"I could have composed something new far more quickly than patch up the old with something new, as I am now doing," Beethoven growled in the throes of revising Fidelio for the second and last time. "This opera will win for me the martyr's crown." The complaint and the prophecy appear in a letter to Georg Friedrich Treitschke, the work's third and final librettist, along with these words of thanks: "Had you not taken so much trouble with it and revised everything so satisfactorily, for which I shall ever be grateful to you, I would hardly bring myself to do my share -- but by your work you have salvaged a few good bits of a ship that was wrecked and stranded."
Set the Ur-Fidelio of 1805 beside the familiar Fidelio of 1814, and what do you see? A rough draft? An undoctored original that might better have been left that way? An alternative of equal and independent value?
Textual and performance history do not settle the artistic question, but the evolution of the opera the composer would have preferred to call Leonore helps focus the comparison. Beethoven's first collaborator was Joseph von Sonnleithner, who took his subject from the French libretto Léonore, ou L'Amour Conjugal, by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, who in turn based his story on true events from the French Revolution. To differentiate the new opera from the others variously derived from Bouilly, the management of the Theater an der Wien insisted on the title Fidelio.
The work henceforth to be referred to as Leonore had its premiere in 1805 as Fidelio, oder Die Eheliche Liebe (Fidelio, or Wedded Love). The timing was not auspicious. Exactly one week before, Napoleon's army had overrun Vienna. Whoever was in a position to do so, including the composer's most influential supporters, skipped town in a panic, leaving the opera house to an audience of uncomprehending French officers. Not (perhaps) that it mattered. Beethoven, his hearing far gone, conducted; the performance, by all accounts, was poor. After two repetitions, the opera disappeared.
In 1806, the theater mounted a revival with several changes. Stephan von Breuning had been brought on board to touch up Sonnleithner's libretto. Beethoven tinkered, too. One number (Rocco's "Gold" aria) was dropped, others were shuffled, and the original overture (known today as the Leonore Overture No. 2) made way for the famous Leonore Overture No. 3. (The so-called Leonore Overture No. 1 came in 1807; it was written for an intended revival of Fidelio in Prague that never came off.) The reception of Beethoven's only opera was, it seems, much more satisfactory the second time around. But two performances and it, too, was history. Composer and management could not agree on terms.
Though a vocal score (entitled Leonore) was published in 1810, Fidelio did not return to the stage until 1814, at the Kärtnertortheater. This at last is the Fidelio we know, rethought in detail and in general outline. We are apt, for obvious reasons, to overlook Treitschke's contribution, but his improvements to the dialogue and lyrics count, even if certain inanities remain (as when the languishing Florestan begs for water, and Rocco still regrets, as in Sonnleithner, that he will have to settle for wine).
As students of the sketchbooks know, Beethoven wrestled with his materials. The pentimento is not the exception in his compositions but the norm (even before 1805, the Fidelio canon went through some dozen drafts). Is there any consistency in the changes from Leonore to Fidelio?
In results, yes. Thanks in large measure to Treitschke, Fidelio is everywhere surer in its dramatic purpose than Leonore. But in compositional method, no. Messiaen speaks of Beethoven's characteristic technique of thematic "development by elimination," and something of the sort is at work here; compared with Fidelio, Leonore often feels either overitalicized (as when Pizarro hammers out "Die Rache! Die Rache werd ich kühlen!") or overrun with notes (the final section of Leonore's aria). But plenty of revisions go the other way. Fleet repetitions of tiny snippets of text create urgent internal echoes ("Fidelio ... Fidelio hab ich gewählet!"). Certain melodies are smoothed out by leading tones -- in effect, drawn-out appoggiaturas.
More strategically, several numbers acquired new sections (either replacing older material or expanding the original plan). The overture was all new. The first two numbers, Marzelline's aria and her duet with Jaquino, changed places. Two numbers, both involving Marzelline, were dropped entirely. Rocco's "Gold" aria, dropped in 1806, returned, new-scripted but shorn of drums and trumpets. Leonore and Fidelio are indeed far apart.
The first of the few in our century who have tried to make a case for the Fidelio prototype in performance was Richard Strauss, who introduced a reconstruction for the centennial in 1905. The latest is John Eliot Gardiner, who this summer tours a semistaged Leonore with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique to such festivals as Lincoln Center's and Salzburg's. (At Lincoln Center, Leonore alternates with the New York Philharmonic's concert performances of Fidelio under Kurt Masur.) While awaiting Gardiner (and a promised Archiv recording), one should not overlook Berlin Classics' CD reissue of Herbert Blomstedt's taut rendition of 1976.
