Tuesday, September 21, 2010

9/21 Beethoven's Fidelio ("Er Sterbe")

Since yesterday was about Beethoven's music in today's movies, how did he actually use music in his own movie?  They didn't have movies of course, but they did have opera and B only wrote one, "Fidelio".  Fidelio has a long and tortuous history and frankly opera was not B's strong point in my opinion.  However I think he felt pressured to write one because opera was considered the true mark of a composer in those days, and also because Mozart had done so many great operas (and B greatly admired Mozart). 
First a personal note about opera - I hate opera.  Actually I don't hate it, but of all classical music styles this is the hardest for me to really enjoy.  Part of it is because of all those "fat lady in a Viking helmet" stereotypes, and partly because operatic singing is so alien to popular singing styles of today.  Upon first listening it just sounds so forced and artificial.  The sound of a string quartet can be fairly innocuous, but Maria Callas at full throttle is hard to put on as background music so it's not as ubiquitous.  Fortunately the two B's, Beethoven and Bernstein, slowly helped me to appreciate opera (to some degree anyways). At the bottom of today's post I'll add the Leonard Bernstein Fidelio appreciation TV show.  One thing to mention that I learned from Lenny is that opera is the only musical artform where more than one person can be talking (singing) and still make sense.  In fact because several people can be singing at once, you can get an amazing and unique collage of emotion and sentiment.  One person can be singing about how she loves the guy, the guy can be singing about how he loves some other girl, and the girl's father can be singing about how he doesn't trust the guy - all this singing at the same time.  It sounds confusing when described, but in actuality it's pretty magical and feels totally organic.

Back to Fidelio.  Fidelio went through several versions and the first version was a huge flop, mainly due to Napoleon's occupation of Vienna.  Years later it was re-composed, re-arranged and re-staged and was a success.  The whole story of Fidelio's production could be a book by itself.  The story of Fidelio the opera however is basically this:

Leonora's husband Florestan has been jailed for political reasons, so Leonora dresses as a man and calls herself Fidelio so that she can get hired as an assistant to the jail manager, Rocco. The main baddie who arrested Florestan, Pizarro, decides that Florestan must be executed before a certain minister comes and exposes him.  Just as Pizarro is about to shoot, Leonora tries to stop it.  The minister's announcing horn sounds just in the nick of time to stop Pizarro from shooting Leonora and Florestan.  That's it in a very small nutshell, like saying the Lord of the Rings is about some short guys taking a trip to a volcano and they meet people on the way.

So, here's the confrontation scene with Christa Ludwig as Leonora/Fidelio in glorious B&W, the emotion is scalding and just can't be ignored:

Leonard Bernstein's Young Person's Concert episode about Beethoven's Fidelio helped me tremendously to understand and appreciate Beethoven's only opera.  I should save this for a weekend feature since it's pretty long, but what the heck.
Here's part 1 of 5:

You can watch the whole program here in 5 parts (about an hour):
Youtube link

Also here's some very cool Fidelio postcards!

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