THE curtain rises on the court-yard of the State Prison, near Seville. In the back-ground, a high wall, over which trees are visible ; a large gate pierced by a wicket for foot-passengers ; near the gate, the Porter’s Lodge ; to the left, the cells of the prisoners, the windows barred with iron gratings and all the doors numbered and bolted ; near the front, the door of the turnkey’s dwelling ; to the right, trees surrounded by an iron railing, near which is a gate, indicating the entrance to the castle garden. Marzelline, the jailor’s daughter (soprano), ironing before her door; Jaquino, the porter (tenor), opening the gate for parcels. The scene opens with a duet, Fetzt, Schatzchen, jetzt sind wir allein. Jaquino wants Marzelline to heed his love, but she coquets with him and continues ironing.
The music of this number reminds us strongly of Mozart, especially in its gay instrumentation. A knocking at the gate, heard in the orchestra on the strings and abruptly introduced in the chord of C, interrupts Jaquino’s offer of marriage. As he goes to the gate, Marzelline muses upon Fidelio. Jaquino, returning, begins his suit afresh. The knocking is repeated. Jaquino is called away by Rokko, the jailor (bass), and after he leaves, Marzelline tells us she is sorry for Jaquino, but she loves Fidelio and wishes her father were not opposed to her union with him. Then she sings a romance, O war’ ich schon mit dir vereint, in which she imagines the rapture of union with Fidelio, a song of unbroken melody, of two verses and a short coda, the accompaniment receiving some new figures for the second verse. The introduction of the chord of C at the end of each verse, when she speaks of the hope that fills her breast, is like a ray of light, and is entirely in keeping with her cheery nature.
Rokko enters, and Jaquino carries garden tools into Rokko’s house. Rokko asks Marzelline if Fidelio has returned, and, as he remarks that it is time to deliver to the Governor the letters Fidelio was to bring, a knocking is heard. Jaquino runs to unlock the door; and Marzelline joyfully exclaims : ” Here he is ! ” Fidelio (soprano) enters, quite weary, with a basket of provisions, fetters which he lays on the ground, and a tin box, hanging from a ribbon, at his side. Marzelline greets him affectionately, and tries to wipe his face with her hand-kerchief. Rokko helps his daughter relieve Fidelio of the basket, and Jaquino, quite disturbed by the ado made over Fidelio, goes into his Lodge, but comes out to watch the others, pretending to be busy. Rokko receives the accounts from Fidelio and commends him, remarking (aside), that ” The rogue is doing all this for Marzelline,” and, slyly glancing from one to the other, promises him a reward. Fidelio is much embarrassed, which only confirms Rokko’s belief that he is in love with Marzelline. Rokko goes to look at the fetters, and Marzelline, regarding Fidelio with much emotion, announces the subject of the great quartette in canon, Mir ist so wunderbar. She is accompanied by two clarinets, two violas, and violoncello, pizzicato. When Fidelio takes up the theme, accompanied by flutes and violins, Marzelline sings counterpoint. Rokko and Jaquino add sometimes the theme and sometimes the accompaniment. The instrumentation is very elaborate, and the coda is introduced by a chord of the seventh on the keynote instead of the accustomed close. The emotions of the characters are well contrasted in this famous number : Marzelline is radiantly happy ; Fidelio, troubled ; Jaquino, jealous ; and Rokko, benign.
Jaquino returns to his Lodge, and Rokko promises speedy marriage for Fidelio and Marzelline, and sings his air, Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben, a kind of ballad of great breadth, the sentiment of which is that no one can be happy without gold, and that he who sits down to the table with nought but love, will rise hungry. The rhythm changes in each of the two verses from 2/4 to 6/8 and back to 2/4, with an imitation between the voice and orchestra in the coda.
