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First performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio

Beethoven's only opera was performed for the first time on May 23rd, 1814.

The poster for the premier of Fidelio at Vienna's KärtnertortheaterLudwig van Beethoven’s only opera went through a troubled evolution, which he once said would earn him a martyr’s crown. In 1803 the composer, then in his thirties, was commissioned by Emanuel Schikaneder, who ran the recently opened Theater an der Wien in Vienna, to write an opera set in ancient Rome and called Vestas Feuer (‘The Vestal Flame’). Beethoven made little progress with Schikaneder’s libretto, which he found uninspiring. He said it could have been created by the Viennese apple-women.

Financial problems forced Schikaneder to sell the theatre in 1804, which cancelled Beethoven’s contract. The composer now fell in love with Countess Josephine Deym, a widow to whom he wrote passionate letters and told her ‘you have conquered me’. Their relationship ended in 1807, but meanwhile the new Theater an der Wien management had renewed his opera commission and he had written a different work with a libretto adapted from one by the French playwright, Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, which had been used for French operas earlier.

Set in Spain in the late 18th century and called Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal, it was about the heroism and devoted love of Leonore, who disguises herself as a young man called Fidelio to rescue her husband Florestan. He is being slowly starved to death in solitary confinement in a dungeon by an evil official called Pizarro. Beethoven’s version was called Leonora at first, hence the Leonora overtures, and later Fidelio. The composer’s passion for Josephine, his longing for conjugal love and the ‘solitary dungeon’ of his worsening deafness may have helped to inspire him, but when the work was performed in 1805 it was a flop and was dropped after just three performances. Beethoven revised it and shortened it from three acts to two, but it achieved only two performances in 1806 and the composer fell out with the theatre director. It would not be seen in public for another eight years. 

In 1814 the Viennese court theatre suggested reviving the opera and Beethoven agreed, provided it was revised. A drastically altered libretto was written by Georg Joseph Treitschke, who Beethoven thanked for salvaging ‘a stranded ship’. He wrote some magnificent new music for what was now definitely Fidelio, including a new overture. The final version was successfully presented at the Kärtnertortheater and a gala evening in September was organised for the crowned heads and leading political figures attending the Congress of Vienna to reorganise Europe after Napoleon’s abdication. With its appropriate central theme of liberation from tyranny, Fidelio has been part of the repertoire ever since.

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