Did you know that Beethoven – one of the most famous classical composers of all time – also wrote an opera? Yup: “Fidelio.” And my use of “an opera” is totally deliberate. He wrote just one opera in his entire 56-year life, despite composing a slew of symphonies, concerti, sonatas and other works.
So, Saturday, November 18 at 7:30 p.m. is your chance to hear this unique Beethoven work, when Opera at Rutgers, along with the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra and Kirkpatrick Choir, present it at the Nicholas Music Center on George Street in New Brunswick. This is a concert production with Pamela Gilmore, artistic director, and Kynan Johnson, conductor.
Beethoven was born in Bonn (in today’s Germany) in 1770. At the age of 21, he moved to Vienna to study composition with Joseph “Papa” Hayden and also became a virtuosic pianist. As you probably know, Beethoven began losing his hearing in his late 20s and was nearly completely deaf at the end of his life. His work life is generally divided into three periods: early (through 1802), middle (1803-1814) and (you guessed it) late (1815-1827). “Fidelio” was composed at the end of that middle period (also called his “heroic” period) in 1814.
Set in 18th century Spain, Act 1 of “Fidelio” opens in a prison where Marzelline, daughter of Rocco the jailer, rejects the attentions of her father’s assistant, Jacquino, who wants to marry her – she’d really rather date Fidelio, the new errand boy. However, Fidelio’s not too thrilled with this idea, especially since Rocco is on board with it. Why? Because Fidelio is actually Leonore, a noblewoman of Seville who came to the jail disguised as a boy to find her husband Florestan – a political prisoner stashed away somewhere in the prison. – Yeah, it’s basically not considered a true 18th/early 19th century opera if there isn’t at least one major cast member in disguise – usually as a member of the opposite sex – and lots of misguided seduction attempts.
When Rocco mentions a prisoner who is near death in the vaults below, Leonore begs Rocco to take her on his rounds, suspecting that it might be Florestan. Rocco agrees, even though he’s not supposed to take anyone down there, on orders from the prison governor, Don Pizarro.
And to make matters more urgent and dire, Pizarro then learns that the minister of state (Don Fernando) is on his way for an inspection. Pizarro decides to kill Florestan, who is his enemy, and orders Rocco to dig a grave for Florestan. Leonore overhears all of this, of course. – That’s another rule of opera from this time: Crucial secrets are spoken aloud – right where important cast members are hiding in disguise. – So Leonore prays for strength and begs Rocco to let her go with him to the cell. And so they go…
In Act 2, Florestan dreams he sees Leonore arriving to free him, but he sinks down in despair and exhaustion. Rocco and Leonore arrive and begin digging the grave. Florestan awakens, not recognizing his wife (who is still disguised, remember) and she’s really affected by the sound of his voice. Rocco offers Florestan a drink of water and Leonore gives him a bit of bread, urging him not to lose faith. Rocco blows his whistle to signal to Pizarro that all is ready for the kill. Pizarro approaches with a dagger drawn to strike, but Leonore stops him with a pistol. Then we hear a trumpet sounding from the battlements, signaling that Fernando has arrived. Rocco leads Pizarro out to meet him as Leonore and Florestan rejoice together.
In the prison courtyard, Don Fernando proclaims justice for all. Rocco brings Florestan forward and tells Fernando about Leonore’s heroism. Fernando is amazed and has Pizarro arrested. Leonore removes Florestan’s chains, the other prisoners are free and the crowd hails Leonore.
Although the current and final version of this opera premiered in 1814, there are actually two earlier versions of this work written by Beethoven. He first wrote the opera in 1805, which was then reworked for a new premiere in 1806. But then it was pretty extensively rewritten again and had its final premiere in 1814.
At their premieres, this opera was sometimes called “Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love.” But to try and avoid confusion, we refer to the 1805 and 1806 versions as “Leonore,” but when we refer to the final (1814) version, we call it “Fidelio.” – Yeah, compositional history of works from this period are almost as complex as the plots.
One of the big differences between the earlier and later versions of the opera is that it was shortened from three acts to two; the overture was also rewritten, as was much of the libretto. Although the work still remains part of the standard opera repertoire to this day, Beethoven struggled with writing (and rewriting) this opera. He wrote to a friend that “this opera will win me a martyr’s crown.”
Perhaps even more than the music, the subject matter is one that particularly resonates through the ages. For its era, it’s an unusually serious (especially politically) work. Even today, its themes of unswerving marital love and unjust political imprisonment resonate, which perhaps explain its longevity.
In recent years, this theme has been taken even more broadly. For example, in 2014, Manitoba Opera sought approximately 100 volunteers, who arrived in Winnipeg as refugees, to appear in the production. This feat was mounted to celebrate the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
The head of Manitoba Opera, Larry Desrochers, explained that “As we worked on the opera, we began to see how universal the story really is. Though written 200 years ago, it is still, unfortunately, relevant today…. It only seemed right to include them somehow. The story of ‘Fidelio’ is their story.”
Relevant, touching, beautifully written music from one of the most important composers in history – performed right here in our own backyard. Need I say more?
Opera at Rutgers presents Beethoven’s “Fidelio” with the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, November 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the Nicholas Music Center, Rutgers University, located at 85 George Street in New Brunswick.
The cast features Amanda Pabyan (Leonore), Andrew Moore (Rocco), Eunjin Jung (Marzelline), Chris Georgetti (Jacquino), Brett Pardue (Florestan), Colin Levin (Don Fernando), Robert Mellon (Don Pizarro), Joshua LeRose (Prisoner #1) and Jonathon Dawson (Prisoner #2).
Tickets are $15 for the public; $10 for seniors, Rutgers alumni and employees and $5 for students. For more information and to purchase, visit masongross.rutgers.edu. Proceeds from the ticket sales for this concert support scholarship funds for music students.