Fidelio or Leonore?

Marjorie Owens (Leonore), Celena Shafter (Marzelline), Eric Halvarson (Rocco) and conductor Antony Walker at the Washington Concert Opera.

Washington Concert Opera’s recent exhumation of Leonore–well cast and persuasively performed–raised some fascinating questions about the relative merits of the original 1805 version of Beethoven’s lone opera versus the work we know today as Fidelio.

The original version, spread out over three acts, tilts more toward domestic comedy. Whole ensembles, with some delightful music, were cut from the 1814 version: the first act trio for Marzelline, Jaquino, and Rocco, and the second act duet for Leonore and Marzelline. There were numerous other changes, both musical and dramaturgical, including significant revisions to Leonore’s aria and Florestan’s monologue, and the reversal of the opera’s first two numbers.

My colleague, Anne Midgette, in her Post review, expressed her affection for the 1805 Leonore, with its “gentler progression” from domestic comedy to heroic drama. Fidelio may be the “greater” work, Midgette acknowledges, but it also betrays the strain of years of revisions that resulted in an opera that shows its seams.

Another colleague, Charles Downey, in a Facebook note accompanying his Washington Classical Review piece, advocated a hybrid approach to the work that restores parts of the 1805 version: “start with the Fidelio Overture, restore all the cut ensembles, original version of Leonore’s big aria, but keep the 1814 version of the last act. Thank you.”

For me, the 1814 Fidelio will always have pride of place, as the greater work of musical drama. As enjoyable as the cut ensembles are, I don’t really need to be spending all that time on domestic trivialities and prefer the tighter dramatic focus of the revision. The numerous revisions to the libretto also give the work greater strength and clarity (such as properly motivating the prisoners chorus). While Midgette has suggested to me that she wished Beethoven had left the 1805 Leonore and written three more operas instead, I’m glad to have Fidelio in its final form, as awkwardly and painfully wrought as it is.

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