Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Fidelio is an opera in two acts by Ludwig van Beethoven. The libretto is by Joseph Sonnleithner from the French of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly.

Like much else in Beethoven's career, the opera involved considerable struggle on the composer's part, and it went through several versions before achieving full success. It was first produced in a three act version in Vienna on November 20, 1805. It was subsequently condensed to two acts by Breuning, at which time Beethoven wrote a new overture (Leonore no. 3). In this form the opera was first performed on March 29, 1806 under the title "Leonore," but was again revised by Georg Friedrich Treitschke (text) and Beethoven (music) in 1814. It is this last version, first performed on May 23, 1814 with the title Fidelio, that achieved a great success in its day and has been a central element of the operatic repertory ever since.

The opera is a central work of Beethoven's so-called "middle period," and like much of Beethoven's music of this time it emphasizes heroism and the struggle for liberty. There can be little doubt that Beethoven was attracted to Bouilly's story because of the opportunity it offered to set these ideas and feelings to music.

As elsewhere in Beethoven's vocal music, the music is not especially kindly to the singers. The principal parts of Leonore and Florestan, in particular, require great vocal skill in order to project the necessary intensity without screaming or shouting, and top performances in these roles attract admiration.

Some notable moments in the opera include the Prisoner's Chorus, an ode to freedom sung by a chorus of political prisoners, Florestan's hallucinating vision of Leonore come as an angel to rescue him, and the highly melodramatic scene in which the rescue finally takes place. The finale achieves great intensity by alternating soloists and chorus, thus anticipating similar passages in the Ninth Symphony.

The Overtures to Fidelio

Beethoven struggled to produce an appropriate overture for Fidelio, and ultimately went through four versions. His first attempt, for the 1805 premiere, is believed to have been the overture now known as Leonora no. 2. Beethoven then focused and intensified this version for the performances of 1806, creating Leonora no. 3. The latter is considered by many listeners as the greatest of the four overtures, but as an intensely dramatic, full-scale symphonic movement in sonata form it had the defect of overwhelming the (rather light) initial scenes of the opera. Beethoven accordingly experimented with cutting it back somewhat, for a planned 1807 performance in Prague; this is believed to be the version now called Leonore no. 1. Finally, for the 1814 revival Beethoven began anew, and with fresh musical material wrote what we now know as the Fidelio overture. As this somewhat lighter overture seems to work best of the four as a start to the opera, Beethoven's final intentions are generally respected in contemporary productions.

Conductors of Fidelio who yearn to include the music of Leonore no. 3 has sometimes performed it between the two scenes of the second act. In this location, it acts as a kind of musical reprise of the rescue scene that has just taken place.


Place, a Spanish States prison in the vicinity of Seville.

Don Florestan, a courtier of noble character and a favourite of the king, determines to thwart the traitorous designs of Don Pizarro, who thereby becomes his bitter enemy. Florestan mysteriously disappears, and all search is fruitless. Leonore, his faithful wife, suspects that Pizarro has captured him, and, disguised as a youth under the name of Fidelio, she enters the service of Rocco, the jailor of the States prison of which Pizarro is the governor. To her horror she finds that she is not mistaken. She runs great risk of discovery, as the daughter of Rocco falls in love with the supposed youth, and Rocco, with whom she has also found favour, desires to unite them. Léonore is enabled to visit the underground dungeons and finds her husband. The cruel Pizarro has condemned him to death by famine, but determines to hasten his end, as the powerful minister, Don Fernando, a friend of Florestan, is coming to inspect the prison. Rocco and Fidelio are compelled to dig a grave, as Pizarro intends to murder Florestan before the minister arrives. Leonore succeeds in saving her husband with the aid of Don Fernando, who arrives opportunely. The villain Pizarro receives his well-deserved punishment.

ACT I. Courtyard of the prison. (Duet between Jaquino and Marzelline: "Now, darling, we are alone.") Jaquino is ready to marry Marzelline, but she loves the new assistant, Fidelio. Fidelio is in reality Leonore disguised as a youth. Her husband, Florestan, has disappeared. She suspects Pizarro and believes that Florestan is in the prison. Having gained the confidence of Rocco, she hopes to find her husband. Marzelline desires to win Fidelio's love. (Aria: "Would I were wed to thee.") Rocko is willing (Quartet, Marzelline, Leonore, Rocco, Jaquino: "I feel so strange"; Rocko's aria counselling thrift: "Has one not also gold besides?"). Leonore agrees to everything in order to be allowed to visit the prison, which, however, requires the consent of the governor. (Terzett: "Good, son, good, always have courage.") Pizarro appears, filled with anxiety, as he has imprisoned Florestan from motives of personal vengeance; and to prevent discovery of this he determines that Florestan must die before the minister's inspection. As Rocco refuses to murder the dying man, he is ordered to uncover an old well in which the prisoner is to be buried. Pizarro himself resolves to do the deed. (Aria of Pizarro: "Ha, what a moment! My vengeance will I cool"; Duet: "Now old man, be quick.") Leonore has been listening and is in despair. (Aria: "Wicked one, whither do you go?") Rocco allows the prisoners to breathe the air at the request of Leonore, who wishes to see her husband. (Finale, chorus of prisoners: "Oh, what joy, in heaven's fresh air.") She cannot find Florestan, but accompanies Rocco to the underground cells, and helps him dig the grave. Pizarro returns and orders the prisoners back to their cells. (Second chorus of prisoners: "Farewell, warm sunlight.")

ACT II. The dark dungeon of Florestan. (Aria: "God, how dark, this dreadful quiet.") He sinks to the ground from weakness, when Rocco and Leonore arrive. (Melodrama: "How cold in this dark dungeon.") Leonore recognises him, but dares not speak and helps to dig the grave. (Duet: "Be brisk and dig cheerily.") Florestan revives and Leonore gives him bread. (Terzett: "May a better world reward you.") Pizarro descends to the dungeon, and is about to stab Florestan, when Leonore throws herself before her husband, and crying, "First kill his wife," points a pistol at Pizarro. This saves her husband, for trumpet calls, heralding the appearance of the minister, are heard, and Pizarro hurries away. (Quartet: "He shall die, but first know who crushes his false heart.") In the following duet ("Oh! endless joy"), Florestan and Leonore express their happiness. Change of scene: Courtyard of the castle. Fernando announces the king's pardon. (Chorus: "Hail to the day, hail to the hour.") Leonore takes the chains from her husband, he is free, and Pizarro is arrested. (Fernando: "You freed him from the grave," and closing chorus: "He who a lovely wife has won.")

References and external links: Plot taken from The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.