the imagination of the audiences, rather than cowtow to some popular opinion. I don’t know if the decisions were made by the director or the singers themselves, but a few are questionable. †For example, in the finale, why have ladies dressed as if they were in the 20th century at the square as Don Fernando dispenses justice?† The townspeople, probably spouses and friends of the prisoners, at the very opening duet of the opera, are knocking on the door but can’t get in. In this production there is no indication of who might be knocking on the door or why.

In the finale, these same townspeople assemble to meet the Minister of Justice, as they and the prisoners find freedom, justice, beauty and hope after years of oppression and tyranny.† †Like a Bach cantata or motet that makes conscious the transformation process that has occurring throughout the work, the finale should reflect that, and it did not. Everyone there is transformed, including Rocco, but most importantly, the public, assembled in the audience.

Not only do Don Fernando’s words remind us that all men become brothers, which idea is celebrated in Beethoven’s chorale movement of his 9th symphony, but also in†Fidelio, the final chorus quotes directly from Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy:†

Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,†††††††† Who a lovely wife attaineth,
Mische seinen Jubel ein!††††††††††††††††††† Join us in his jubilee!

I was happy to read in the program notes that the director produced this work with his own commitment to justice, and that this profound and universal theme contained here is as important today as in Beethoven’s time. But from the highest and most elevated level, celebrating conjugal love, political justice and the transformation of all who were touched by such personal courage and love, the mind is thrown an arbitrary curve ball which forces a precipitous drop from the heights we †attained in the final scene.† (“Who are these ladies in 20th century clothes and why are they there?”) †Such arbitrary staging is just wrong.

Another problem of staging elaborates this same flaw: As Leonore sang her “Komm Hoffnung” aria, she wielded a pistol, which of course she draws in the last scene. But this aria, which is like a prayer for strength and a resolve to do whatever is necessary to find and free her husband (and others) from tyranny, is lessened in effect when it is presented as something specific that she may have to do, like shoot the evil doer, as opposed to what we ALL have to do, which is to defeat tyranny with the power of agape, whatever that may entail. †She pointed her pistol at Pizarro in the courtyard earlier as if to shoot, but did not. So the pistol was an ever present, but unnecessary, subtext.

And again, in the dungeon with Rocco, Pizzaro and Florestan, I found it distracting that she drew her gun at Pizzaro, but he swipes it and then Rocco throws her his gun, which she points at him as the trumpets herald the arrival of Don Fernando. Beethoven’s score indicates that as Pizarro is about to stab Florestan, she reveals herself and says “First kill his wife!” to the surprise of all. After a moment of shock, Pizarro decides to do just that- kill them both. But Leonore outflanks him--she draws a pistol against his dagger—a shocking surprise! Even when you know the opera well, and expect this event from Leonore, this scene is still a highly charged, emotional moment. Why, when you know it’s coming, does it still bring tears to the eye?

Leonore, Florestan, Rocco and Pizarro each sing the final quartet in the dungeon, with qualitatively different meanings. The play on words is reflected in the musical composition: 

The hour of vengeance has come
This means you shall be saved;
Our love, it will in union
With courage make you free.

Damned be this fateful hour!
The traitors laugh at me;
Despair, it will in union
With my revenge now be.

Oh hour full of horror!
Oh God, what's awaiting me?
I will not be in union
With this villain any more.

It’s in the music. Beethoven’s incredibly powerful music at this point of the drama is not a “background” for the action, like the movie music of today. There is a profound blending of his orchestration and the poetry of the libretto, abundant in puns, word play and ironies. The trio and the quartets in the dungeon in Act II are constantly increasing in intensity as the passions and agitation expressed as Florestan is recognized, Pizarro is revealed as Florestan’s enemy and murderer, and as what follows plays out. Importantly, it is the music shapes the action of the drama, which drama is manifested on the stage, but it also occurring in the mind of each person in the audience. Beethoven does not require extra “activity” in that stunning scene. The emotional intensity crescendos right up to the sound of the trumpet, where the mind may recognize, consciously or not, that the same trumpet was heard earlier, in Leonore’s Komm Hoffnung aria. Justice is triumphant, and love truly conquers (die Liebe wirds erreichen).

Classical art is science. It is not based on sense perception, even though experiencing great voices, dramatic scenery or terrific acting are all very useful on the journey to the real destination. To uplift society through classical art and science was always the mission of the greatest artists and of the European supporters of the American Revolution. That was their responsibility, as it is our responsibility today. When truth and beauty are promoted, and true creativity is allowed to flourish, it is possible to educate the emotions of citizens and leaders, enabling society to rise above the disasters of the day, to the higher level of cognition, where the solutions can be found, as in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Excerpted from Lyndon H LaRouche’s BRAIN, OR MIND?:A Good Old Thought Revived

“…The human mind, as distinct from the mere brain, has operated on the basis of two intrinsically separate means of governance. There is, first, also the lowest aspect of human experience and knowledge, the essentially animal quality of mere sense-perception as such. There is also a "region outside" that of the essentially merely animal sense-perception, the actually noŽtic expression which reigns as if from "outside" the animal category.
“That higher order of "mind," which is not contained within mere sense-perception as such, is to be regarded as specific to the Classical modalities of the domain of the noŽtic imagination, the domain of that which had not yet been experienced, the domain of the truly creative: the four truly Classical modes, of poetry, music, drama, and of scientific creativity as such.* The essential organization of what we may regard as the total experience of the human mind, includes the use of the means of mere sense-perception, as being the inferior experience of mere sense-perception as such. However, it is only if, and when those higher, Classical-artistic powers of creativity reigning over the sense-perceptual "underside" of what is also treated as mind, are in command, that the true quality of the human mind, the quality of creativity†per se, is in reign, and that mankind rises above the bonds of virtual slavery to mere sense-perception as such… . †

* Painting is an expression of drama.

*Beethoven may have been thinking of  Shakespeare’s Sonnet #43 for the scene of Florestan in the dungeon.

Shakespeare Sonnet 43

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow's form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so! 
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
    All days are nights to see till I see thee,
   And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.