Beethoven’s Ode to Freedom
Music by Ludwig van Beethoven
Libretto by Josef Sonnleithner with subsequent revisions by Stephan von Breuning and Georg Friedrich Treitschke
Sung in German with English supertitles
Sunday June 18 at 3 pm
Please join us immediately afterwards for a free “Meet the Artists” opening night reception
Sunday June 25 at 3 pm
Matthews Theatre, McCarter Theatre Center
91 University Place, Princeton
Tickets: $35 | $50 | $70 | $90 | $110 | $140
Reserved seating | Opera Seat Map
Approximate end time: 5:40 pm, including one intermission
Family Package available
McCarter Theatre Parking & Directions
Conductor: Richard Tang Yuk
Director: Steven LaCosse
Set Design: Jonathan Dahm Robertson
Lighting Design: Norman Coates
Costume Design: Marie Miller
Wig & Make-up Design: Monique Gaffney
Assistant Conductor: Gregory Geehern
Chorus Master: Gregory Geehern
Répétiteur/Coach: Stanley Fink
Ludwig van Beethoven had long wanted to write operas. He wrote only one — but what an opera it is! Fidelio sets a stirring tale of conjugal love, personal heroism, and the overthrow of tyranny to some of the most glorious and moving music ever composed for the stage. The work’s emotional charge and uplifting subject matter will sweep you away.
Music and Singers
Beethoven’s opera weaves individual human lives into a larger pattern of social and humanitarian ideals. At the start of the opera the Spanish noble Florestan is languishing in a dungeon cell. He has been imprisoned by his political enemy Pizarro, governor of the prison fortress, who has condemned him to die by slow starvation. The jailer Rocco pities his prisoner, but must follow Pizarro’s orders under pain of death. Florestan’s wife Leonore disguises herself as a young man named Fidelio and sets out to rescue him.
Fidelio boasts music that is imbued with all the brilliance, power, tenderness, and defiance we expect from Beethoven. There is a striking quartet in Act 1, “Mir ist so wunderbar” [A wondrous feeling fills me], in which Rocco, Leonore, Marcellina (Rocco’s daughter), and Jaquino (smitten with Marcellina) sing at cross purposes about their relationships. Act 2 opens with Florestan’s electrifying aria “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! … In des Lebens Frühlingstagen,” [God! What darkness here… In the spring days of life], which moves from a lament over his fate to an expression of gratitude for what he has achieved, and closes with a vision of Leonore.
Leonore/Fidelio reveals her aspirations and fears in arias such as “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? … Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern” [Scum! Where are you off to so fast? … Come, hope, let the last star …]. The famous (and often show-stopping) Prisoners’ Chorus “O welche Lust!” [Oh what joy] speaks of the desire for liberty in elemental terms.
Fidelio makes considerable demands on its singers. The principal roles require heroic voices that can also caress lyrical passages. Famous Leonores of past and present include Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, Karita Mattila, and Nina Stemme. Florestan has been sung by such tenors as Lauritz Melchior, Wolfgang Windgassen, James McCracken, and Jonas Kaufmann.
This a must-see and must-hear masterpiece of music drama. To sample its glories, click on the video link at the bottom of this page and hear Jonas Kaufmann sing Florestan’s famous Act 2 aria.
Leonore, wife of Florestan, disguised as Fidelio
“Her Act II performance sent a palpable ripple of excitement throughout the performance space.” (The Washington Times)
Florestan, Spanish nobleman, unjustly imprisoned by Don Pizarro
“…not only a beefy instrument but exceptional dramatic skill.” (Opera News)
Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter, in love with Fidelio
“Talamantes coupled rich vibrancy with stellar fluency.” (The Washington Post)
Rocco, head jailer
“Gustav Andreassen was fabulous [as] the Grand Inquisitor.” (The New York Times)
Jaquino, Rocco’s assistant, in love with Marzelline
“Mr. Kuhn is an artist of almost terrifying magnetism.” (New York Observer)
Don Pizarro, prison governor and Florestan’s enemy
“Joseph Barron was vocally robust … and lyrically malevolent.” (The New York Times)
Don Fernando, Prime Minister of Spain
Fellow of the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute where he has taken several major roles, as well as at Piedmont Opera.
Prisoners and townsfolk
Princeton Festival Chorus
“The [Princeton Festival] chorus is transcendent.” (Trenton Times)
THE STORY: Rescue and Redemption
Leonore, wife of a Spanish noble unjustly imprisoned by his enemy Pizarro, is convinced that her husband Florestan is still alive, and sets out to find him. She dons men’s clothes, calls herself Fidelio, and persuades Rocco, who runs Pizarro’s prison, to take her on as an assistant. Her task is complicated when Rocco’s daughter Marcellina falls in love with the handsome young Fidelio, much to the dismay of Jaquino, another assistant jailer, who was hoping to marry Marcellina.