Where in Leonore are the big surprises? First of all, in the character of Marzelline, who opens the action with a gauche expository monologue followed by her enchanting aria, which in its first version sounds slightly (and perhaps appropriately) more angular and rustic, less "Mozartean." The dramaturgy of this opening is feeble, yet the girl's prominence is enhanced; having the stage to herself, she qualifies temporarily as the de facto prima donna, a status she maintains in Leonore for quite some time.
Arithmetic tells part of this story. The first act of Leonore (which corresponds to the first scene of Fidelio) contains six numbers. Leonore sings in just two of them, both ensembles; Marzelline sings in five. Hers is the only female voice in the vigorous and appealing trio "Ein Mann ist bald genommen" (later deleted), wherein Rocco warns his daughter's no-longer-acceptable suitor Jaquino that those who marry in haste must repent at leisure. Act II of Leonore (covering the same ground as Scene 2 of Fidelio) contains another five vocal numbers. Pizarro swings into action now: in short order, he has his aria and two ensembles, including the finale, which in Leonore ends with what is in effect a second, lesser aria for Pizarro and chorus. Of course, this act also brings Leonore's aria, which we will look at in more detail presently. Still, Marzelline has by no means vanished from the scene. In fact, she has a duet with Leonore in which she outlines (as in her aria) her notions of wedded bliss, all but instructing "Fidelio" in conjugal responsibility, which emphatically includes fathering children. In asides, Leonore voices her sorrow at the embarrassing consequences of her masculine disguise.
Like every other opera traceable to Bouilly, Fidelio extols l'amour conjugal. We may wonder how Fidelio in any of its versions reflects the matrimonial hopes and longings to which Beethoven's letters and other personal documents bear such tragic testimony. Realistically, perhaps, very little. The heroic Mrs. Florestan attains an ideal that is hard to scale back to the domestic quotidian standard represented by Marzelline. It bears noting in this context that Leonore is governed, at the crisis of the drama, not merely by the enlightened, self-interested altruism of a loyal wife but by a more sidereal compassion for abused humanity in general. While still in doubt as to the identity of Pizarro's victim, she resolves to rescue him, whoever he is. Why? Say for the Florestan in Anyman.
The Leonore of 1805, though splendid, is a paler creature than her avatar of 1814, and not only because Marzelline's role has shrunk. She has grown more impressive in her own right. When at last the stage clears for her aria, the text for the original Leonore's recitative is not the fulminant "Abscheulicher!," with its celestial bridge to the image of the rainbow, but rather:
Ach, brich noch nicht, du mattes Herz!
Du hast in Schreckenstagen
mit jedem Schlag ja neuen Schmerz
und bange Angst ertragen.
Ach brich noch nicht, du mattes Herz!
(Ah, break not yet, thou fainting heart!
Hast thou not borne in days of terror
New anguish with thine every beat?
Ah, break not yet, thou fainting heart!)
As Beethoven set it, this is not bad; if we did not know "Abscheulicher!," we might account it magnificent. But the heroine's self-revelation has been long in coming, and the figure she cuts here (effectively a first impression) weighs disproportionately. And at this moment of truth, the first thing the Ur-Leonore does is falter; this rings true enough psychologically, conveys no small measure of pathos and prompts a spectator's compassion. In the course of the aria, a more garrulous version of the one we all know ("Komm, Hoffnung ... Ich folg' dem innern Triebe"), she rallies. The Leonore of 1814, by contrast, launches into her monologue ablaze with the dynamism that generations of commentators have seized on as her cardinal virtue.
Florestan's monologue too gained definition in 1814. The text of his recitative is virtually untouched, but the vocal line turns Michelangelesque, its compass broadened, its phrases ("Das Mass der Leiden!") melismatically expanded. Where before a piteous human voice cried in vain in the overpowering orchestral wilderness, an awesome spirit now twists free from engulfing darkness. Like the Florestan we know, the Ur-Florestan segues into his lyric, lofty meditation on the lost springtime of life and the sweet comfort of having done right and spoken true, but thereupon he lapses into silence, unvisited by the angelic oboe obbligato or the vision of his redemptress (who, be it noted, is not Leonore but an angel resembling Leonore). Until that coda of 1814, Florestan is a righteous man, not yet also a husband. But his ecstasy, so off the scale in its demands on the human throat, now belongs unalterably to our picture of what this character means and is. (In that respect, it is his "Abscheulicher!") If the changes of 1814 translate Florestan from a prisoner of flesh and blood into a symbol, as certain Leonore apologists seem to think, so be it. A symbol he may be; he is no abstraction.
The changes within the remaining major characters are less momentous. Pizarro is Pizarro; if the chorus of goons in his aria seems meek, traumatized and perfunctory in 1805, the more energized shock team of 1814 lends him no novel terror. As noted, Rocco's aria in praise of gold got new lyrics in 1814: a serviceable litany of generalities, less interesting but also less distracting than Sonnleithner's jumble of cuckoo, puerile fantasy and blue-nose, blue-collar moralizing.
