Of Freedom and the Heart: Beethovens Fidelio
Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio (EMI Classics)
Don Pizzaro-Walter Berry
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
servants 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
Artistically, Beethoven inspired both directly or indirectly
much that came after him. The lush romantic eras Franz Liszt (1811-1886),
who himself inspired and nurtured many important composer/musicians, including
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Hector Berlioz (1803-1869).
Beethovens attitude was an immediate predecessor to the
romantic eras ( 1825-1900) virtuosos, their version of todays
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 Mozarts (1756-1791) operatic catalog. It is hard to accurately
gauge the potential enjoyment and inspiration to be had from this only child of
Beethovens 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 operas 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 Mozarts 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 Cherubinis
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 Brauns works of weight,
Emmanuel Schikander decided to commission a work by Beethoven.
Although untried in the operatic field, Beethovens work on
the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus seemed only to be missing
vocals, showing a glimpse of operatic possibilities from the composer.
During Beethovens year of preparation, Baron Braun bought
his rivals 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 Beethovens 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 Cherubinis 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 Beethovens 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 Lichnowskys 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 todays audiences are
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 publics 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
Mozarts, even meeting him as a youth, but he felt that Mozarts
greatest operas were immoral.
Like Mozarts The Magic Flute this opera
contains elements of singspiel, a sort of spoken word break in the action.
Mozarts 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. Mozarts 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, Beethovens
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
Beethovens idea of spirituality. His was more the idea of a universal
brotherhood and the appreciation of nature.
Nay sayers of Beethovens 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
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
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 will return soon with more adventures in sound.