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Beethoven’s only opera belongs to the genre of rescue opera which was popular around the time of the French revolution and campaigned against tyranny and in favour of freedom of the individual in accordance with the
Enlightenment. Despite the topicality of the subject matter, Beethoven did not initially succeed in winning Viennese audiences’ approval for his work. Its unconventional music and the mix of dramatic styles seemed too experimental and were not immediately accessible. Fidelio is a hybrid piece, beginning very specifically with scenes typical of the “Singspiel” genre and closing in almost concert fashion with a finale of abstract romanticisation.

Don Pizarro, governor of a state prison in Spain, behaves like a much-feared tyrant. He has imprisoned his adversary Florestan and plans to have him secretly eliminated. Leonore, Florestan’s wife, has disguised herself as a man and is searching for her husband. She has managed to follow clues that led to a particular prison but has not yet been able to discover whether the mysterious prisoner being held there is really Florestan. She has smuggled herself into the family of the gaoler Rocco under the name of “Fidelio”. She works so hard
looking after the prisoners that she is making herself indispensable in the hope of one day being taken to the unknown prisoner too. In the meantime, Rocco hopes that the hard-working “Fidelio” will soon ask for the hand of his daughter Marzelline in marriage. Events pick up speed when Pizarro arrives. The prisoner is to die at last. Leonore determines to save the unknown prisoner from the tyrant’s despotism whether he is her husband or not. She arms herself and confronts Pizarro. At that moment the minister Don Fernando appears. He is a friend of Florestan and stops Pizarro. Amid much jubilation the couple is reunited, because the prisoner really is Florestan.

Emanuel Schikaneder had long tried to persuade Beethoven to write an opera for his house, the Theater an der Wien, newly opened in 1801. In 1805 Schikaneder’s wish was fulfilled by the premiere of Fidelio, but interest in
the work was considerably lessened by the French military occupation of Vienna. The second version of the rescue opera was also staged at the Theater an der Wien, in 1806, with the third version being performed in 1814 at the Kärntnertortheater. The debate over which version is to be preferred continues to this day. For the latest production at the Theater an der Wien Nikolaus Harnoncourt has chosen the final version of Beethoven’s drama about reedom, conjugal love and tyranny.