Beethoven, Fidelio

The online opera Guide to FIDELIO

Hardly any other work occupied Beethoven so persistently as his only opera. Only with the third version did it reach its definitive version. Beethoven created scenes that went down in the history of opera and still touch us today with their power and truthfulness.





♪ Act I

♪ Act II 


Recording Recommendation

♪ Recording recommendation




Mir ist so wunderbar (Quartett)

Ha welch ein Augenblick 

Abscheulicher … Komm Hoffnung (Leonorenarie)

O welche Lust (Gefangenenchor)

Gott, welch dunkel hier

Euch werde Lohn in besseren Welten

Er sterbe!

O namenlose Freude

Wer ein holdes Weib errungen 





Vienna, 1804


Joseph Sonnleithner (1st version) and Georg Friedrich Treitschke (2nd version), based on Jean-Nicolas Bouilly's drama Léonore.


Don Pizarro, governor of the state prison (baritone) - Florestan, political prisoner and opponent of Don Pizarro (tenor) - Leonore, his wife (soprano) - Rocco, Jailer (bass) - Marzelline, Rocco's daughter (soprano)


EMI with Christa Ludwig, Jon Vickers and Gottlob Frick conducted by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra.















After a virtuoso career as a pianist, Beethoven was able to distinguish himself more and more as a composer of larger forms. With the Eroica and especially with the ballet music “The Creatures of Prometheus”, Beethoven also showed his potential as a dramatist. In 1804 the “Theater an der Wien” commissioned him to compose his first opera. Beethoven, who was already working on an opera fragment “Vesta”, left it lying around, as he caught fire for the new theme. It was based on a true incident of a woman disguised as a man who liberated her husband from a Jacobin prison. The judge Bouilly, who witnessed the event, developed it into a story that was transferred to Spain. Sonnenleithner, theater director and writer, translated the French libretto into German and Beethoven set to work.




Beethoven was a fervent defender of the ideals of the French Revolution, even though he despised its protagonist Napoleon (see his opera “Eroica”). Beethoven was an admirer of Luigi Cherubini and his lifeboat operas, so it was obvious that Beethoven reacted positively to the theme of a “rescue opera” in the spirit of the revolutionary ideals of freedom and brotherhood. The theme of liberation from oppression and the triumph of humanity becomes the core of the opera Fidelio. As in his 9th symphony, Beethoven set a musical monument to freedom with Fidelio.



Beethoven’s struggle for musical drama

In Beethoven’s Fidelio we recognize two distinctly different sections. The first third is light-hearted like a singspiel and reminds us of the popular Magic Flute. With the appearance of Don Pizarro, the tone of the music changes abruptly and turns into a drama. Formally, Fidelio is a Singspiel with spoken dialogues and closed numbers, yet Wagner called Beethoven “the father of German musical drama” for his Fidelio, whose central idea is to place expression at the service of the great idea rather than aesthetics. To satisfy this objection, Beethoven struggled with this work for a long time. Three opera versions and four different overtures bear witness to this. Robert Schumann summed up the discrepancy with Rossini, Beethoven’s famous contemporary, by remarking that Beethoven wrote four overtures for one opera and Rossini wrote one overture for four operas. Beethoven’s difficulties were based on two things: on the one hand, he was not an experienced opera composer and on the other hand, he made no compromises in his claim to compose vocal parts instrumentally. With him, it is not the vocal line that is in the foreground, but he thinks the voice instrumentally. This is impressively evident in the quartet of the first movement, whose voices are written in the spirit of a string quartet. The two parts Florestan and Leonore were considered unsingable at the time of the premiere. There is a famous anecdote about Beethoven’s principle of placing expression above the possibilities of the interpreter. During a rehearsal, a string soloist could not play a passage properly. The player complained about the difficulties. Beethoven called out to him, “What do I care about his miserable violin?”



Premiere and review

One week before the premiere Napoleon’s troops marched into Vienna. Due to the uproar, the “Theater an der Wien” was poorly visited on the evening of the performance. Most of the visitors were French soldiers who did not understand the German texts and could not do much with the message of the opera. The applause was more than sparse and the result was a painful failure. After only three performances, the opera was cancelled. Beethoven’s friend Breuning supported him in the revision, the result of which was given four months later. Due to time constraints, the cuts were hectic, with the result that the second version also flopped. Although the work was greatly shortened, given a new name (Leonore) and a new overture, the dramatic weaknesses remained. Enervated, Beethoven locked the work in the drawer. Eight years later Beethoven was urged by friends to perform the work again. Beethoven was willing to do so, but he planned a fundamental revision, which subsequently led to the final version. The libretto was revised by Treitschke for this purpose. The success now arrived. In the following years, the soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient contributed significantly to the dissemination of the work through her embodiment of Leonore. Richard Wagner saw her in a Dresden performance in 1829 at the age of 16 and described her role embodiment as the trigger to become a musician.





