Artistic Director Stephen Barlow on Beethoven and Leonore

This year’s opera programme features Beethoven’s Leonore – an early version of what would become known as Fidelio. Artistic Director and conductor of Leonore, Stephen Barlow, talks about why he finds the earlier version much more powerful.

Leonore was written when Beethoven was 34 and premiered in 1805. The very fact that Beethoven subjected his only foray into Opera to extensive revision after it had first performed is extraordinary. Beethoven was singular in strength of mind and nature and his sketch books tell us much about his method of composition, pitting idea against idea as he searched for the perfect solutions and form he required.

But he caved in to criticism from friends and the judgement of those who were bold enough to venture their opinions before he finally presented the work as Fidelio many years later. He later referred to the whole project as a shipwreck, his confidence severely shaken where dramatic stage work is concerned. Much later Fidelio became a reverentially important work for many, especially after the 2nd world war, when Furtwängler wrote ‘The conjugal love of Leonore appears, to the modern individual armed with realism and psychology, irremediably abstract and theoretical… Now that political events in Germany have restored to the concepts of human dignity and liberty their original significance, this is the opera which, thanks to the music of Beethoven, gives us comfort and courage… Certainly, Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician for the theater, or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary.

That which disturbs us is not a material effect, nor the fact of the ‘imprisonment’; any film could create the same effect. No, it is the music, it is Beethoven himself. It is this ‘nostalgia of liberty’ he feels, or better, makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears. His Fidelio has more of of the Mass than of the Opera to it; the sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a ‘religion of humanity’.

All this is perceptive and deeply felt, but my own view is that Beethoven’s first version, Leonore, is much more of a dramatic entity, ablaze with inspiration, conviction, sensitivity and emotional sympathy, as much as it is a paean to true love and a morality tale with deeper political strains. It is full too of influences. Leonore would have been impossible without Mozart’s huge variety of operatic focus, including women, hope, deeper moral purpose and a strong link to theatrical drama. Take for example Leonore’s well known ‘Abscheulicher’ aria; like Fiordiligi’s ‘Per Pieta’, her discovery that hope and strength of purpose is still available to her, Leonore’s aria is likewise in E major, and uses obbligato horns, only Beethoven increases the number of horns from 2 in Mozart’s work to 3 in his own.

My belief is that if Beethoven had not given way to his critics and revised it all, Leonore would still be as widely performed now as Fidelio is. Suffice perhaps to say that when I conducted Leonore many years ago in Graham Vick’s production at Battignano, the music Beethoven subsequently cut out remains with me to this day, focusing as it does on the more human aspects of the domestic family, Rocco and Marzelline, Leonore and Jacquino, and the impending catastrophe brutal and violent Pizarro visits upon them. Beethoven was more than capable of writing music that touches us on all levels, particularly our most human sensitivities.

Stephen Barlow Artistic Director

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