Ludwig von Beethoven: Leonore (1805)

Singspiel in three acts. Running time: 2 hours 36 minutes.


Ludwig von Beethoven, the only time he gets to be on this site (and does not care). 

Having little else to do, seeing that the planet is currently at a standstill and we are all on lockdown, I decided to compose a response to the recent review of Fidelio by my friend OperaScribe who posed the question of if we admire the lone Beethoven opera for its great musical moments and relevant politics rather than as an performable opera?

Technically I am not supposed to review operas reviewed by Sir Denis Forman, but this is the earlier version of Fidelio which has a distinct structure and even divided into more acts so, like the Malibran version of Puritani, I think I can sneak it.

First performed before an audience mostly consisting of the Napoleonic army (fresh from invading the city of Vienna and dividing the Hapsburg Empire), this original version of the classic lasted all of three performances. It is also notably longer, over half an hour in fact.

SETTING: A prison outside Seville, Spain, late 18th century. Marzelline, (a closet case, if there ever was one in 19th century opera) is in love with Fidelio, a boy in the employ of her father Rocco, the prison gaoler, even though Jaquino, his assistant, is also in love with her. This is the idiot subplot of the opera, and is almost a distraction to the actual narrative which is about who Fidelio really is and the enmity between the prison governor Don Pizarro and a mysterious prisoner named Florestan, who is supposed to be dead but is being kept live on dwindling rations by Rocco.


ACT 1: A room in the house of Rocco the prison warden. (50 minutes)

0: The overture *** (the third of four) is the precursor of the overture to Der Fliegender Hollander and, having been written around the same time as the Eroica, is dizzying to say the least. It is more stunning than good (the first is by far the more jovial, incidentally), and its extreme length (fourteen solid minutes) rather causes the beginning of act one to turn into a massive disappointment. There are two main features: the Leonore theme which comes up from the oboes, and the trumpet fanfare. Both show up in act three.

14: O wär ich schon The opera properly opens with Marzelline fantasizing about her (unwittingly illegal at the time, although ironically amusing) desire to marry Fidelio in an aria which has an accompaniment both disturbingly innocent and remarkably pre-Wagnerian ** (notice how the bass mimics her heartbeat) as she expresses the depths of her love and desire for this boy (boi?) in the employ of her father.

19: Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind wir allein Jaquino pesters Marzelline about marriage in a number that betrays the singspiel origins of the work so painfully. If the earlier aria was dramatic, this is almost whimsical **, and Marzelline is having none of it.

26: Ein Mann ist bald genommen Rocco returns home and a trio ensues which is probably the weakest number in the scene * (it was cut entirely from Fidelio). It has some good ideas in it, but it, along with the other two numbers, adds little at all to the story. It is thankfully shorter as well.

31: Mir ist so wunderbar Then, suddenly, a new number with an introduction which could have been from the Ring Cycle arrives and we have the quartet *** as Fidelio comes on and the trio of domestics embark on self-reflection (Marzelline starts us off). Jaquino leaves.

37: Hat man nicht auch Gold beneiben Rocco has a brief song about gold * (okay, but haven’t we had enough of this domestic situation, and what does this even mean to the overall narrative ultimately?).

42: Gut, Söhnchen, gut The act ends with a trio for Fidelio and daughter-father which, like much of this act, is the fountain of probably a dozen melodies and techniques Wagner would later use **. Also like most of the numbers, it forwards the plot far more so than the spiel bits ever do.

ACT 2: The prison yard. (46 minutes)

0: A symphonic march begins the act * as Pizarro comes on with guards. He reads a dispatch that a government minister (Don Fernando) is coming to inspect the prison and realizes that he has to dispose of Florestan somehow.

3: Ha, welch ein Augenblick Don Pizarro decides to have Florestan murdered in a proto-type rage aria **, the underling chorus at the end is a little too show-toony, but if the timpani does its work right it will come off well.

6: Jetzt, Alter, jetzt hat es Eile! Pizarro tries to enlist Rocco to finish off Florestan (refused), there is only one tune in the orchestra but the suspense is sustained for the entire number **.

12: A duet for Marzelline and Leonore ** which shares traces of the early aria for Marzelline. They conspire to have Rocco release the prisoners into the courtyard as a distraction.

19: Abscheulicher! Leonore knows Florestan is still alive and embarks on a massive aria ** in which she plans to rescue him (notice the oboe accompaniment). It has a magnificent three horn theme, but no overall dominate tune.

27: O welche Lust Suddenly, another of those great, quiet, orchestral openings leading to what everyone has sort have been waiting for as the prisoners come out ***.

36: Nun sprecht, wie ging’s? Now we are mostly out of the dreadful Spiel passages and so we get a rather interesting recitative ** with a whirlwind tune from the orchestra which is worth holding on to as Leonore and Rocco embark on a long dialogue before Marzelline runs on in a panic to alert them that Pizarro is on his way–is here! Pizarro addresses the situation in a melodious fury (with chorus of guards), providing us with a satisfactory conclusion to the act. Certainly more of one than Fidelio has at the same point **.

