Beethoven's only opera, "Fidelio," was among his cherished but most troubling compositions. After 10 years of redrafts, which saw him score four different overtures, the final version received its world premiere in 1814.
It was during his early years in Bonn that Ludwig van Beethoven was first drawn to the dramatic form of opera, and from then on in, he was constantly on the lookout for material on which to base pieces of his own. He regularly explored literary works with this in mind, but invariably discarded them after a few initial sketches. The creative path that ultimately led to his only performed opera, "Fidelio," was a decade-long struggle characterized by disappointments and compromises.
"The whole business with the opera ('Fidelio') is the most cumbersome in the world. There is a great difference between reflection and being able to submit oneself to rapture. In short, I can assure you, the opera will earn me the martyr's crown," wrote Beethoven in 1814. At the time, he was working on the third and final version of the work, which was enthusiastically received when it premiered at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna on May 23, 1814.
Soon thereafter, it was playing across Europe to great acclaim.
The Vienna theater world became aware of Beethoven after the successful premiere of his ballet music "The Creatures of Prometheus." Until that point, he had only been known for his instrumental compositions. In spring 1804, he was commissioned by the director of the new opera house, Theater an der Wien, to compose a new opera based on the French work, "Leonore, or the Triumph of Married Love." The libretto, which draws on a true story from the era of the French Revolution, had been successfully set to music several times in the past.
The story of Leonore, who dresses as a man and risks her life to liberate her husband after he was imprisoned for his political beliefs, spoke to Beethoven's concept of opera. Seeing the work as his chance to express his personal enthusiasm for the ideals of the French Revolution, he set to work immediately, and completed the score in autumn 1805.
A rocky road
But the premiere on November 20, 1805, in Theater an der Wien was a fiasco for the composer. The opera was pulled after just two performances, and the press was disparaging. "A new Beethoven opera: Fidelio or the Triumph of Married Love, did not go over well," one review read. "There are some pretty moments in the music, but it is a long way from being a complete, much less a successful piece of work."
One of the biggest reasons for this failure was the unlucky premiere date: Just a week earlier, Napoleon's troops had occupied Vienna, and the city's residents were in no mood for theatrical entertainment. Many had fled, and the audience predominantly consisted of French soldiers who understood nothing of the German texts, and on whom Beethoven's message of liberation was totally lost.
In his disappointment, Beethoven immediately started to rework the opera. His old friend Stephan von Breuning tightened up the text, and compressed the three acts into two. But even this shortened version, which was presented to the world on March 29, 1806, only achieved moderate success, and the libretto in particular drew criticism. The "Wiener Theater-Zeitung" wrote: "It is incomprehensible how the composer could decide to animate this trivial text with his beautiful music."
It took another eight years, until 1814, for renewed interest in "Fidelio" to emerge. Beethoven immediately began to rework what he described as his "favorite child," which had caused him the greatest "birth pains."
In a letter to librettist Georg Friedrich Treitschke, he complained that it would be faster to write something new. "The score for the opera is the worst I have ever seen, I have to go through it note by note," he said.
But he completed, and even conducted, the new version, which premiered at Vienna's Theater am Kärntnertor on May 23, 1814, to a rapturous reception. Georg Friedrich Treitschke described the opera as perfectly rehearsed, saying, "Beethoven conducted, and although his passion often threw him off-beat, the Kapellmeister was behind him, steering everything with his eyes and his hands. Most pieces of music received hearty, even tumultuous applause, and the composer was called onto the stage after both the first and second acts."
For Beethoven's contemporaries, "Fidelio" quickly became a symbol of the successful fight against Napoleon, and rapidly took Germany and Europe by storm. Goethe, who at the time was director of the court theater in Weimar, included the opera in the 1816 program. In 1823, Carl Maria von Weber directed the first performance in Dresden. In 1830, it sounded in Paris for the first time, followed by its debut in London one year later.
But perhaps the greatest mark Beethoven's opera made anywhere was in Leipzig, where a 16-year-old Richard Wagner took it in, and decided he wanted to become an opera composer.
The composer later reflected: "When I look back at my whole life, I see few events of similar importance to this one in terms of the effect they had on me."