An opera in two acts, sung in German
Music by Ludwig van Beethoven
Libretto by Joseph von Sonnleithner, with later revisions by Stephan von Breuning and Georg Friedrich Treitschke
ACT I A prison in Spain.
Jacquino is in love with Marzelline, the daughter of the jailer Rocco. Marzelline, however, has recently developed a crush on Fidelio, her father’s new assistant. Jacquino is heartbroken by this development, but Rocco thinks that the clever young Fidelio will make a fine match for his daughter, and he happily blesses their union.
There’s just one problem: Fidelio isn’t actually Fidelio. In fact, he isn’t a man at all. “He” is a young woman named Leonore, a Spanish noblewoman whose husband, Florestan, has been arrested for his revolutionary political views. Desperate to find and free her husband, Leonore has dressed in men’s clothing and taken a job at the prison. But where is Florestan? Leonore has access to all the prison’s cells, yet her husband is nowhere to be found.
Then Leonore hears about a prisoner locked in a dungeon on the prison’s lowest level, where only Rocco is allowed to go. Hopeful that this prisoner might be Florestan—but terrified by how badly the unknown prisoner is being treated—Leonore begs to go with Rocco on his rounds. Rocco refuses.
News arrives that the government minister Don Fernando is on his way to inspect the prison. This infuriates the prison’s cruel governor, Don Pizarro: He knows that Fernando and Florestan are friends, and he is terrified that Fernando will find out that Florestan, who has committed no crime, is languishing in the prison simply because Pizarro bears a grudge against him. So Pizarro decides to get rid of the evidence—by killing Florestan and burying him in the dungeon. He tells Rocco about his wicked plan and asks the jailer to dig a grave. Leonore overhears Rocco and Pizarro’s conversation. Desperate to save Florestan, she once again begs Rocco to let her accompany him into the dungeon. Finally, he relents.
While Rocco and Pizarro finish plotting Florestan’s death, Leonore, feeling sorry for the other prisoners, arranges to let them out into the courtyard for some fresh air. Technically this is allowed, but when the sadistic Pizarro sees the prisoners out of the cells, he flies into a rage and demands that Leonore lock them back up. Rocco leaves to dig the grave, and Leonore follows him.
In the dark dungeon, Florestan dreams that he sees Leonore arriving to free him. He wakes up and thinks fondly of Leonore, but then he is once again gripped by despair. Rocco and Leonore (still dressed as Fidelio) arrive and begin digging the grave. Florestan does not recognize his wife, but when he speaks to Rocco, Leonore immediately recognizes the sound of her husband’s voice. It takes everything in her power to keep from calling out to him. Rocco, feeling sorry for the condemned Florestan, offers him some water, and Leonore gives him a bit of bread, whispering to him not to lose hope.
Rocco blows his whistle to signal to Pizarro that the grave is ready. Pizarro arrives with his dagger drawn. As he enters the cell, Leonore pulls a pistol from her pocket. Pointing it at Pizarro, she jumps between him and Florestan, declaring that he will have to kill Florestan’s wife before he will be able to touch Florestan himself. Rocco, Pizarro, and Florestan are all shocked to discover that Fidelio is really Leonore in disguise.
A trumpet call announces that Don Fernando has arrived at the prison. When Rocco appears with Florestan, Fernando is amazed to find his old friend in prison. Rocco tells Fernando about Leonore’s heroism and Pizarro’s villainy. Pizarro is arrested, and Leonore herself cuts Florestan’s chains. Don Fernando proclaims amnesty and justice for all, and the remaining prisoners are freed. Everyone cheers for Leonore.
The French libretto Léonore, ou L’Amour Conjugal
by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly
In 1803, the French opera Les Deux Journées was performed in Vienna to great acclaim. The opera, which featured a libretto by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly and music by Luigi Cherubini, told the story of Armand, a heroic parliamentarian on the run from the cruel Cardinal Mazarin. Over the course of the opera, Armand effects a number of daring escapes (including a memorable scene in which he hides out in a water barrel), his wife disguises herself as a peasant girl to evade detection, and the cardinal, bowing to political pressure, eventually agrees to forgive his political enemy. In other words, the opera was full of the heroic hijinks and feel-good narrative turns that audiences loved. It was also a shameless piece of propaganda.
In fact, Les Deux Journées (or The Water Carrier, as it came to be known in English), was one of the chief exemplars of an idiosyncratic genre that appeared in the decade following the French Revolution. These “rescue operas,” as they were called, overtly espoused the ideals of the revolution—including love, fidelity, and freedom—while taking an obvious stand against political tyranny and repression. In Les Deux Journées and other operas, Bouilly claimed that his stories had been drawn from real-life events that he had personally witnessed during the Reign of Terror. Bouilly’s claim to historical authenticity was most likely false, but it served its purpose: His operas were phenomenally successful, and Les Deux Journées counted among its most ardent admirers both the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
When Beethoven saw Les Deux Journées in Vienna, he was already working on an opera, the never-to-be-completed Vesta’s Fire. But after seeing Bouilly and Cherubini’s work, Beethoven, who was deeply invested in politics, felt the need to write something more in tune with the events of the day. By the following January, he was hard at work adapting another of Bouilly’s rescue operas for the Viennese stage: Léonore, ou L’Amour Conjugal. Like Les Deux Journées, Léonore was purportedly based on real events that had taken place during the French Revolution. Like Les Deux Journées, it featured a daring disguise, the triumph of goodness over evil, and a rousing chorus at the opera’s end. Unlike Les Deux Journées, however, the central character was not a brave revolutionary fighting tyranny and oppression. Rather, the hero was this man’s wife, the faithful Leonore.
For audiences in the early 1800s, Léonore was a profoundly political opera, but the politics of the plot would soon be overshadowed by its heroine’s savoir-faire. In particular, 19th-century audiences swooned over the moment at the opera’s end when Leonore draws her pistol and brandishes it at a shocked Don Pizarro. (In fact, one singer went so far as to draw two pistols at the moment of her character’s big reveal!) Yet in the 21st century, opera directors have begun to rediscover the powerful political message behind Beethoven’s work, for Fidelio’s core messages about loyalty, freedom, and justice remain as pertinent today as they were 200 years ago.
Music and songs often play a major role in revolutions and other movements for social change. Can you think of any protests songs you know? If you were to write a protest song, what might it be about?