ACT 3: (60 minutes)

Scene 1: A prison cell.

6: In des lebens The act starts with over four minutes of solid gloom-mood music. Eventually we encounter Florestan amid all of this and after a lot of recitative, he embarks on an aria to that Leonore theme from the overture * (as he hallucinates about her). After this goes on for a long time, there is a long patch of melodrama (spoken dialogue over orchestral accompaniment).

14: Nur hurtig fort The digging duet * (both eery and marvelous at the same time), contrasts two themes, Rocco addresses Leonore to a creepy underground tune while she soars above everything.

19: Euch werde Lohn The climactic trio (Leonore-Florestan-Rocco) which is greater for its high points than its lows *** as they discuss giving Florestan a piece of bread to eat.

26: Er sterbe! Pizarro arrives to kill Florestan in a fury **, tells him so, Leonore loses it and reveals her true identity in a patch of remarkable hysterics from Beethoven in a movement that could so easily have turned into stock gesturing. The trumpet sounds twice, Jaquino is heard above shouting that Don Fernando is arriving, and Rocco and Pizarro leave.

35: O namenlose Freude! Alone, Leonore and Florestan embark on a marvelous reunion duet ***.

Scene 2: A prison court yard, statue of King centre.

45, 55: The nineteen minute long choral-soloist finale *** picks up steam as Leonore arrives and a wave of sound envelops the stage (and the pit). A sort of spiritual harmony overwhelms everything, flooding with the most tranquil sound. The rest is around eight minutes of further choral hyperbole before, finally, a noble theme is introduced by Marzelline and Jaquino and we have Ninth Symphony time *** and praises for Leonore (notice also that weird woodwind tune before the final go) to the curtain.


Ah, Leonore, how should I describe thee? Basically what would have happened if Mozart had been hit by a Wagner bus, and then all the recitative is rendered useless by musical numbers which do so much more plot forwarding it could make your head spin.

The problem (for some) is that, in spite of its musical strengths, which are many, it almost comes off as a farce on stage.

The first act is a bloody dramatic abortion (admittedly), partially because this is a singspiel, and none of them are any good, really. The overture is too strong (re: overpowering); the opening numbers are too weak even if they are very tuneful. Reversing the performance order of the first two numbers permits the opera we all know to at least start in media res (and without the dramatically suicidal episode of spiel from Marzelline which begins Leonore). This supports an entire subplot which doesn’t really work that well: the Jaquino-Marzelline-Fidelio triangle. It is obvious domestic filler, serves no dramatic point, and distracts from the actual narrative of the work which consists of the relationship between Leonore and Florestan and the vendetta Don Pizarro has against Florestan. It also all but disappears by act two (long before Leonore reveals her true sex) rendering it useless even further. We could also get into gender theory here: Leonore takes on the guise of a male in order to liberate her feminized, incarcerated husband, who is lusted after (in a non-sexual way) by Don Pizarro. Both Leonore and Don Pizarro want Florestan, just saying. This is reversed in the domestic subplot as Marzelline is in a one-way relationship with Fidelio (who is not actually interested in her because he is a she and not a friend of Sappho) while being courted by Jaquino (whom Marzelline is not interested in because she is so obviously an inhabitant of a certain Aegean isle?).

Beethoven, similarly to Wagner, produces an orchestral harmonization which overwhelms (no, engulfs) the soloists. This is just as problematic as the weak subplot. And yet, the silly subplot serves its own purpose: it is the comedic relief in an otherwise dramatic saga. Without it, we would have just the overwhelming, so the underwhelming, admittedly silly, domestic story should probably be seen as something of a breather.

The dramatic pacing is probably better in the shorter Fidelio than in Leonore. But this is simply because the revision is more compact. There are moments when Beethoven pulls off the drama (the prison scene, particularly the revelation scene) out of which other composers would probably have made lumpy mashed potatoes. Instead, he provides us with brilliance.

Things do improve in the second act, starting from the chorus of prisoners, and the third act (although it starts slowly and darkly) is dramatically powerful enough to cause one to forget most of the ineptitude of the beginning.

There are points where it seems as if the music is meandering, perhaps this is why the opera is criticized for not being completely effective on stage. But the worst things about Leonore are not that it has terrible music, or boring numbers, or even a stupid plot (like most operas), it is that it is excessive. The orchestra is too loud and overwhelming, the plot is too effective as a call for freedom from oppression and the liberation of humanity, there are too many characters and subplots that don’t go anywhere. For what it needs to be, it is a success. The excess and silliness might be questionable, however.

Oh, by the way, did I mention that Marzelline is obviously a Lesbian?

An alpha.

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