A different sort of contrast between Leonore and Fidelio emerges from the dramatic shape of the finales. The first finale, of course, begins with the release of the prisoners into the prison yard. In 1805, Marzelline unbolts the cells, following routine. In 1806, the job falls (more evocatively) to Leonore. But in 1814, it is Leonore who herself instigates this action, in defiance of Pizarro's orders and for a purpose. Despite many clues that her husband, if present in the prison at all, is the chained, death-marked wretch starving in the secret dungeon, she is still hoping to discover Florestan among the ordinary prisoners. The prisoners' chorus would melt a heart of stone in any context, yet its resonance multiplies astronomically when we know of Leonore's danger -- and how rare a gift it is for the prisoners to see the sky. As a further consequence, Pizarro's rage is now motivated by his underlings' insubordination, not merely by his own impatience to dispatch the man below. In Leonore, Rocco and the rest beat a quick retreat, leaving Pizarro and his henchmen to bring down the curtain with sinister mutterings. In Fidelio, Rocco, thinking fast, justifies his act as an observance of the name day of the king, whose name in the event is never mentioned. Order is restored, and back into the hole the prisoners go, to the strain of that devastating farewell to the light first sung in 1814.
We have not heard the last of the king. His presence is foreshadowed in Leonore's second finale, when Don Fernando descends to the prison, dispatches his business as deus ex machina without much grace or ado and refers judgment of Pizarro to the sovereign. In the parallel pages of Fidelio, the royal aura glows brighter. We are back in the light of day this time. Sprung from confinement, the chorus of the unjustly accused joins with the free citizenry in cheers for the ambassador of justice and mercy. In a new recitative of great nobility, Don Fernando gives all credit to his liege. "Es sucht der Bruder seine Brüder," he sings: "Your brother seeks his brethren" (leaving open whether that brother is Don Fernando himself or the king). Pizarro's doom is sealed. Never mind due process; God's sentence is understood already to have been passed.
Who, though, is this nameless king whose benevolence now breaks like the sun through the storm clouds of tyranny? Why not the Father who dwells above the stars, as the Ninth Symphony Ode to Joy has it? "Vergiss nicht, was du auch hören und sehen magst, dass überall eine Vorsehung ist," Leonore tells Florestan as the cloaked Pizarro approaches, death in his heart. "Ja, ja, es gibt eine Vorsehung!" Whatever you may see and hear, never forget that Providence watches everywhere. Not in Leonore, where this bit of dialogue does not appear; but in Fidelio, Providence does reign, manifest in the radiance of that distant king.
We recall the words of Beethoven to Treitschke: "By your work you have salvaged a few good bits of a ship that was wrecked and stranded." Keeping with the metaphor, it might be more accurate to say that Treitschke spotted the rotten planks, skillfully replaced them, and left it to Beethoven's music to float a now seaworthy vessel off the reef where it lay.
We have yet to consider what was wrong with the Leonore overtures that the brisk, lighter-weight Fidelio overture was meant to fix. The simplistic reply (not altogether incorrect) is twofold. First, their rich symphonic texture makes an incongruous setup for the homespun musical atmosphere of the opening numbers. Second, they jump the gun, not only quoting Florestan's aria but also (in the case of Nos. 2 and 3) the offstage fanfare that heralds salvation. (Carefully considered, the second issue may be less persuasive than the first; does anyone complain of the overtures to Der Freischütz, La Forza del Destino or Carmen?)
A better answer must be less literal. Maybe it is not dramatic reference that renders the Leonore overtures so potent, so self-sufficient, and so unsuitable to their original function, but rather their emblematic import. Less overtures than symphonic poems, they do not so much anticipate the action as preempt it, encapsulating the core meaning of the drama as Beethoven understood it. Their hero is the solitary Florestan, whose elegy they quote, moving from great-spirited meditation on lost glory through acceptance of fate's blows and then onward, past the solemn summons of the far-off trumpet that delivers the journeying soul into a jubilant universal brotherhood. The Leonore overtures sing of spiritual transcendence, the vindication of righteous revolt.
In short: theirs is the quintessential Beethoven scenario. And this, as the Leonore overtures show us, was from the very beginning what drew Beethoven to Bouilly's tale. Certain commentators seem to believe that the heightened symbolic valence of the characters and action of Fidelio represents the imposition of the composer's Manichaean idée fixe on the somehow less tendentious Leonore. On the contrary, Marzelline or no Marzelline, the Leonore overtures consign the bourgeois pieties of l'amour conjugal to banality before the curtain even rises. Notwithstanding their title, the higher love-in-action represented by the heroine whose name they bear is absent too. The Fidelio overture reflects how conscientiously Beethoven attempted to give ordinary wedded love its due before forging beyond to realms both lonelier and more cosmic, as it was his character -- his destiny -- to do.