Fidelio, the only opera

Fidelio, the only opera

People like to break down Beethoven’s body of work into numbers: 32 piano sonatas, 16 quartets, 9 symphonies, 5 piano concertos... but, when all is said and done, just one opera—even though the genre was very popular at the time and could have made the composer rich during his lifetime.

It wasn’t from lack of trying. Through a good part of his career, Beethoven worked on several operas. The first, The Vestal Flame, was commissioned by Emmanuel Schikaneder, librettist of The Magic Flute (an opera that Beethoven adored). But the aging Schikaneder was slow to deliver his text and the composer lost patience. Later on, Beethoven was all set to work with an author who was in a whole other league, the great Goethe himself. Unfortunately, the meeting of the two geniuses proved to be disappointing, and what might have gone on to become a legendary opera never came to be. Fragments of other operatic projects have also been found, including a Return of Ulysses, a Macbeth, and a Romeo and Juliet, firing the imagination of music-lovers.

So, just one opera, but an opera that Beethoven reworked several times, with great dedication, fascinated as he was with this story of conjugal love (though he himself remained a life-long bachelor). Sketched out in 1803—during a prosperous period that notably saw the birth of Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”—the work, which started out as Leonore, saw the light of day in Vienna in November 1805. War was raging at the time, the poorly heated hall was half-empty, and critics panned the work. Beethoven’s friends convinced him to rework the score. Reluctantly, he consented to making some cuts and rearrangements. The new version, performed in April 1806, did no better on opening night and closed after just two performances.

It wasn’t until 1813 that Fidelio finally returned. Beethoven once again reshaped his music, adjusting it—with a heavy heart—to be in line with current tastes. Success was finally in the cards, with the twenty performances in Vienna followed by several others abroad. But despite this success, a disillusioned Beethoven declared that the work “satisfied the public without satisfying the composer.”

Some ten years later, an exceptional singer, the spirited Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, took on the role of Fidelio. She rehearsed it with the composer himself and went on to sing it throughout Europe, stirring up excitement everywhere she performed. Beethoven, finally reassured, said of his opera: “Of all my children, this one has cost me the worst birth-pangs and brought me the most sorrow; and for that reason, it is the one most dear to me.”

The work is not without a few peculiarities: the early love triangle, quickly disposed of; spoken dialogue that confounded audiences; and a rather quick dénouement. But the flood of musical ideas buries all of these objections. And Leonore’s vibrant accents, Florestan’s noble protest and, above all, the choruses heralding the Ninth—inspired music that could only have sprung from Beethoven’s pen—make Fidelio a truly unique opera.


9. 12. 14 & 17, 2019

A coproduction with Opéra de Montréal and Orchestre Métropolitain