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Beethoven and the stage 

  • None of Beethoven's works cost him more heartache than his only opera, Fidelio . Its subject was drawn from a libretto called Léonore, ou L'amour conjugal that had been set in the late 1790s by Nicolas Gaveaux; and, more recently by Ferdinando Paer. Following those versions in French and Italian, respectively, Beethoven composed his German-language opera to a translation by Joseph Sonnleithner. It ran for three performances in the Theater an der Wien, on 20, 21 and 22 November 1805. The timing wasn't propitious: just a week earlier Napoleon's army had occupied Vienna, and most of the city's wealthier inhabitants had left in advance. The sparse audience at the premiere included a sprinkling of French officers, who couldn't follow the spoken dialogue. (By tradition, German opera had no recitatives*. Beethoven even included a famous example of a melodrama - i.e. speech interspersed, and sometimes overlapping, with short bursts of music - at the opera's dramatic climax, as the disguised Leonore finds herself having to help dig a grave for her own husband, who is about to be murdered by the prison governor, Pizarro.)

    Following the failure of its premiere, Fidelio underwent two revisions. (In order to distinguish it from the work's definitive form the earliest version is known as Leonore .) The first was staged in March and April 1806, with the opera's three Acts reduced to two, and the sequence of numbers in the original first Act altered. But for a production in 1814, Beethoven was persuaded to carry out a more radical reworking, replacing the Leonore overturesNos. 2 and 3 that had prefaced the two previous versions with the entirely new, and much shorter, Fidelio Overture. (The Overture Leonore No.1 was in all likelihood written for a projected 1807 performance in Prague that was abandoned.) One striking new inspiration was Florestan's vision of his wife, Leonore, in the coda of his aria at the start of Act II.

    Fidelio contains ideas of freedom and universal brotherhood that were always close to Beethoven's heart. But the essence of the opera is the subject of marital fidelity. To Beethoven, the sexual shenanigans of Così fan tutte were frivolous, if not downright immoral; but the music of Mozart's great opera nevertheless had a profound influence on his own. Fiordiligi's great E major aria 'Per pietà', with its obbligato** horn parts, is the obvious forerunner of Leonore's 'Komm Hoffnung' in the same key, and with similar scoring; and canonic quartet 'Mir ist so wunderbar' harks back to the slow drinking canon in the second-Act finale of Mozart's opera. But in appropriating these ideas Beethoven made them entirely his own, and Fidelio remains one of the very greatest of all serious operas.

    The ballet The Creatures of Prometheus was written for the leading choreographer of the day, Salvatore Viganò. Nowadays, only Beethoven's overture is at all familiar, but the main theme from the ballet's final number has earned itself a place in musical history: Beethoven recycled it not only in a set of orchestral contredanses (WoO 14), but also in his grandly conceived Eroica Variations for piano Op.35, and the finale of the Eroica Symphony.

    When, in 1812, a new theatre was opened in Pest, two new plays on subjects from Hungarian history - King Stephen and The Ruins of Athens - were performed. Beethoven's incidental music was hastily put together, and is undistinguished; but ten years later the second of the plays was pressed into service for the re-opening of the Josephstadt Theatre in Vienna, and was transformed by the popular playwright Karl Meisl into The Consecration of the House . The chorus Beethoven supplied for it ('Wo sich die Pulse' WoO 98) isn't of any great consequence, but the new overture - a solemn march followed by a splendid Allegro in Handelian fugal style - is one of his underrated works.

    ©Misha Donat

    *A narrative section of the opera, generally used to advance the plot in between the more melodic arias and following the rhythms and inflections of speech.

    **An elaborate instrumental accompaniment to an aria.

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