‘Fidelio’: Beethoven’s struggle, Madison Opera’s reward

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Talking to Kathryn Smith, general manager of the Madison Opera, it’s clear how much she loves her medium. And how challenging a medium she’s picked.

“Opera is the greatest of art forms, in my opinion, but it is not an easy one,” says Smith, entering her fourth season with the company and its 55th season overall.

That’s an opinion likely shared by Ludwig van Beethoven, whose Fidelio opens Madison Opera’s season at Overture Center Nov. 21. Fidelio is the only opera the classical music giant ever wrote, the story of a noblewoman named Leonore who works to free her unjustly imprisoned husband.

Smith says the experience of composing the work was neither easy nor pleasant for the German composer. 

Beethoven wrote the opera to fulfill an 1803 commission from opera producer Emanuel Schikaneder, according to Smith. The commission was originally for a score to accompany a libretto penned by Schikaneder titled The Vestal Flame, but Beethoven didn’t like it. Instead, he chose a completely different story: Leonore, a libretto written by Jean-Nicholas Bouilly and previously set to music in both French and Italian. 

Beethoven would live to regret the choice. His work on the re-titled Fidelio proved a constant struggle for the next decade. Smith says the opera ran for only three performances when it premiered in 1805, and a rewritten version that was staged in 1806 was equally disastrous.

Fidelio only escaped becoming a footnote in Beethoven’s larger canon when a theater in Vienna decided to stage the work in 1814. Beethoven did a final rewrite, and the third time proved the charm. The opera was finally a success — although not enough of one to convince Beethoven to try the genre again.

“Beethoven certainly talked about writing other operas after Fidelio, but no part of his experience in writing any of the three iterations was positive,” Smith says. “I imagine opera was not a priority for him.” 

Despite the composer’s struggle, Fidelio contains some of the memorable arias and best symphonic passages in the operatic canon. “Fidelio’s undeniable strength is its choral writing, but the arias are equally stunning, and the overall effect is exhilarating,” Smith says.

Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro and artistic director John DeMain says the opera is threaded with elements that reflect Beethoven’s more famous symphonies, including his Ninth Symphony, and is more dense than other works of the time. “The demands on the singers are greater than with Mozart,’ DeMain says, “and the orchestra becomes richer in harmony and orchestration so typically associated with Beethoven.”

But he says Fidelio clearly shows the influences of those earlier operatic works. “The German operas, as we hear so clearly in Mozart’s operatic works, throw an emphasis on the orchestra,” DeMain says. “This contrasts greatly with the Italian operatic approach, which focused on the vocal lines for the singer with largely simple accompaniments.”

One of the areas that gave Beethoven the most trouble was Fidelio’s overture. There are in fact four different versions, each composed at different times in the work’s evolution. Those performed in conjunction with the failed Fidelios suggest the composer’s symphonic leanings got the better of him, according to Smith.

“I do not believe there was anything particularly wrong with Beethoven‘s first overture from 1805, which we now call ‘Leonore No. 2,’ but he chose to expand it for the second production,” Smith says. “That second overture, which we now call ‘Leonore No. 3,’ is a great symphonic piece, but it lasts 17 minutes, which is way too long for the overture to an opera.”

Beethoven wrote a completely new overture in 1814, which is now the standard opening to the opera.

The Madison Opera has chosen to present Fidelio in the 19th-century setting in which it originated, with sets on loan from the Michigan Opera Theater and costumes procured from the Utah Opera. Director Tara Faircloth, an opera veteran making her Madison Opera debut, will stick to the basics in order to make the composer’s musical and dramatic points stronger.

Fidelio is not an elaborate opera — there are no dancers waltzing through ballrooms,” Smith says. “But the theatrical framework sets off the intensity of the music and the emotional truth of the drama.”

The roles of Leonore and her husband Florestan will be played by rising stars new to the parts, Smith says, but not new to the Madison Opera. Dramatic soprano Alexandra LoBiano, a singer finding national success, sang the romantic lead of Amelia in A Masked Ball in 2012. And last spring, tenor Clay Hilley sang Father Grenville in Dead Man Walking.

A mix of veterans and new singers fleshes out the cast. Kelly Markgraf and Matt Boehler are returning to the Madison Opera as the villainous Don Pizarro and guard Rocco, respectively. David Blalock, Liam Moran and Wisconsin native Alisa Jordheim will fill other lead roles. 

On stage

Madison Opera performs Beethoven’s opera Fidelio at 8 p.m. on Nov. 21, and 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 23 at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, 221 State St. Tickets range from $18 to $125. For more information, call 608-258-4141 or visit madisonopera.org.

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