Fidelio begs Rokko to let him aid in attending to the prisoners. Rokko describes the horrors, but Fidelio is firm in his wish. So Rokko promises that Fidelio shall visit all the cells except that of a mysterious prisoner who has been confined for two years and who must soon die from exhaustion. In the trio, Gut, Sôhnchen, gut, by Rokko, Marzelline, and Fidelio, Rokko says time will harden his gentle heart, Marzelline fears Fidelio cannot stand the horrors, and Fidelio (aside), that love will banish all fear. Before this number the music has been light, and the highest contrapuntal skill has been employed rather than the musical illustration of dramatic feeling. In this trio the disguised Leonore’s character begins to unfold, and we have the first hint of her mission to find her unjustly imprisoned husband. Rokko takes the tin box from Fidelio, who goes with Marzelline into the house.
A noble March is now played, beginning with two hollow beats on the kettledrums, accompanied by the double basses, pizzicato, during which the great gate is opened from without ; officers enter with a detachment of troops ; and, finally, Don Pizarro (baritone), the Governor of the Prison.
Don Pizarro directs his guards to the wall; drawbridge, and garden, and asks Rokko for the letters, which the latter takes from the tin box brought by Fidelio. Don Pizarro un folds the papers. His attention is arrested by a letter which he reads aloud as Rokko and the guards recede. In it he is warned that the minister has learned that several victims are confined unjustly in this prison and has started out to investigate. “Ah !’ exclaims Don Pizarro, “what if he should find Florestan, whom he thinks so long dead ! ” A bold deed shall dispel all anxieties. His following aria, Ha ! welch’ ein’ Augeablick ! is a masterpiece of passion with several powerful climaxes. A peculiar orchestral effect is given by two trombones, which appear for the first time in the score; for Beethoven, like Mozart, uses the trombone to express sinister and fateful meaning, and not simply to increase noise. The very low notes of the chorus, commenting on Pizarro’s dark intent, and the strange harmonies are evidently intended to horrify the hearer. Dismissing his guards, Pizarro tries to make an accomplice of Rokko, and the duet, Fetzt, Alter, is a marvellous piece of musical declamation. Pizarro’s wickedness is revealed in the music. He throws Rokko a purse; but the latter does not understand what he must do. Finally, the Governor’s whispered ” murder ” (morden), with a startling change of key, produces questions of terror from Rokko, who refuses and wants to return the purse. Very well, then Pizarro, himself, will kill the prisoner. ” He who scarcely lives, who hovers like a shadow ?” asks Rokko. The mysterious prisoner is the one. Rokko must dig a grave in the cistern of the dungeon for him. At this terrible order, the two trombones again blare out. Pizarro will steal to the prisoner and murder him. In the ensemble, Pizarro revels in the coming murder, and Rokko thinks of the prisoner’s happy release from his sufferings. Don Pizarro exits toward the garden, Rokko following.
Fidelio, who has overheard their words, enters in violent agitation from the opposite side, and begins the great recitative, Abscheulicher wo eilst du bia? The sight of the old enemy kindles horror, yet Fidelio seems to feel ” a rain-bow resting on the dark clouds,” and at the word rainbow, an unexpected modulation and brilliant use of the wood-wind is evidently intended to symbolize hope, if indeed not the rainbow itself. The aria beginning Adagio, Kamm Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern, an eloquent appeal to hope, with three horns and bassoon obbligato accompaniment, is followed by an Allegro, ” Ich folg’ dem innern Triebe,” in which we learn for the first time what none of the characters know that Fidelio is a wife and that neither love nor duty will fail her. We understand her intensity of purpose and her endurance. Here we find the musical germ of the chief subject in the Fidelio overture in E (see page 61). All the technical means by which her love and service are musically expressed are as simple as they are noble, and the wonderful brilliancy of this Allegro is produced solely by the string quartette and four obbligato instruments ! This is the heroine’s only great solo, the one point where she is independent, both musically and dramatically, of the other characters.
Leonore departs towards the garden, Marzelline enters from the house, followed by the jealous Jaquino. Marzelline repulses him. Rokko and Leonore re-enter from the garden. Rokko chides him for quarrelling, and Jaquino learns that Fidelio is to marry Marzelline.
