Beethoven's Fidelio: Synopsis


Fidelio, 1st Act, 4th Scene
Fresco by Moritz von Schwind

The action takes place in the 18th century at a fortress used for confinement of political offenders, near Seville, Spain.


Scene--The Courtyard of the State Prison

The story of Fidelio centers on an episode of political despotism. The noble Florestan, a valiant fighter for freedom, is imprisoned in a dark dungeon by his ruthless enemy, Pizarro, governor of the state prison. There he is slowly being starved to death. Meanwhile, reports have reaches his wife, Leonore, who does not know his whereabouts, of his death. As a last desperate measure she resolves to search out Pizarro's prison, find her husband, and free him. To do so, she disguises herself as the youth Fidelio and secures employment as assistant to the jailer Rocco. To complicate matters, Rocco's daughter, Marzelline, falls in love with the handsome Fidelio, thus arousing the jealousy of Jaquino, Rocco's turnkey, who is planning to marry the girl. The curious romantic tangle of misplaced feelings is brought out with wondrous delicacy in a canonical quartet ("Mir ist so wunderbar").

To this now a 'musical comment' from 'Schumanns Opernbuch' in narrative form in English as compared to a straight translation:

" ..Marzelline is described as quite relieved that Jacquino's wooing is interrupted by knocking several times, and the scene is described as breathing Mozartean spirit but also as already revealing Beethoven's language, since it is built on a small motive that appears in various forms throughout.  The charm, so this opera guide, lies here in this knocking being provided by the orchestra and in the little, distinctive motive's retreating more and more from this knocking and how it gains strength and reappears. - While Jacquino, who is summoned by Rocco, tends to some work outside, Marzelline sins an aria ("O wär ich schon mit dir vereint"), in which she expresses her longing to marry Fidelio who arrives from a cumbersome errand and is praised by Rocco and viewed with suspicion by Jacquino.  Of course, Fidelio-Leonore is touched in a peculiar sense when Rocco wants to make her his son-in-law.  With this quartet, so Schumann's Opera Guide, begins the actual musical drama.  The four voices are united in a wonderful canonic quartet that that is based on theme 1.

However, the mood of the four singers is quite  different for each!  Marzelline is described as being merely happy, singing:  "Mir ist so wunderbar, es engt das Herz mir ein." (I feel  so wonderful, my heart is closing in), while Leonore is afraid of being discovered: "Wie groß ist die Gefahr, wie schwach der Hoffnung Schein" (how great is the danger, how dim the ray of hope), and the good father Rocco states innocently: "Sie liebt ihn, es ist klar, ja Mädchen, er wird dein" (she loves him, that is clear, yes, girl, he shall be yours).  Somewhat comical is how the jealous Jaquino comes across: "Mir sträubt sich schon das Haar, der Vater willigt ein" (my hair is standing up, her father agrees to her marriage (with Fidelio).

Soberly calculating Rocco is subsequently described as interrupting this wondrous mood with his aria "Hat man nicht auch Gold daneben", a piece of bass aria cheer after which  Fidelio asks him if she can also help look after the prisoners.  While Rocco agrees to this, he points out that he can never take Fidelio to see one particular prisoner. At the thought that this one prisoner might perhaps be Florestan, Leonore appears to become depressed.  However, she is described as picking up her spirits right away in "Ich habe Mut" (I have courage).  The trio between Rocco, Fidelio and Marzelline ends this scene. 

The transition to the next scene is provided by a military march." (Schumanns Opernbuch: 100-102)

Pizarro, Florestan's implacable enemy, has heard that the Prime Minister is planning to visit the prison ("Ha! welch ein Augenblick!"). Pizarro, resolved to slay Florestan before the expected arrival of the Minister, orders Rocco to prepare a grave. But Rocco recoils at the thought of murder, and Pizarro decides to committ the deed himself. Leonore overhears the whole plot; when the two men depart she leaves her hiding place and pours out her outraged feelings ("Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin!"). At her request, Rocco allows the prisoners to file out into the courtyard for a breath of fresh air and a glimpse of the sun. The men rub their eyes as they behold the world again in great wonder and join in a magnificent chorus ("O welche Lust") expressive of their thirst for freedom and their thwarted hopes. Eagerly Leonore scans their faces, but Florestan is not among them. However, Leonore's hopes revive as she learns that she must accompany Rocco down into the dungeon.

In Schumanns Opera Guide, this is described with...

