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Of Freedom and the Heart: Beethoven’s Fidelio

Maxwell Chandler

The CD

Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio (EMI Classics)

Leonore-Christa Ludwig

Florestan-Jon Vickers

Don Pizzaro-Walter Berry

Rocco-Gottlob Frick

Marzeline-Ingeborg Hallstein

Jaquino-Gerhard Unger

Don Fernando-Franz Crass

Erster Gefangener-Kurt Wehofschitz

Zweiter Gefangener-Raymond Wolansky

Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra

Although important, man can not live on a diet of jazz alone. Now, more than ever, a diverse selection of music is more readily available world wide. We must shed the obsession with classification and all sub-genre labels. In this new age, lets just divide music into two categories “good” and “bad”.

I have always maintained that there is a direct connection between the western classical composers, their cannon and some of the jazz greats. If you have big ears and are open to it, the best way to enjoy music, you will often find one group will lead you to the other. Bud Powell studied the works of Debussy (1862-1918). Dave Brubeck studied directly under Darius Milhaud ( 1892-1974) one member of modern French composers group Le Sixe. Charlie “Bird” Parker had begged French modernist composer Edgar Varese (1883-1965) to formally teach him composition. There are plenty of examples of indirect links as well, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and Orenette Coleman being closer to composers than mere musician/song writers.

I choose Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) as my perfect starting point. Up until Beethoven, a composer had to have patronage of a royal house. This was not as glamorous as it may sound. Competition for such a position was fierce and once obtained, the composer was just considered on par with any other type of household servant, even having to eat out of the way, at the servant’s table. Beethoven was the first one to assert himself and demand to be considered an equal, an artist. This stance would be mirrored centuries later when the architects of Bop (Bird, Diz, Max Roach, Bud Powell) broke from the idea of the big band musicians and their crowd pleasing antics and demanded to be thought of as artists, not entertainers. As important of a move as this was, it was mostly not easy going. Despite these assertions of freedom, both groups still had to often make concessions to the society and times they were trapped in.

Artistically, Beethoven inspired both directly or indirectly much that came after him. The lush romantic era’s Franz Liszt (1811-1886), who himself inspired and nurtured many important composer/musicians, including Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Hector Berlioz (1803-1869).

Beethoven’s attitude was an immediate predecessor to the romantic era’s ( 1825-1900) virtuosos, their version of today’s “rock-star”.

Beethoven was a symphonic composer and therein lies his main strength and glory. He did write one opera, which is often compared unfavorably to any of Mozart’s (1756-1791) operatic catalog. It is hard to accurately gauge the potential enjoyment and inspiration to be had from this only child of Beethoven’s by reading about it. Too often now initial words of disappointment are parroted, not telling the reader the whole story or what, artistically is being offered up.

The opera’s genesis would have made for an interesting subject matter in itself. There was a great rivalry between two theaters in Vienna. The court theater was run by Baron Braun, his rival The Theater –an-der-Wien, by Emmanuel Schikander. Schikander was the artistic director but had also been an actor, singer in his own right. He helped write the libretto for Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (1791) and also took a turn playing Papagino.

Less artistic in his temperament, Baron Braun was a shrewd and insightful business man. He drew first blood by presenting Cherubini’s “The Water Carrier” (1800), an opera whose seriousness set it apart from what was then being offered the Viennese public.

After all the overly sweet light operas, they clamored for more things of weight. The Baron went all the way to Paris in 1803 to secure more works by Cherubini.

As a counter balance to Baron Braun’s works of weight, Emmanuel Schikander decided to commission a work by Beethoven.

Although untried in the operatic field, Beethoven’s work on the ballet “The Creatures of Prometheus” seemed only to be missing vocals, showing a glimpse of operatic possibilities from the composer.

During Beethoven’s year of preparation, Baron Braun bought his rival’s theater firing everyone, only to reinstall Emmanuel Schikander shortly there after, who then re-extended the opera commission to Beethoven.

Initially, Emmanuel Schikander, who would eventually die in an insane asylum, was to write the libretto. Only a few sketches survive, found among Beethoven’s papers posthumously.

During this era, there were no copyright/intellectual property rights. Ideas from operas, motifs which had proven popular would often be lifted by other impresarios.

The original (Beethoven) version of Fidelio was a pale copy of a French play by Jean Nicolas Bouilly (1763-1842). A lawyer by trade, who had also written the libretti for Cherubini’s “The Water Carrier”. The original music was by Pierre Gaveaux (1761-1825) who managed to pen more than thirty operas before also dying insane.

Before Beethoven, it had also been “borrowed” by Ferdinando Paer (1771-1826). It was in production during 1804 as Beethoven again began to work on his only opera, this time with a libretto by Josef Sonnleithner. The first production of Beethoven’s version was at The Theater-an-der-Wien on November 20, 1805.

The premier went largely unnoticed, Napoleon having occupied the city only a week earlier. It was performed only three times for audiences mainly of French troops totally lacking in any bi-lingual abilities.

A few months later, in a marathon session which lasted from 7pm until 1 am a small group of technically-music minded friends gathered with the composer at his patron Prince Lichnowsky’s home to discuss how to improve the piece. Different numbers were cut, bringing the seemingly bloated opera from three over long acts down to two.

March 1805, this version was produced. It was given with the orchestra having had time for only one rehearsal. After only five productions, Beethoven withdrew the score, growing angry at an imagined slight concerning box office receipts.

