Fidelio, Opera by Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven is a name that needs no introduction and carries with itself a musical legacy of epic proportions. Among the German composer’s many celebrated vocal, orchestral and instrumental works, there is a single opera that stands out in a number of ways. Fidelio, Beethoven’s first and last operatic work, will play in Prague this season.

Writing an opera was a lifelong dream of Beethoven’s, but he could not seem to find the right libretto. Vienna-based librettist and theatre manager Emanuel Schikaneder commissioned an opera from the composer already in 1803, but the project quickly lost steam. Beethoven needed a truly inspiring story in order to create the stage work he had long envisioned, and in 1804 he found his subject: the play Léonore, ou l'Amour conjugal by French dramatist Jean-Nicolas Bouilly.

Supposedly based on a true story, Bouilly’s narrative follows the brave and faithful wife Leonore who disguises herself as a prison guard in order to liberate her husband Florestan, a political prisoner on death row. The plot was in full agreement with Beethoven’s deep devotion to freedom, humanity, and love, and he could finally devote himself to the task of penning his first grand opera with all his heart.

With a German libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner, Beethoven’s first opera was premiered on 20 November 1805 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, under the title Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (German for “Leonore, or the Triumph of Marital Love”). However, it was received less than enthusiastically. At the time, Vienna was occupied by Napoleon Bonaparte, and the opera’s themes did not resonate well with the many soldiers in attendance.

Haunted by the negative reception, Beethoven continued reworking the opera until he came to its final version, named Fidelio after Leonore’s alter ego, which debuted on 23 May 1814 at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna and finally achieved the universal appeal it deserved. The opera’s guiding themes of justice, liberty and freedom were now in complete sync with the popular mood in Austria and the rest of Europe, and Beethoven’s powerful music let them ring stronger and clearer than ever.

Even if the plot and structure of Fidelio underwent many changes, the music always showed Beethoven in top form. Watch out for the lovely quartet ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’, Florestan’s devotional aria ‘In des Lebens Frühlingstagen’ or the lovers’ duet ‘O namenlose Freude’. Fidelio’s unique atmosphere descends on Prague this season!

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