Ludwig van Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, seven concertos, dozens of piano pieces, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 chamber works, but only one opera. Fidelio, originally titled Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (Leonore, or the Triumph of Marital Love), made its premiere in 1805; the following year, it was shortened from three acts to two, and edited/rewritten further. He was assisted in these revisions by librettist Georg Friedrich Treitschke, and apparently it wasn’t the most enjoyable process; Beethoven wrote in a letter, “I assure you, dear Treitschke, that this opera will win me a martyr’s crown. You have by your co-operation saved what is best from the shipwreck. For all this I shall be eternally grateful to you.” The final version of Fidelio premiered in 1814, and it’s been performed that way ever since.
The plot of Fidelio is fairly straightforward: Florestan, a nobleman, has attempted to expose crimes committed by another nobleman, Pizarro. Pizarro, who runs a prison, has secretly locked Florestan up there and is starving him to death. Florestan’s wife, Leonore, has disguised herself as a man, taken the name Fidelio, and gotten a job working in the home of the prison warden, Rocco. Rocco’s daughter Marzelline falls in love with “Fidelio,” and Leonore/Fidelio uses this as leverage to gain access to the prison, where she ultimately is reunited with, and saves, her husband. Pizarro is imprisoned, tyranny is lifted, the other prisoners are released, and everyone sings the praises of the faithful Leonore, whose love for her husband has brought about all this goodness.
Operas are frequently reworked by directors, sometimes in quite radical ways. A common tactic is to update the sets and costumes to modern times—to move the action to a Las Vegas casino, for example, or make everyone Nazis. Sometimes this works well with the material, and sometimes not. In 2015, a production of Fidelio premiered at the Salzburg Festival, and was immediately controversial. Director Claus Guth staged it on a minimalist set that looked like an empty ballroom in a giant European manor house, with a massive black cube like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey taking up most of the area. (During a scene where a crowd of prisoners gather to sing, they look like pilgrims walking around the Kaaba in Mecca.) Even more radical than the staging was his approach to the music. Almost all of the dialogue was removed, replaced by ambient noises like something out of a horror movie, and an entirely new character was added—silent figures dressed identically to Leonore and Pizarro, who perform sign-language-like gestures while other characters sing their parts.
This production is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Classical. (Get it from Amazon.) Jonas Kaufmann sings the role of Florestan, while Adrianne Pieczonka plays Leonore. Both are great singers, and the starkness of the sets only makes their performances that much more impressive and larger-than-life (in a good way). Still, the absence of dialogue between arias makes it difficult to understand exactly what’s going on at times, even with the subtitles on. Opera, because so much of it involves people singing at each other, is more dependent on exposition than other theatrical forms, and Guth’s decision to excise as much of that as possible makes this version of Fidelio tough going for a viewer/listener who’s not already familiar with the plot. This probably shouldn’t be someone’s introduction to the opera (as it was mine). Still, the music has all the lushness and romanticism of Beethoven’s other work, and it’s definitely visually striking enough—in its stark, arty way—to be worth watching.