From the surreal Valley of the Fallen we drove on to Madrid. This evening, Shirley and I had tickets for an opera at the gorgeous Teatro Real opera house, Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” We could not have imagined how fitting this opera would be, following on the heels of a visit to the tomb of the dictator who had sentenced countless Spaniards to prison based on their political beliefs.
Teatro Real, Madrid
The opera’s protagonist, Leonore, disguised as a prison guard named “Fidelio,” enters the prison and holds the warden at gunpoint to rescue her husband Florestan from death in a political prison. Most operas end in tragedy; this opera ends with the arrival of the newly-appointed governor who declares Leonore and Florestan heroes and releases all of the prisoners.
Fidelio was the first opera performed in Berlin after the end of World War II, with the Deutsche Oper staging it at the only undamaged theatre, the Theater des Westens, in September 1945. At the time, Thomas Mann remarked: “What amount of apathy was needed [by musicians and audiences] to listen to Fidelio in Himmler’s Germany without covering their faces and rushing out of the hall!”
Theatre des Westens
Not long after the end of World War II and the fall of Nazism, conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler remarked in Salzburg:
“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 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’ which we never found so beautiful or necessary as we do today, after all we have lived through. Herein lies the singular power of this unique opera…. Independent of any historical consideration … the flaming message of Fidelio touches deeply.”
On November 5, 1955, the Vienna State Opera was re-opened with Fidelio, conducted by Karl Böhm. This performance was the first live television broadcast by ORF at a time when there were about 800 television sets in Austria.
Vienna State Opera
The first night of Fidelio at the Semperoper in Dresden on 7 October 1989 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the DDR (East Germany) coincided with violent demonstrations at the city’s main train station. The applause after the “Prisoners’ Chorus” interrupted the performance for considerable time, and the production by Christine Mielitz had the chorus appear in normal street clothes at the end, signifying their role as representatives of the audience. Four weeks later, on 9 November 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of East Germany’s regime.
For us, Beethoven’s soaring music and the contrast between the dark, claustrophobic first act and the joyous exuberance and light of the second allowed us to shake off Franco, and turn towards the glorious art we are about to see in Madrid.
– Beethoven had written to his brothers in despair about his increasing hearing loss in 1802 (“the Heiligenstadt Testament”). He composed Fidelio, his only opera, in 1805; it was a work in progress until 1814. The final version was first performed in Vienna on May 23, 1814. The 17-year-old Franz Schubert was in the audience, having sold his school books to obtain a ticket. The increasingly deaf Beethoven led the performance, “assisted” by Michael Umlauf. This version of the opera was a great success, and Fidelio has been part of the operatic repertory ever since.
– While researching this production of Fidelio with a view to seeing an opera in Madrid, I read that German-Canadian opera tenor Michael Konig was to star, playing the role of Florestan. Hmmm. On further digging, I learned that Konig, a renowned tenor who sings in all the great opera houses of Europe, lives with his wife and four daughters on Haida Gwaii. Whaaaaaat? I popped him an email saying we BC-ers were going to the performance, and he responded immediately, “maybe we could meet.” We didn’t connect, but what a fabulous performance he gave on closing night, and we felt as if we knew him.