Beethoven and the strong woman

Be­fore he com­posed the opera ‘Fide­lio,’ there was ‘Leonore,’ and two ver­sions of it are com­ing to the Dis­trict

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MIDGETTE OPERA RE­VIEW anne.midgette@wash­ Opera Lafayette’s “Léonore” will be per­formed in Wash­ing­ton at Lis­ner Au­di­to­rium on Feb. 19 and in New York at John Jay Col­lege on Feb. 23. The Wash­ing­ton Con­cert Opera’s “Leonore” will be per­formed

“The idea of a strong fe­male who ends up lib­er­at­ing some­body who’s been un­justly im­pris­oned, and help­ing bring down a pow­er­ful, evil per­son, I think still re­ally res­onates to­day,” says the con­duc­tor Antony Walker.

He’s de­scrib­ing the plot of “Fide­lio,” Lud­wig van Beethoven’s only opera. And it res­onates in­deed. Through­out the 20th cen­tury, this story of a woman who dis­guises her­self as a man to in­fil­trate the prison where her hus­band is un­justly con­fined (the opera’s sub­ti­tle is “Con­ju­gal Love”) has been a bea­con of heroic free­dom and re­sis­tance to in­jus­tice. “Fide­lio” was the first opera per­formed in Ger­many af­ter the end of World War II; the pris­oner’s cho­rus, an ode to free­dom, has be­come a ver­i­ta­ble an­them. And more than one stage di­rec­tor has moved the opera to a con­tem­po­rary set­ting — in­clud­ing Jür­gen Flimm’s pow­er­ful pro­duc­tion, set in a 20th-cen­tury prison camp, which re­turns to the Metropoli­tan Opera on March 16.

But the plot was just as res­o­nant in 1805 when Beethoven pre­miered the piece he ini­tially called “Leonore” (the hero­ine’s name) rather than “Fide­lio” (the name she as­sumes as a man). In France, around the time of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, “res­cue op­eras” — in which char­ac­ters are saved from per­ilous sit­u­a­tions — en­joyed a great vogue. One of these was “Léonore,” writ­ten in 1798 by Pierre Gaveaux, a now for­got­ten tenor and com­poser, and pop­u­lar for sev­eral years af­ter its pre­miere. The li­bretto Gaveaux used, by Jean-Ni­co­las Bouilly, be­came the ba­sis for sev­eral other op­eras, in­clud­ing ver­sions by Fer­di­nando Paer and Si­mon Mayr as well as Beethoven’s “Leonore;” all three of these opened in 1804 and 1805, al­though Beethoven’s fi­nal, hard­won ver­sion, “Fide­lio,” didn’t come to the stage un­til 1814.

Not every­one feels that “Fide­lio” is the de­fin­i­tive take on the story; but not many peo­ple have had a chance to ex­pe­ri­ence all of its an­tecedents. This month, how­ever, au­di­ences in Wash­ing­ton and New York will have a chance. On Feb. 19, Opera Lafayette will give the modern pre­miere of the Gaveaux work, which has lain nearly for­got­ten since the early 19th cen­tury (it will go to New York later that week). And on March 5, Walker will lead the Wash­ing­ton Con­cert Opera in the 1805 “Leonore,” which is the ver­sion of Beethoven’s work that Walker has al­ways pre­ferred. If you go to the Met pro­duc­tion, as well, you can see three dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the same opera.

“It’s ex­actly the same story,” says Ryan Brown, the founder, con­duc­tor and artis­tic di­rec­tor of Opera Lafayette, of the Gaveaux piece. “Beethoven had the Bouilly li­bretto and was work­ing with it. What we don’t know is whether he saw a copy of the [Gaveaux] score. Af­ter do­ing this [piece]” — Brown has been re­hears­ing “Léonore” for months — “I tend to think he did. But it’s one of those cases — Okay, that’s the same re­sponse to this sit­u­a­tion in the li­bretto mu­si­cally, the same use of fig­u­ra­tion; is that just a trope of the time or did Beethoven hear [Gaveaux’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion] and then make it so much more com­pli­cated?”

“Fide­lio” is one of a num­ber of op­er­atic mas­ter­pieces that hover be­tween two gen­res. It rep­re­sents an un­cer­tain jux­ta­po­si­tion of com­edy, with the story of the jailer’s pretty daugh­ter and her suit­ors, and high drama, with the story of a pris­oner wast­ing away in a dun­geon, res­cued by his wife. The dis­crep­ancy stems from Bouilly’s li­bretto, which was pur­port­edly based on a true story (per­haps a rea­son it doesn’t lend it­self to neat pi­geon­hol­ing), and ev­ery com­poser who has taken it on has wres­tled with it. Mayr fo­cused en­tirely on the hu­mor; his opera based on this ma­te­rial is a one-act work he cat­e­go­rized as a “sen­ti­men­tal farce.” Paer tried to cre­ate a more Mozartian take that dips in and out of hu­mor and se­ri­ous­ness. And this bal­ance was one of the things that kept Beethoven strug­gling with the work for so many years.