Leonore now begs Rokko to let the prisoners have a little air, hoping she may find him she seeks among them. Rokko acquiesces, and she and Jaquino let out the captives, who sing O welche Lust, praising the fresh air, to melodic figures on the wood-wind. A prisoner (solo tenor) begs his companions to trust in Providence, another remarks that they have been observed. They disperse. Rokko tells Fidelio he will take him to see the mysterious prisoner. From questions, she not only learns that he is to die, but that she must help dig his grave. Could the victim possibly be her husband ? All through this recitative the clarinets and bassoons are prominent and pathetic amid the rich instrumentation. Marzelline and Jaquino now rush in, breathless, to say that Pizarro is coming to punish Rokko for letting the prisoners out. A burst of instruments introduces the furious Pizarro. Rokko makes excuses. After singing farewell to the sunlight, Leb’ wohl du warmer Sonnenlicht, the prisoners- are driven away. Fidelio prays for justice to fall on the tryant ; Marzelline sympathizes with the prisoners ; Pizarro orders Rokko to hasten with the grave; and Rokko laments his part in the matter.
ACT II. Gloomy chords usher in the recitative of Florestan (tenor), who is in his dark dungeon. He exclaims on the darkness, ” Gott ! welch eïn Dunkel hier ! ” The music, as well as the words, reveals his noble nature. In the Adagio, In des Lebens Fruhlingstagen, the theme of which is announced by the clarinets and which is important in all three Leoaore overtures, Florestan consoles himself with having always done his duty. Bassoons, clarinets, and horns are beautifully combined in the accompaniment. In the Allegro, the sentiment changes ; he fancies he sees an angel his Leonore leading him to heaven. At the end of this rhapsody, he falls exhausted. The oboe has a solo in the excited accompaniment.
Rokko and Fidelio enter, coming down the stairs, carrying a jug and implements for digging. The back door opens, partially lighting the stage. A dialogue ensues, interspersed with music. They talk of the darkness, the cold, and the prisoner. In the duet that follows (Nur hurtig fort ), the orchestra imitates the action of digging, the rolling of stones, and the falling of earth. The feelings of Rokko and Leonore are marvellously expressed, and suddenly, to a noble, sweeping phrase, Leonore declares that no matter who the prisoner may be she will save him. Towards the end, the voices sing in contrary motion with a mysterious concluding phrase in octaves. The muted violins, the two trombones playing pianissimo, and the double bassoon make a beautiful effect.
Rokko chides Fidelio for loitering ; the work must be done quickly; Pizarro will soon be here. Rokko takes a drink. ” He is waking ! ” Leonore exclaims, and tries to see the prisoner’s face. Rokko, climbing out of the grave, bids Fidelio clear away the earth as far as the cistern.
The trembling Leonore descends, and is startled when she hears the prisoner’s voice. “Oh! if I could see his face!” she murmurs to herself. Florestan turns to Rokko, and Leonore, recognizing her husband, falls senseles on the edge of the grave.
Florestan asks Rokko how long he will be deaf to his lamentations, and then asks who is the Governor of the prison. Rokko says Don Pizarro. At this loathed name, Leonore’s strength and courage revive. Florestan says : ” Oh send to Seville for Leonore.” ” Little does he think she is now digging his grave ! ” sighs the unhappy wife. He begs for water, and Rokko, softening a little, says he shall have the wine that is left. Leonore hastens with the jug. Florestan asks who this is. Rokko, handing the jug to Florestan, who drinks, informs him that Fidelio is his future son-in-law. Rokko is satisfied with Fidelio’s ex-planation of his agitation; he is touched by such suffering. Florestan is glad he can feel pity, and begins the trio, Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten ! during which Leonore, taking a piece of bread from her pocket, persuades Rokko to allow her to give it to Florestan, who eats it. Rokko goes to the door and gives a loud whistle. “Is that the signal for my death ? ” Florestan asks Leonore, who begs him to be calm, struggling not to reveal herself.