"...the guard's holding watch between the depressing walls of the prison, while governor Pizarro dispatches his abrupt orders and reads the letters that Rocco hands him, with one of these letters containing awarning that the minister is on his way to visit the state prison(s) since allegedly in them, innocent victims of mere revenge are being held.  At the thought of his holding Florestan at this prison, Pizarro is reported as momentarily becoming discuqieted, yet: "eine kühne Tat kann alle Besorgnisse zerstreuen" (one act of courage can dissipate all troubles).  In his great aria "Ha, welch ein Augenblick" (ha, what a moment) Pizarro reveals his violent and malicious character.  Drums are rolling in the orchesta, the strings are quivering, the wails of the woodwinds join in.  Pizarro is described as singing "instrumentally" which would indicate that Beethoven was not concerned with "belcanto" here but only with the dramatic truth.   At: "ihm noch ins Ohr zu schreien: Triumph, Triumph!" (to yell into his ears, triumph, triumph!), the raging of the orchestra stops so that the vengeful Pizarro can consciously relish in his cold, satanic maliciousness (half-notes!).  Pizarro is then described as dispatching the guards to their posts, with a trumpet player being instructed to immediately give a signal at the arrival of any carriage.  Then he turns to Rocco and tells him bluntly what he wants him to do: "Morden" (to kill).  This word sounds gruesomely hollow on the extended seventh. Rocco refuses this; well, then Pizarro will go down into the dungeon, himself.  Rocco "only" had to dig a grave in the cistern.  The jailmaster can hardly breathe when he asks,  "Der kaum mehr lebt und wie ein Schatten schwebt?" (he who is barely alive and who moves like a shadow?)--Example 2 conveys something of the figurativeness with which Beethoven expresses his musical thoughts.  The notes really sneak "wie verstummt" (mutely) and the sudden attack of  "Ein Stoß" (one stab--pause!) does not only have a scary effect on Rocco.

Impatiently, Pizarro rushes off, with Rocco following him.  Full of ill borebodings, Fidelio-Leonore appears on the scene:  "Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin, was hast du vor?" (despicable one, where are you hurrying off to, what is your intent?).   In trembling agitation, the orchestra accompanies the fearful lamentations of the plagued woman's heart.  Then Leonore regains her posture; in a wondrous passage (introduced and accompanied by the strings, woodwinds and soft playing of the horns), "Komm, Hoffnung, laß den letzten Stern der Müden nicht erbleichen" (come, hope, do not let the last star of the weary one fade away).  And then Leonore rejoices,  "Ich folg dem innern Triebe, ich wanke nicht" (I will follow my inner notions, I will not falter).  She sings herself into a delirious state. --At the request of Fidelio, Rocco orders that the prison cells be opened.  With a chorus that can hardly still be described "earthly", the prisoners welcome fresh air and light.  Here, the outer course of events stand completely still.  Yet, the expression of the inner meaning of the events is so strong that one would not consider this chorus as an interruption but rather as a first breath of air of the freedom to come (see the wave file at the top of the page!)  While the prisoners walk around in the yeard, Rocco reports that he has to go down into the deepest dungeon in oder to dig a grave for the poorest of the poor, and that Fidelio is allowed to accompany him.  At this moment, Marzelline and Jacquino rush in and report that the governor is on his way.  Pizarro is angry that the prisoners are not in their cells.  However, Rocco can calm him down with: "Der unten stirbt, doch laßt die andern" (the one below will die, yet let the others be).  Once more, the prisoners bid farewell to the sunlight with their moving song, the voices of the solo quintet join in and  the act ends in a grandiose heightening of the general mood ." (Schumanns Opernbuch: 102-103).


Scene I: A Dark Subterranean Dungeon

Florestan is revealed alone in the bleak depth of Pizarro's prison, chained to the wall. Soon he begins a poingnant monologue aria recalling his days of youth and spring and freedom ("In des Lebens Frühlingstagen"). For loving liberty--innocent of any crime-- he has been condemned to this endless torment. In his frenzy he has a vision of Leonore and cries out ecstaticaly to it as Rocco and Leonore appear. With some difficulty she recognizes her husband in this broken and ragged man. She says nothing, but helps Rocco do dig the grave. When Pizarro at length appears and tries to stab the defenseless prisoner, Leonore rushes to shield him. "First kill his wife!" she shouts defiantly. Florestan, dazed with joy, recognizes her. Pizarro, in a burst of savage rage, attempts to slay them both, but Leonore is ready for him. She whips out a pistol and levels it at him. Suddenly a trumpet call sounds; the anxiously awaited Minister has arrived. Florestan and Leonore, afely reunited, join their voices in rapture ("O namenlose Freude").

