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Interpretation of Beethoven's Fidelio or Leonore and Four Different Overtures

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By the time of the November 20, premiere, though, Vienna was hardly conducive to a new serious opera. Only a week earlier, Napoleon's occupation had begun. Soldiers were billeted throughout the city and its outskirts, the entire court and upper class had fled, and the remaining residents, crushed by war reparation taxes and other deprivation, rarely ventured out. Thus the opening night audience comprised not Austrian patrons of the arts but mostly French soldiers seeking light diversion.

Not surprisingly, Fidelio bombed. One critic opined that it "fell far below expectations to which connoisseurs felt entitled" and "lacked the happy expression of passion which in Mozart and Cherubini's works moves us so irresistibly. Never published, the original version was reconstructed with a fair degree of speculation in from scattered manuscript materials by Erich Prieger for a centenary commemoration led by Richard Strauss.

Heard today, it's rather hard to judge objectively, since we're so attuned to the revision. As the most apparent structural variance, the first act is divided into halves and expanded by two numbers — a rather forgettable trio of Marcellina, Rocco and Jacquino and a waltzy Viennese duet with violin obbligato that, while quite lovely, diffuses and, indeed, spoils the tension between the Rocco-Pizarro duet and Leonore's aria.

Other distinctive differences: the first two numbers are switched opening with Marcellina's aria and then proceeding to her duet with Jaquino , Leonore's aria begins with a more conventional sad recitative although the introduction and central prayerful section are intact , the prisoners' chorus ends in martial triumph, Florestan's aria ends in self-centered declamation rather than a vision of his wife, "O nomenlose Freude" emerges as an outgrowth of a lengthy recitative rather than bursting out as an explosion of repressed emotion, and the finale is largely recast, with only the middle section yet in place, surrounded by more extensive solo turns for which the chorus adds occasional punctuation in lieu of the dominant role it would later assume.


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On a more subtle level, those familiar with the final product constantly will be struck throughout with differences in detail — several numbers run longer, with added measures and more florid vocal display, and many vocal and orchestral phrases are shaped differently. But even with these variants, the overall idiom is unmistakably Beethoven and the bulk of the opera was firmly in place.

Beethoven: Fidelio Overture. Ricardo Muti and the Filadelphia Orchestra

Despite the abject failure of its launch, Fidelio was not forgotten. Late that year, Beethoven's patron Prince Lichnowski arranged for a private performance at his palace with all but one member of the original cast. The Princess played the orchestral score on the piano and the original conductor Franz Clement embellished various instrumental lines from memory on his violin. Barry Cooper notes that Beethoven's propensity to write long, drawn-out movements served him well in instrumental music but made the dramatic pacing too slow for an opera.

Ultimately, after his friend Stephan von Bruening tightened the text, Beethoven pared nearly one-sixth of the music. The score of this version survives only because Beethoven sent it to Prague the next year for a production that never materialized. The new production of Fidelio was introduced on March 29, Although critics still called it "worthless hackwork," "affected" and "disorganized," it seemed headed for success — until the run abruptly ended when Beethoven fought with the theatre director over his share of the receipts and took back the score. The next revival came in , when three singers at the Imperial Opera sought the work for a benefit performance.

To arrive at the form in which we have come to know it, the libretto was reworked yet again, this time by Georg Friedrich Treitschke. Beethoven was so pleased with the result that he was inspired to rewrite many sections or, as he put it, "to rebuild the desolate ruins of an ancient fortress". Years later, Treitschke recalled that when Beethoven came to his apartment to see the new text for the conclusion of Florestan's aria, he remained for hours, feverishly improvising a new musical setting.

David Cairnes salutes the ruthlessness of Beethoven's clearsighted revisions as a feat of artistic discipline unsurpassed in the history of music. Indeed, Beethoven claimed that revision was much harder than writing a new composition altogether.