Director Stephen Medcalf talks about the colourful history of Beethoven’s opera
I would love to have been there: a scene worthy of a comic opera in itself – that night in December 1805, under the chandeliers in the music room of Prince Lichnowsky, one of Beethoven’s most generous patrons, a vast gathering of opera practitioners, cognoscenti and friends of the composer, the huge manuscript score of Leonore uneasily propped up on the piano, the Princess playing through all the numbers one by one and everyone having their opinion as to what should be cut in order to salvage the opera for posterity. Beethoven apoplectic with rage screaming ‘Not a single note must be missing’ grabs the score and runs off with it but is only prevented by the frail princess who throws herself at his feet begging ‘ Beethoven! No, your greatest work, you yourself shall not eradicate in this way! Give in! Do it for the memory of your mother! Do it for me, who am only your best friend.’ Then after a dramatic pause, Beethoven looking upwards to the heavens, bursting into sobs, replies: ‘I will – yes all! I will do all for you – for your – for my mother’s sake!’ Curtain.
The premiere of Leonore did not go well. Only a week before the French had marched triumphantly into Vienna and the aristocracy had packed up and left. The first night was played to an almost empty theatre, populated only by supporters and admirers of Beethoven, a number of bored French soldiers and a few tourists brave enough to venture out. It was not well received, in spite of some inspiring music it was regarded as too slow, too long and lacking originality. Beethoven supervised immediate draconian cuts and continued tinkering with his only opera for the next 10 years until in 1814 he arrived with a final version: now renamed Fidelio. By and large posterity has embraced these revisions and Fidelio has been trumpeted while Leonore has been unjustly neglected – there is no doubt that the opening two acts move at a steady pace as they establish the characters and situation, but I don’t believe the cuts proposed by others and then reluctantly adopted by Beethoven are an improvement. Indeed I would say they render the opera fundamentally less theatrical.
Two themes lie at the heart of the opera, in whichever version: the right of humanity to individual liberty and freedom of thought and the moral force of pure, conjugal love. These are not complex ideas, but what gives them potency is the sincerity, depth and beauty of the music in which Beethoven gives them expression. The later versions of the opera bring these ideas even more into focus but at the expense of richness of characterisation, of humour, of ambiguity – these values which Mozart understood so well are the true stuff of theatre.
What Leonore gives us is more discursive but more dramatic. The supporting characters are better established. Pizarro gives greater expression to his cowardly bullying, Rocco’s good heartedness is tempered by his comic greed and snobbery, Jaquino has more music and more substance; Marzelline’s love for Fidelio is explored in a charming duet, both touching and humorous in the Shakespearean way that Leonore (in male disguise) is forced to play along with Marzelline’s fantasy. Subtle adjustments to the text and the score make Leonore herself and Florestan her imprisoned husband more heroic and less human in the final version. Leonore leads us towards the same spiritual climax as Fidelio, but the journey is more interesting and less predictable and we are a little more surprised when we arrive at our destination.
What all versions of the opera contain to a greater or lesser degree is a huge empathy with the two central characters whose ideals and sufferings Beethoven so strongly identified with. Set in the Napoleonic period, this Buxton Festival production will explore Beethoven’s very personal relationship to the opera and the workings of his creative imagination. His favourite quote from Schiller was: ‘Precepts. To do good whenever one can, to love liberty above all else, never to deny the truth even though it be before the throne.’ He had written the ground-breaking Eroica symphony in praise of Bonaparte the great liberator, then torn up the dedication in fury when he realised that he was in fact a tyrant. His deafness had begun to affect him several years before he wrote Leonore and he found himself periodically in despair at the feelings of loneliness and isolation it engendered. ‘I must live almost alone like an exile’. He suffered such dark nights of the soul – one can only imagine the resonance of Florestan’s first lines in the dungeon: ‘O God how dark it is! How terrible this silence. Here in the void no living thing comes near. O cruel ordeal! But God’s will is just. I’ll not complain; for he has decreed the measure of my suffering.’
Beethoven sought solace not only in his music, but in love. During the composition of Leonore he fell fervently in love with the Countess Josephine Deym. She was almost certainly the inspiration for his central character. It seems to have been requited but only in the platonic sense. Beethoven had dedicated a song called ‘An die Hoffnung’ (Ode to hope) to her and made delirious declarations of love: ‘Oh, you, you make me hope that your heart will long – beat for me – mine can only cease to beat for you – when – it no longer beats’. Josephine of course rejected him as she must – her aristocratic station made it inevitable whatever her personal feelings. Beethoven’s hope was crushed. Leonore, however sings in her aria: ‘Come Hope, let not your last star be eclipsed in despair’ and her hope is rewarded. Florestan endures torments but he is rescued by pure love: ‘Never can we over-praise a wife that saves her husband’ sing the chorus. I find Beethoven’s exultant ending deeply poignant in the knowledge that he was ultimately rejected by all women. He was doomed to suffer an endless series of hopeless affairs and never did find the ideal love of a spouse to save him.
Stephen Medcalf Leonore Director