'Fidelio' is the one opera in the repertory that has the power to sway audiences even when it is indifferently performed. Yet it is a highly problematic work whose triumphant conclusion and the impression it is designed to convey of goodness winning out over evil do not go to the heart of what Beethoven was grappling with. Not that its plot is complex, or that, like many of the French operas of the day which influenced Beethoven and whose brilliance he admired, it is a long and complicated work: Fidelio's success in the theatre derives in part from its compactness and intensity - in the course of two extremely taut acts, a devoted wife rescues her unjustly imprisoned husband, foils a tyrannically cruel Spanish grandee, and manages to release all the other prisoners arbitrarily imprisoned in his dungeons. Unlike most other operas, however, Fidelio is burdened with the complexities of its own past as well as the huge effort it cost its composer before he was able to present it in its 'final' form in Vienna on 23 May 1814. It is the only work of its kind he ever completed; it caused him a great deal of pain; yet despite the attention he lavished on it, he failed to get the satisfaction from it, in terms either of popular success or of aesthetic conviction, that his efforts entitled him to.
LRB 30 October 1997 | PDF Download