In referring to Fidelio as Beethoven’s only opera, we often overlook the fact that for all its preliminary versions it was also his first opera. As such, it has been pointed out that Fidelio, which Beethoven began composing when he was 34 years old, is “the best first opera ever written.” Writes Paul Robeson in The Cambridge Opera Handbook: Fidelio:
“Certainly, it surpasses the first efforts of better-known opera composers: Wagner’s Die Feen, Verdi’s Oberto, Puccini’s Le Villi, and Richard Strauss’ Guntram.”
(We would observe that the little whippersnapper, Wolfgang Mozart, composed his first opera – La finta semplice – at the age of 12, so comparisons to Beethoven here are inappropriate. We’d further observe that he was just 30 years old when he composed The Marriage of Figaro; 32 years old when he composed Don Giovanni; and 33 years old when he composed Cosí fan tutte. Freak.)
As his “first” opera and as a slow worker, Beethoven labored long and hard on Fidelio. It began its life with the title Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (meaning “Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love”). The opera is a setting of a German-language libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner which was based on a French language play by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly (1763-1842) entitled Léonore, ou L’Amour conjugal (“Leonore, or marital love”).
Beethoven composed the first, three-act version of Leonore in 1804, soon after completing his Symphony No 3. That first version received its premiere at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on November 20, 1805.
The opera was not a success and Beethoven was not satisfied with it. Returning to his proverbial “drawing board” (in reality, it was an ink, food, and coffee-stained wooden table pulled up next to his piano), he significantly shortened the work, cutting its three acts down to two, and composed for it a new overture (one today known as “Leonore No.3”). This version of the opera was performed at the Theater an der Wien on March 29 and April 10, 1806, with considerably more success than the first version. (It would have continued to be performed, presumably with success, if Beethoven hadn’t gotten into one of his trademark spats with the theater management, which proceeded to cancel the run).
Beethoven overhauled the opera once again in 1814, this time making significant changes. He brought in a new librettist – Georg Friedrich Treitschke (1776-1842) – rewrote much of the opera and composed yet another overture (this one known simply as the “Overture to Fidelio”). Under the title Fidelio, this version of the opera received its premiere in Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theateron May 23, 1814. …Become a Patron!