1814 court opera officials were giving a benefit concert and allowed carte blanche to pick the piece. Beethoven again took up his operatic commission. This performing version is the one today’s audiences are familiar with.

A now deaf Beethoven conducted, with a more capable Kapellmeister discretely standing behind him, really conducting.

There were six triumphant performances, the sixth being a benefit for Beethoven himself. This version caught the public’s heart with its twin messages of freedom (justice) and the fidelity of two hearts.

The overture has always been a source of much controversy and debate. The commonly played version is actually the fourth one Beethoven wrote. The “final” version had not been ready for the 1814 revival, so the overture for the play “The Ruins of Athens” which Beethoven had written the music for, was performed instead. There is still some debate as to which overture to perform. Composer/conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) would perform the third version at the operas conclusion. He saw this as a summing up of all the characters, all that had occurred, where as detractors feel that it locks all the characters into a elliptical pattern of repetition. Dangers escaped must now be faced again in same way. The hero saved, the villain vanquished all again.

Beethoven had ambitions to do other operas, but never found a libretto which properly moved him. He had been a great admirer of Mozart’s, even meeting him as a youth, but he felt that Mozart’s greatest operas were “immoral”.

Like Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” this opera contains elements of singspiel, a sort of spoken word break in the action. Mozart’s opera and “Fidelio” were the two immediate evolutionary precursors to “Der Freischutz”(1821) by Karl Maria von Weber, the first truly German (national) opera.

The action takes place in a prison in Seville during the 18th century. The plot is fairly straight ahead. Florestan (husband) is imprisoned before the start of the opera, having been so for two years and presumed dead. Some sort of righteous political dissidence is hinted at. While everyone else has given up, his wife refuses to and disguises herself as a man, taking a job at the prison. Like all operas, a certain suspension of belief is required. The Don is corrupt and the people suffering. It all ends well, although that is definitely not a prerequisite for operas.

Often this opera is held up as a symbol of revolutionary justice against corruption. Although it does contain those elements, it is much more about a woman never giving up faith of her heart. Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” (1786 ) is actually far more politically subversive. Containing moments of levity makes it less obvious, but does also imbibe the characters and plot with more dimension.

Depending upon the production, sometimes too, Beethoven’s opera is laced with overly dogmatic-catholic imagery. Florestan being made into a metaphor for Christ (his being “dead” at the start of opera, but then returning to life again from his cave-like cell). There are some articulate writings to back this theory, but it really does not ring true to Beethoven’s idea of spirituality. His was more the idea of a universal brotherhood and the appreciation of nature.

Nay sayers of Beethoven’s only opera mention the fact that, even with all the cuts and tightening up, there are still some slow moments to the operas action. I do not argue this, but will add the same is true too of “The Magic Flute”. Both operas possess their dead spots, but the sublime moments encountered during the course of the journey make it worth the wait. Of course too, all operas have the big arias known and cherished by all, but what constitutes operatic “downtime” while waiting for these numbers, is to a certain degree, subjective.

For the most part, classical CDs run more expensive than the average jazz CD. Especially when dealing with opera. There is a definite difference between the budget version of an opera and a historic or standard boxed set version. Budget CDs are usually smaller less known orchestras and often these versions will lack packaging, liner notes or sometimes even adequate fidelity. Occasionally a benefit of one of these smaller ensembles is that they can perform/record a more obscure piece, not having the pressure of a major label and their market considerations dictating program. While the budget label Naxos does a pretty good job overall, spend the extra money to get a more known version of an opera on your first foray out.

What makes for a definitive version of an opera? A newcomer to opera may not enjoy some of the “historical” opera recordings which often have the ambient presence of the house adding a sheen of reverb and the occasional sound of some off stage background noise. Someone use to modern day orchestral recordings might also find the sound on these recordings a little “thin”.

Often opera buffs play the intellectual game, which would you rather, an old technology recording of a legendary performance or a newer high fidelity performance done with a little less fire of the Gods?

I choose for my “Fidelio” the EMI (1962) version with Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) conducting the Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra . This is considered by many to be the definitive version against which all other performances are measured. Having first heard the opera at the age of eleven, the great conductor had a life-long romance with it. His profound knowledge and affection for it allow him to capture the full spirit of what the composer had in mind, yet keep it alive and powerful. A thing which rarely occurs, only under the baton of (maybe) a handful of conductors. Fewer at once in any given generation

The performance is concluded with the #3 overture “Lenore” and it did not strike me as redundant at all.

The whole cast is fantastic and you get a sense of true dynamics between all the characters. Christa Ludwig is Lenore, the heroine and Jon Vickers is Florestan.

Unlike some operas, the whole cast is able to sing, but also act/convey a sense of drama in regards to what is occurring in the make believe world around them.

It is a two CD set coming in a slip case with an informative booklet. The opera has been remastered and the sound fidelity is very good. With some historic recordings, either voice or orchestra clarity is often sacrificed or there is a distinctive reverb which furthers the effect of just being an operatic voyeur as opposed to being sucked in, here there is no such effect. There are many highlights and the “dead spots” do not last long enough to detract from the overall enjoyment.

The world in which characters from an opera inhabit, all those extreme highs and lows, once in a while we should all live as if in an opera.

-Maxwell Chandler-

Maxwell will return soon with more adventures in sound.

© Winamop 2006