Don Pizarro enters, wrapped in a cloak. “All is pre-pared,” says Rokko. Fidelio, told to go, retires into the shadows to watch Pizarro. Pizarro (aside) remarks he must get rid of these two, also, this very day, for his own safety.
” Shall I remove his chains ? ” asks Rokko. ” No,” says Pizarro, throwing off his cloak and drawing his dagger. As he confronts the prisoner (quartette : Er sterbe ), Flores-tan recognizes his old enemy ; Leonore rushes in front of Florestan with the words, ” Kill first his wife”; Pizarro struggles with her and then unsheathes his sword; Leonore covers him with a pistol. At this exciting moment, the distant sound of a trumpet is heard : the Minister has arrived. A lovely, although short, melody is heard in the orchestra, expressive of joy at this salvation. The trumpet again sounds. Jaquino enters, announcing the Minister. A quartette succeeds in which Rokko shares the joy of the couple and Pizarro rages. Pizarro rushes away, beckoning Rokko to follow ; but the latter stops to join the hands of Leonore and Florestan, press them to his breast and point to heaven. Left alone, Leonore and Florestan exchange a few words and sing their rapturous duet, O namenlose Freude, perfect in form, melody, and treatment.
The finale may be considered an epilogue. The climax has been reached. The scene changes to the outside of the prison. The orchestra plays a short introduction of great breadth, almost a March. Preceded by a guard, Don Fernando, the Prime Minister of Spain, enters, accompanied by Pizarro and officers. Jacquino and Marzelline accompany the state prisoners, who fall on their knees before Don Fernando. The people sing a chorus, Heil sei dem Tag, hailing him who comes to render justice. Don Fernando gives them liberty.
But now, to the dismay of Pizarro, Rokko enters with Florestan and Leonore, begging the Minister to re-unite this pair. Don Fernando is delighted to see Florestan, an old friend, long thought dead. Rokko tells Leonore’s history,how she entered his service as a hireling and how he in-tended her for his son-in-law. Marzelline is amazed. The jailor also tells Don Fernando of Pizarro’s plot. The people break out in indignation. Don Fernando orders Rokko to take off his fetters, but on second thoughts gives the task to Leonore. Pizarro is arrested. Florestan rushes into Leonore’s arms; and the people sing ” Wer ein solches Weib errungen ” (” Let whoever has such a wife join in our jubilee “). Florestan and Leonore sing little solos of love and gratitude (Florestan’s being introduced by a peculiar orchestral passage), and then join the massive chorus :
” Wer ein solches Weib errungen Stimm in unsern Fubel ein ! Nie wird es zu boch besungen, Retterin des Gatten sein.”
There are four overtures : Leonore, No. 2, in C, written for the first performance in 1805 ; Leonore, No. 3, in C, the most famous, 1806; Leonore, No. 1, in C, op. 138, 1807 ; and Fidelio, the accepted overture to the work, written for the final revision of the opera in 1814. The latter is very brilliant, beginning with four bars Allegro, somewhat reminiscent of the opening to Leonore’s aria. Eight bars Adagio interrupt it, the four bars Allegro are repeated, and the Adagio begins again. Here is developed a passage from the duet between Rokko and Pizarro where Rokko speaks of him ” who hovers like a shadow.” The Allegro follows, beginning with a melody for the horn, taken up by the clarinets, and subsequently by the violins and full orchestra. The subject returns in the original key, and is again interrupted by an Adagio, with a new passage in triplets, after which comes a Presto, with a contrary pas-sage for the violins and double basses towards the end. The opening phrase closes the overture.
The great Leonore overture, No. 3, is often played as an entr’ acte. It begins Adagio and contains a phrase from Florestan’s air, many phrases recalling Leonore’s passionate love, beautiful themes for the strings, a lovely phrase from the quartette in the dungeon, the trumpet call repeated as in the quartette, a solo for the flute with imitation for the bassoon and slight accompaniment for the strings, and a rapturous, noble ending. Leonore, No. 2, is really a sketch for No. 3; and Leonore, No. 1, although beautiful, is rarely played.