The Ouverture

Beethoven wrote four different overtures. The first was never played during his lifetime, he was never satisfied with it. Beethoven wrote a new overture for each of the three versions. The overture in E major, the version of 1814, has prevailed:

Fidelio Ouvertüre  –  Klemperer / Philharmonia


Synopsis: In the state prison of Seville. The jailer Rocco lives with his daughter Marzelline in the official residence. Rocco’s doorman Joaquino is in love with Marzelline, but she has no ear for the young man.

Already in the first bars we sense that the orchestra plays a leading role in this work. In comparison to Italian works, it plays the part of an independent interlocutor for the acting persons; many themes are first heard in the orchestra. The orchestra communicates contrapuntally with the singers instead of being merely a harmonic accompaniment. The pair Marzelline/Joaquino is reminiscent of Mozart’s pair Masetto/Zerlina with the constellation of a rather limited man and a self-confident woman. Thus Joaquino remains the only figure to whom Beethoven does not give an aria.

Jetzt Schätzchen  –  Unger /Hallstein / Klemperer



Marzelline is in love with Fidelio

Synopsis: She thinks incessantly of Fidelio, her father’s new assistant.

The aria begins in a yearning minor, expressively embellished by wind instruments, and soon changes to major.

O wär ich mit dir vereint  –  Popp

The Quartett «Mir ist so wunderbar»

Synopsis: Fidelio is in fact Leonore, the wife of Florestan, who has been a political prisoner in this prison for two years. She had herself hired as a dungeon assistant in order to free her husband. Joaquino is jealous, but Marcelline’s father likes the capable helper.

Without an entrance aria for Leonore, the dialogue merges into the magnificent quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar”, which can justifiably be counted among the great quartets of opera literature. It captivates not only through its wonderful music, it touches because Beethoven wrote a melody for each of them, which underlines the different feelings of the acting persons; Leonore worries about her imprisoned husband, Marzelline sings of the love for Fidelio, Joaquino laments the loss of Marzelline’s love and the father moves the joy about the coming marriage of Fidelio and Marzelline. Accompanied by a discreet orchestra, the singers tune in canon-like and the piece becomes a perfect chamber music quartet.

You can hear this passage with two different voice combinations.

The version from the 1953 live recording with Furtwängler is one of the great recordings of Fidelio. The well-known German critic Joachim Kaiser comments: “If you listen to Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1953 Fidelio recording and hear the quartet of the first act, the extinguishing of the prisoners’ choir, the duet between Leonore and Rocco, the outrageous beginning of the second act and the crushingly dramatic quartet of the second act, then you understand what greatness is”. (“Kaiser, 100 masterpieces of music”).

Mir ist so wunderbar (1)  –  Jurinac / Mödl / Frick / Schock / Furtwängler

And another wonderful interpretation from Bernstein’s recording

Mir ist so wunderbar (2)  –  Janowitz / Kollo / Popp / Dallapozza


Synopsis: For Rocco, prosperity is the basis of marital bliss…

At this point there is a classical singspiel aria. We know that Beethoven studied Mozart’s Magic Flute, doesn’t this aria remind us of Papageno? This piece is sometimes omitted and accused of being too light. Wrongly so, because the piece dramatically helps to show the transformation of the jailer from an opportunistic, petty-bourgeois official to a responsible person who refuses Pizarro’s order to kill.

Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben  –  Pape



Synopsis: Rocco allows Fidelio to accompany him to the maximum security part of the prison, where Leonore suspects her husband.

Gut Söhnchen gut  –  Norman / Moll / Coburn

Pizarro’s appearance

Synopsis: Pizarro, the governor of the state prison, is a political enemy of Florestan and he has locked him away in the high security area of the prison on his own authority. He panickes because the minister has announced an inspection that would reveal the illegally detained Florestan. He decides that Florestan must die.

With the appearance of Pizarro, the music changes abruptly. Starting with a dramatic chord, the orchestra becomes a fury that accompanies the governor’s wild calls. Is it a coincidence that Beethoven wrote Pizarro’s furor in the same key as Mozart wrote that of the “Queen of the Night”?

Ha welch ein Augenblick  –  Berry



Synopsis: He orders Rocco to kill the prisoner. But the jailer refuses. Pizarro orders Rocco to dig a grave, he will carry out the murder himself.

Jetzt, alter hat es Eile  –  Berry / Greindl

«Abscheulicher!… Komm, Hoffnung» with Christa Ludwig and Lotte Lehmann

Synopsis: Leonore overheard the conversation and must now hurry.

The great aria of Leonore consists of three parts: Recitative, Cavatina, Cabaletta. In this form Leonore’s basic emotions are described – outrage, hope, ecstasy. The music that Beethoven wrote for it unfolds an expressiveness through its shocking and at the same time touching expression. It is a seven-minute par force performance by the singer that demands both the highest dramatic expressiveness and the most intimate lyricism.

We first hear Lotte Lehmann. Walter Legge, the producer of the century, describes her performance of Leonore as the greatest achievement not only of her career. No other singer has reached Lehmann again in this role.

Abscheulicher !… Komm, Hoffnung (1)  –  Lehmann


What did Christa Ludwig say about her interpretation: «I could not sing the Fidelio in a highly dramatic way, but I played the weak woman trying to save her husband». For Christa Ludwig this role was a great challenge. She was not a highly dramatic soprano. She confessed in an interview about the Leonoren aria: “At the end of the aria I was always delighted when I had reached the tone, this high B. After every “Fidelio” performance I was hoarse. It always took me three days to use the voice again.”