“You start off with this sort of do­mes­tic com­edy,” says the WCO’s Walker. “Then you find out about the man in the dun­geon, and you start think­ing very strange thoughts about Rocco [the jailer]: How can he just be sort of the jolly guy whose day job is ac­tu­ally help­ing to stab some­body to death? It’s the dilemma of the ev­ery­day per­son in that time, and still to­day it res­onates. Or­di­nary, good peo­ple be­ing put into in­tol­er­a­ble sit­u­a­tions.” In­deed, it is a modern trope: the lov­ing fam­ily man who per­pe­trates acts of cru­elty be­cause he is just fol­low­ing orders.

Beethoven’s 1805 “Leonore” is con­sid­er­ably longer than the 1814 “Fide­lio”: It ex­tends over three acts rather than two and con­tains sev­eral en­tire num­bers that were elim­i­nated from the sparer fi­nal ver­sion, in­clud­ing a duet for Fide­lio and Marzelline, the jailer’s daugh­ter, that Walker calls “sub­lime,” and a big heroic aria for the vil­lain Pizarro and the men’s cho­rus. Where “Fide­lio” is “more sym­phonic in scope and more se­ri­ously heroic,” its orig­i­nal ver­sion presents “a more grad­ual pro­gres­sion” and ar­guably a smoother dra­matic line, Walker says.

Brown is ea­ger to present both works to his au­di­ence, as well. Opera Lafayette will present its own “Leonore” in the 2018-2019 sea­son (fi­nan­cial con­cerns have led the com­pany to put the pro­duc­tion off for a sea­son). In his view, the 1805 “Leonore” has closer links to the Gaveaux than the fi­nal “Fide­lio,” in­clud­ing lighter voices. He has de­lib­er­ately cast the Gaveaux opera with na­tive French Cana­dian singers whom he plans to use in his stag­ing of Beethoven’s “Leonore” as well, to un­der­line the com­par­i­son and for­ward the hy­poth­e­sis that Beethoven’s later, more heroic work also called for a dif­fer­ent kind of voice.

Walker, how­ever, sees Beethoven’s two ver­sions as more closely linked; the same so­prano, he points out, sang the ti­tle role in 1805 and 1814. There has been much de­bate about whether that in­di­cates that the role was es­sen­tially writ­ten for the same voice type, or whether the singer’s voice be­came heav­ier with age, as voices tend to do. Walker, in any case, is cast­ing the opera with the kind of Wag­ner/Strauss voices that have be­come stan­dard in this piece: Mar­jorie Owens and Si­mon O’Neill will sing the lead­ing roles, with Alan Held, who sang Wotan in the Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Opera’s “Ring” last year, as Pizarro.

For a modern au­di­ence, the main in­ter­est of the Gaveaux opera, ob­vi­ously, is to see how it an­tic­i­pates Beethoven’s later master­piece. “We kind of want to have it both ways,” Brown con­cedes. “We want peo­ple to come be­cause they’re heard of it, but we don’t re­ally want them to com­pare it to what they al­ready know. I think [the Gaveaux opera] re­ally stands up, and you see why peo­ple found the story com­pelling.”

And whether it’s based on fact or not, the story does seem to have un­der­gone a par­tic­u­lar alchemy when Beethoven en­coun­tered it. “Beethoven never had a re­la­tion­ship that lasted with a fe­male,” Walker points out. “And this ideal of this in­cred­i­ble, strong woman who saves her hus­band through her love and de­vo­tion — he was so pas­sion­ate about try­ing to find some­body like that of his own; he never did. I think one of the rea­sons he was so in­ter­ested in this was that it com­bined two top­ics that were pas­sion­ate for him: revo­lu­tion­ary zeal and the im­mor­tal beloved.”


Karita Mat­tila as Leonore and Richard Mar­gi­son as Florestan in “Fide­lio” in 2006. Beethoven had an “ideal of this in­cred­i­ble, strong woman who saves her hus­band through her love,” says Antony Walker, who will con­duct “Leonore,” fore­run­ner to “Fide­lio,” at the Lis­ner Au­di­to­rium on March 5.

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