To this again a musical description:

"The second act is described as beginning with an instrumental passage of gruesome expressiveness.  It is a wailing and sighing, a shaking and trembling.  After only thirty-two measures of this dense introduction, Florestan's voice sets in:  "Gott, welch Dunkel hier" (God, what darkness here).  One can barely recognize the prisoner in his cell, only the desperate words and signing of Florestan bear witness of the presence of a man.  Florestan's recitative and his aria  "In des Lebens Frühlingstagen" (in the spring days of live, example 3) demands considerable talents of a singer, both of his voice and of his expressive talents.

His singing is heightened to an an enthusiasm bordering on insanity, yet also calm, when Florestan believes to see his wife Leonore in like in a dream.  Extremely agitated, his tormented body rises sinks back into a merciful state of unconsciousness. Light falls into the dungeon:  Rocco and Fidelio enter.  In order to describe the inner and outer chill that takes hold of Leonore in this fateful moment, Beethoven uses a short, significant melodram:  Rocco and Leonore talk, and the music renders sporadic accompaniment to this.  Leonore can not see if this prisoner is her husband Florestan.  Trembling, she begings to dig the grave with  Rocco.  The sinister duet, "Nur hurtig fort, nur frisch gegraben" (just hurry up and dig the grave) is symphonically based on motiv 4 and receives a sinister musical coloring through the use of lower-tone instruments of the orchestra.  What has such a moving effect in this is how Leonore wants to stall the action and how the orchestra's triplets mercilessly drive the action forward (the governor must arrive any moment!).  Florestan returns from his state of unconsciousness--and now, Leonore recognizes him.  Hardly able to hold herself together,  she hands the prisoner some wine and bread.  A calm trio,  "Euch werde Lohn in bessern Tagen" (you shall  be rewarded in better days) symbolically unites the goodnatured-compassionate Rocco with the couple Leonore-Florestan.  Pizarro enters.  With his words,  "Er sterbe"(he shall die), a dramatic quartet sets in.  For one last time, Pizarro enjoys his superiority:   "Pizarro, den du stürzen wolltest, steht nun als Rächer hier" (Pizarro whom you wanted to bring down now stands before you as an avenger).  Then he wants to stab Florestan--yet, with a piercing  "Zurück!" (back!), Leonore throws herself between both of them.  Pizarro hurls the "young man" coldly aside and moves in on Florestan again.  Again, Leonore interferes.  While the orchestra is silent, she shouts:  "Töt' erst sein Weib!" (kill his wife first).   Florestan, Rocco and Pizarro do not believe to have heard right.  Then, the governor regains his bearings:  both of them shall die.  A third time, Leonore interferes to save Florestan:  she sticks a pistol into Pizarro's face with the words, "Noch einen Laut, und du bist tot" (one more sound, and you shall be dead).   Her last word sinks down in exhaustion.  There, a trumpet call (example 5), the sign for the arrival of the minister.

Saved! Now it is up to Leonore and Florestan to sing, "Es schlägt der Rache Stunde" (the hour of revenge has arrived).   Rocco chimes in, and Pizarro curses this hour.  People arrive in order to fetch the governor and Rocco.  The jubilation of the reunited couple transcends all boundaries: "O namenlose Freude." It is a stuttering, a sighing, a raging and a jubilation, as it, in its being  besides itself, could only be rendered in such discipline by a Beethoven."  (Schumanns Opernbuch: 104-106)

Scene 2: The Courtyard of the State Prison

Florestan's fellow prisoners have been released by the Minister, and Leonore herself removes the chains from Florestan. Marzelline, fully recovered from her infatuation, consents to marry the turnkey Jaquino. Pizarro is arrested and led away by the Minister Don Fernando's men, and the chorus sings a final tribute to the devoted wife whose valor rescued her husband from certain death.

To this one more brief musical description:

"After a decidedly humanitarian speech ("Es sucht der Bruder seine Brüder, und kann er helfen, hilft er gern"--brother seeks brother, anf if  he can help, he will gladly do so), the minister grants freedom to all prisoners.  Deeply moved, the minister recognizes his friend Florestan whom he had believed to be dead.  Pizarro is arrested.  The song in honor of spousal love is intoned:  "Wer ein holdes Weib errungen, stimm in unsern Jubel ein" (he who has won a devoted wife join in our jubilation).  All seem to be overcome with joy which knows no boundaries.  A grandiose ending that would see its revival in the "Ninth".   (Schumanns Opernbuch:106).