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Waltraud Meier – “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” – “Fidelio” – L. van Beethoven

by Luca

Waltraud Meier, “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?”, Fidelio, L. van Beethoven.
Great rendition. Waltraud Meier is maybe the most intelligent german opera artist.
Fidelio (Op. 72) is a German opera in two acts by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is Beethoven’s only opera. The German libretto is by Joseph Sonnleithner from the French of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly which had been used for the 1798 opera Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal by Pierre Gaveaux, and for the 1804 opera Leonora by Ferdinando Paer (a score of which was owned by Beethoven). The opera tells how Leonore, disguised as a prison guard named “Fidelio”, rescues her husband Florestan from death in a political prison.
Bouilly’s scenario fits Beethoven’s aesthetic and political outlook: a story of personal sacrifice, heroism and eventual triumph (the usual topics of Beethoven’s “middle period”) with its underlying struggle for liberty and justice mirroring contemporary political movements in Europe.
As elsewhere in Beethoven’s vocal music, the music is not especially kind to the singers. The principal parts of Leonore and Florestan, in particular, require great vocal skill and endurance in order to project the necessary intensity, and top performances in these roles attract admiration.
Some notable moments in the opera include the “Prisoners’ Chorus”, an ode to freedom sung by a chorus of political prisoners, Florestan’s vision of Leonore come as an angel to rescue him, and the scene in which the rescue finally takes place. The finale celebrates Leonore’s bravery with alternating contributions of soloists and chorus.Like many other works in Beethoven’s career, Fidelio went through several versions before achieving full success. The opera was first produced in a three-act version at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, on 20 November 1805, with additional performances the following two nights. The 1805 and 1806 versions are referred to, by academic convention, as Leonore in order to distinguish them from the final two-act version. However all three versions were premiered as Fidelio.
The success of these performances was greatly hindered by the fact that Vienna was under French military occupation, and most of the audience were French military officers. After this premiere, Beethoven was pressured by friends to revise and shorten the opera into just two acts, and he did so with the help of Stephan von Breuning. The composer also wrote a new overture (now known as “Leonore No. 3”; see below). In this form the opera was first performed on 29 March and 10 April 1806, with greater success. Further performances were prevented by a dispute between Beethoven and the theater management.
In 1814 Beethoven revised his opera yet again, with additional work on the libretto by Georg Friedrich Treitschke. This version was first performed at the Kärntnertortheater on 23 May 1814, under the title Fidelio. The 17-year-old Franz Schubert was in the audience, having sold his school books to obtain a ticket. The increasingly deaf Beethoven led the performance, “assisted” by Michael Umlauf, who later performed the same task for Beethoven at the premiere of the Ninth Symphony. The role of Pizarro was taken by Johann Michael Vogl, who later became known for his collaborations with Schubert. This version of the opera was, finally, a great success for Beethoven, and Fidelio has been an important part of the operatic repertory ever since.
Beethoven cannot be said to have enjoyed the difficulties posed by writing and producing an opera. In a letter to Treitschke he said, “I assure you, dear Treitschke, that this opera will win me a martyr’s crown. You have by your co-operation saved what is best from the shipwreck. For all this I shall be eternally grateful to you.”
Beethoven struggled to produce an appropriate overture for Fidelio, and ultimately went through four versions. His first attempt, for the 1805 premiere, is believed to have been the overture now known as “Leonore No. 2”. Beethoven then focused this version for the performances of 1806, creating “Leonore No. 3”. The latter is considered by many listeners as the greatest of the four overtures, but as an intensely dramatic, full-scale symphonic movement it had the effect of overwhelming the (rather light) initial scenes of the opera. Beethoven accordingly experimented with cutting it back somewhat, for a planned 1808 performance in Prague; this is believed to be the version now called “Leonore No. 1”. Finally, for the 1814 revival Beethoven began anew, and with fresh musical material wrote what we now know as the Fidelio overture. As this somewhat lighter overture seems to work best of the four as a start to the opera, Beethoven’s final intentions are generally respected in contemporary productions.
Gustav Mahler introduced the practice, common until the middle of the twentieth century, of performing “Leonore No. 3” between the two scenes of the second act. In this location, it acts as a kind of musical reprise of the rescue scene that has just taken place. A new, modern-styled production that premiered in Budapest in October 2008, for example, features the “Leonore No. 3” overture in this location.
Fidelio was Arturo Toscanini’s first complete opera performance to be broadcast over the NBC radio network, in December 1944, by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, featuring soloists from the Metropolitan Opera (though a shortwave broadcast of one act, conducted by Toscanini, had earlier been relayed from an August 16, 1936 performance at Salzburg.) Divided into two consecutive broadcasts, the 1944 performances were later issued by RCA Victor on LPs and CDs. Toscanini made it clear that Beethoven believed in liberty and was opposed to tyrants such as Napoleon Bonaparte; in the conductor’s opinion, Beethoven would have likely opposed Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini as well.
Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler remarked in Salzburg in 1948, not long after the end of World War II and fall of Nazism:
“[T]he conjugal love of Leonore appears, to the modern individual armed with realism and psychology, irremediably abstract and theoretical…. Now that political events in Germany have restored to the concepts of human dignity and liberty their original significance, this is the opera which, thanks to the music of Beethoven, gives us comfort and courage…. Certainly, Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician for the theater, or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary. That which disturbs us is not a material effect, nor the fact of the ‘imprisonment’; any film could create the same effect. No, it is the music, it is Beethoven himself. It is this ‘nostalgia of liberty’ he feels, or better, makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears. His Fidelio has more of the Mass than of the Opera to it; the sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a ‘religion of humanity’ which we never found so beautiful or necessary as we do today, after all we have lived through. Herein lies the singular power of this unique opera…. Independent of any historical consideration … the flaming message of Fidelio touches deeply.
We realize that for us Europeans, as for all men, this music will always represent an appeal to our conscience.
The opera was published in all three versions as Beethoven’s Opus 72.