Leonore soon discovers that Florestan is being held in the fortress and resolves to free him. When Pizarro learns that the Prime Minister is coming to check out reports of mistreatment of the prisoners, he decides to get rid of Florestan once and for all. Rocco refuses to kill Florestan, but agrees to open a cistern in the cell where the body can be hidden after Pizarro himself carries out the murder. Leonore volunteers to help Rocco, suspecting the prisoner is Florestan.
She also convinces Rocco to let the prisoners out of their cells to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air for a little while. Alas, Florestan is not among them. Leonore and Rocco descend to the dungeon to prepare the solitary prisoner’s grave. In a touching scene Florestan recognizes his wife. Pizarro comes to kill Florestan, but Leonore threatens him with a pistol.
Don Fernando, the Prime Minister, arrives at the prison during this standoff. Pizarro must run to greet him, leaving Leonore and Florestan to exult in their reunion. While Pizarro sits on a dais with Fernando, the Prime Minister declares his intent to right wrongs and bring justice to all. Rocco leads the couple forward. With the lovers reunited and Pizarro’s tyranny and cruelty finally revealed, the opera comes to a happy conclusion.
Transcending a Generic Plot
Broadly speaking Beethoven’s Fidelio falls into the category of the “rescue opera.” For decades after the French revolution there was a vogue for operas in which wives or fiancées, sometimes disguised as men, courageously attempt to free their beloveds from mortal danger. Prominent examples include Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entführung aus dem Serail), Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers (L’Italiana in Algeri), and Puccini’s Tosca.
One wouldn’t expect this to be a popular plot formula in an era when women were supposed to be subservient. Yet composers both famous and forgotten capitalized on the fad. In fact there were two other operas based on the Leonore libretto before Beethoven’s version. One of them premiered only a year before Fidelio.
But Beethoven’s rescue opera transcends the conventions of the genre. In Fidelio the brave woman who heroically risks everything to release her beloved from mortal danger is also serving a higher cause. Her success symbolizes the inevitable triumph of human will and freedom over injustice and tyranny.
The arias, choruses, and instrumental music that Beethoven wrote for Fidelio are major contributors to its heady atmosphere of liberation from restraint. Musicologist Donald Jay Grout put it this way: “Beethoven’s music transforms … Leonore [into] a personage of sublime courage and self-abnegation, an idealized figure. The whole last part of the opera is in effect a celebration of Leonore’s heroism and the great humanitarian ideals of the Revolution.”
Composition and Critical Reception
It took Beethoven three tries over 11 years to arrive at the final version of Fidelio. He often revised his older works in search of the perfect expression, but this degree of rethinking was extreme even for him. He did not enjoy the experience, famously writing to a collaborator that “this opera will win me a martyr’s crown.”
The long gestation began in 1803, when Emanuel Schikaneder, impresario of the Theater an der Wien and librettist for Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), promised Beethoven free housing in exchange for composing an opera for his theater. Beethoven found Schikaneder’s libretto uncongenial, but completed two arias for it that later found their way into Fidelio.
In 1804 Beethoven parted ways with Schikaneder, came upon a libretto more to his liking, and wrote the first, three-act version of Fidelio. It debuted in Vienna 1805, but ran for only three performances. The city was under French occupation, and the small audiences were composed mostly of French military officers.
Beethoven’s friends persuaded him to revise the opera and shorten it to two acts. The resulting version premiered in 1806. Though it was warmly received, it closed after two performances due to a dispute between composer and theater management.
In 1814 Beethoven revised Fidelio again. The audience at the premiere included the young Franz Schubert, who had sold his schoolbooks to get money to buy a ticket. This version was a great success. It quickly entered the standard repertoire, where it has remained ever since.
The opera does have its critics. While everyone agrees that the music is brilliant and moving, several reviewers consider its plot to be dramatically static. Others carp at its mix of comic, tragic, and dramatic elements (a complaint also voiced against Shakespeare’s plays and Mozart’s Don Giovanni). And some object that its high moral tone and the idealized relationship between Florestan and Leonore make the work too abstract.
Yet Fidelio is often performed as the centerpiece of great occasions. It was the first complete opera broadcast by Toscanini in the US; the first opera performed in postwar Berlin; the work that re-opened the rebuilt Vienna State Opera house in 1955; and a catalyst for protesters in East Germany in 1989, just four weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its champions have included such great conductors as Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwangler, and Leonard Bernstein.
Click on the image below to hear Jonas Kaufmann sing Florestan’s Act 2 aria “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! … In des Lebens Frühlingstagen,” [God! What darkness here… In the spring days of life].