Opera: Beethoven's other opera

Everyone has heard of Fidelio, but what about Leonore? Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, WNO producers, tell Nick Kimberley why they think the earlier work is the real masterpiece
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The Independent Culture

Beethoven, the history books tell us, wrote only one opera. Fidelio had its premiere in Vienna in 1814, when the composer's fame was at its zenith. The opera's depiction of the triumph of love over adversity, of liberty over tyranny, has ensured it a place in the repertoire ever since. Of course, Beethoven had two earlier attempts at writing it, in 1805 and 1806, but the versions known as Leonore represent false starts before the final clear run that is Fidelio.

That, though, is not how Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier see it. Having already staged Fidelio for Welsh National Opera, they are now in Cardiff to direct the original Leonore, the first professional production of that opera in Britain for decades. In fact, their productions of both Leonore and Fidelio were seen back to back in Paris in 1997, so they have had plenty of opportunity to compare and contrast; and they are a long way from falling in with the familiar judgement, "Leonore bad, Fidelio better."

As Leiser points out, the circumstances of the original production of Leonore set the seal on its reputation as a flop. In November 1805, Napoleon's army had occupied Vienna; among those who had fled the city were many of Beethoven's most fervent admirers; those left behind were hardly in the mood for nights at the opera: "I don't think it's the case that Leonore didn't work, and that he only achieved what he wanted in Fidelio," Leiser says. "When Leonore opened, the theatre was half-empty, and those who were there were French soldiers who didn't understand German, and had no idea what Beethoven's music was about. No wonder it was a fiasco."

After just three performances in the Austrian capital, the opera was withdrawn. When it briefly resurfaced in 1806, Beethoven took the opportunity to make revisions to both the music and the libretto. In Leiser's view, the changes were not all for the good: "Of course Beethoven was depressed by the first performances, and he listened to people who told him that Leonore was too long. When he worked on it again in 1806, he turned its three acts into two; and when he made his revisions for Fidelio in 1814, he cut and compressed a lot more.

"He made it more concise, but what you gain in Fidelio in terms of extreme tension, you lose in organic development. That's why every director says that it's the most difficult opera to stage. In a way Fidelio is less believable than Leonore. When you have worked on the latter, and then you listen once again to the former, you are amazed at the cuts he made. For me, Leonore really is the great opera, while Fidelio is fantastic, but flawed."

According to Caurier, staging the two operas has allowed them to follow Beethoven's philosophical trajectory, and to an extent it's the familiar passage from optimism to disillusionment: "It was an interesting opportunity to look at Beethoven's first gesture. With a composer of that stature, why not find out what they wanted first? What we found was that that they are two quite different pieces. Leonore is more intimate, more human, and its three-act structure makes a more logical progression from the domestic, to the public and political aspects of the piece, then down into Florestan's cell, where the tragedy lies. It has more of the revolutionary spirit, or at least the sense of a new era dawning. By the time he came to Fidelio ten years later, there had been a political evolution in him, and I think he had lost some of his illusions."

Leiser points out that, for example, the original version of Rocco's "Gold" aria has considerably more political bite in the first version than it has in the later version: "In Leonore, Rocco sings that rich people's money allows them to disguise things of which they should be ashamed. That's quite a powerful political statement, and it's less powerful in Fidelio. But the real subject of the opera, in all its forms, is Leonore herself, the woman who disguises herself as a man to save her husband from prison. That's why the sub-title of Leonore is 'The triumph of married love'. The whole piece is a hymn to the courage of a woman in the face of tyranny."

To that extent, Leonore is the better title, since the character of Fidelio only exists while Leonore is in disguise. Fidelio, though, has the more portentous ring to it. One characteristic common to the opera in all its versions is its generic type: it is a Singspiel, in which speech carries the action forward, while music is reserved for key emotional and dramatic moments. It's a notoriously difficult form to pull off, as Caurier acknowledges: "There's always a problem in moving organically from the dialogue into the music, to find the intensity that will take you from speech into song. Here at Welsh National Opera, none of the singers is German. It's easier for them to find the right emphases when they're singing in a foreign language, because if the music works properly, the accents fall naturally. When they are speaking, they have to find the emphases for themselves."

Leiser picks up the point: "This is the form that Beethoven wanted, so the singers have to pay as much respect to the spoken text as to the music, and we spend as much time in rehearsal on the dialogue as on the music. But we're not after a naturalistic, veristic way of speech. It has to have the same intensity, the same energy as the passages with music. The singers have to be able to make the dialogue their own."

If that happens (and Leiser and Caurier are quietly optimistic that it will), we may have to rethink some of our ideas about how Beethoven arrived at his "only" opera. At the very least, Welsh National Opera's touring production adds further detail to our picture of Beethoven, and for that we should be grateful.

'Leonore' is at New Theatre, Cardiff, 12 & 19 September, 4 October (029-2087 8889), then touring