Abscheulicher !… Komm, Hoffnung (2)  –  Ludwig


The prisoner choir

Synopsis: In the hope of seeing Florestan, she lets the prisoners take a walk in the courtyard. But she cannot discover him.

In the prisoners’ choir we already hear the idyll of the Pastoral, which Beethoven composes only two years later. It is a stroke of genius that Beethoven composed the prisoners’ hope with such intimate music. No wonder that forty years later Verdi felt inspired to compose another famous prisoner choir.

O welche Lust (Gefangenenchor)  –  Bernstein


Synopsis: The prisoners are taken back to their cells.

Leb wohl du warmes Sonnenlicht







A difficult tenor part

Synopsis: Florestan sits in the dungeon under miserable conditions. He dreams of Leonore, who will redeem him as an angel.

The dungeon scene begins with a dark introduction and dramatic chords. Florestan’s performance “Gott welch dunkel hier” is one of the most challenging parts for tenors. In the dungeon he sings about the love of truth and he hallucinates Leonore as an angel of freedom. According to the score, Florestan must praise the angel in the second part of the aria “with enthusiasm bordering on insanity, yet calm”.

Let Jonas Kaufmann, the famous German tenor, speak: “The part of Florestan is short, but because of the great scene in the second act it is one of the most demanding roles in my Fach. Many tenors missed their way into the delicate final part. It is not the physical decay that is to be heard here, but the state of mind of the desperate man, his ecstatic vision of salvation and liberation. In the same way, the first tone of this scene, the “God”, which comes from nothing, becoming ever stronger and more urgent, the cry of the tormented soul, is the one that requires the greatest vocal-technical control. I don’t know how many times I have worked on this crescendo.” Listen to Jonas Kaufmann.

Gott welch dunkel hier (1)  –  Kaufmann / Welser-Möst


Jon Vickers in a second interpretation

Gott welch dunkel hier (2)  –  Vickers / Klemperer


Synopsis: Rocco takes Fidelio on his side and explains Pizarro’s mission to him. The two of them enter Florestan’s cell. As Rocco unlocks the cell, Leonore recognizes her husband and is deeply moved. Florestan does not recognize her and is grateful for the piece of bread that Leonore hands him.

Besides Jon Vickers, Christa Ludwig has succeeded in making a great Leonore in the recording with Klemperer. Fischer in “große Stimmen”: “But her Leonore was also a unique, unrepeatable highlight. Christa Ludwig was 33 years old, at the peak of her vocal abilities, nothing seemed unattainable to her, and everyone who knows this recording will confirm that since the days of Lotte Lehmann there has not been an interpreter of this enormous role, who was able to convey Beethoven’s ardent humanity to the listener in such an unadulterated and direct manner”.

Euch werde Lohn in besseren Welten  –  Klemperer / Vickers / Ludwig


The showdown with two dramatic twists

Synopsis: Leonore and Rocco dig the grave. When it is finished, Rocco calls Pizarro. He appears with a weapon in his hand to kill Florestan. Leonore throws herself in between with a pistol in her hand, ready to kill the governor. A trumpet sounds, announcing the arrival of the minister. Pizarro has lost and flees.

This scene is of a tremendous drama. When Leonore intervenes, the drama intensifies once again. The orchestra whips the singers, and with a shrill scream we hear Leonore’s “Kill his wife first!” The unmasking of Leonore is a great “Colpa di scena”. When the two of them point their weapons at each other, the ecstasy increases once more until, with the call of the fanfare and thus the announcement of the arrival of the minister, the second “Colpo di scena” takes place and the scene takes another turn. A scene that seeks its counterpart in the opera literature!

Er sterbe!  –  Ludwig / Berry / Greindl

The duett «O namenlose Freude»

Synopsis: Florestan recognizes Leonore and they fall into each other’s arms.

Beethoven wrote a duet that oscillates between intimacy and ecstasy.

Listen to this passage with Martha Mödl and Wolfgang Windgassen from the mentioned 53 recording with Furtwängler.

O namenlose Freude (1)  –  Furtwängler / Mödl / Windgassen


The second version is also worth hearing:

O namenlose Freude (2)  –  Vickers / Ludwig / Klemperer


Gustav Mahler began the practice of inserting the Leonore Overture number 3 as an interlude at this point.


The final chorus for spousal love

Synopsis: The minister grants freedom to political prisoners.

The final chorus, the Song of Spousal Love, already suggests the choir of the 9th Symphony. This piece emanates a hypnotic power unique in the history of opera.

Wer ein holdes Weib errungen  –  Ludwig/King / Klemperer


Recording recommendation

EMI with Christa Ludwig, Jon Vickers and Gottlob Frick under the direction of Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Choir and Orchestra.

As an alternative, the recording with Gundula Janowitz and Rene Kollo under the direction of Leonard Bernstein (DG) is also recommendable.



Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on FIDELIO by Ludwig van Beethoven



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