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In an early celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven's birthday (b. December 16, 1770), on this week’s WCPE Opera House I'll present the original 1805 version of his only opera. Known then as Leonore, it emerged in its final form on May 23, 1814 as Fidelio. Beethoven had been fine-tuning Leonore since near the end of 1805. In January 1803, Beethoven was appointed composer at Vienna's Theater an der Wien. He and Emanuel Schikaneder (Mozart's librettist for Die Zauberflöte) began planning for a new opera called Vestas Feuer, but by the end of the year those plans were dropped in favor of Leonore, with a libretto by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly adapted from Pierre Gaveaux's 1798 opera Léonor, ou L'amour conjugal.
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Beethoven was fired from the Theater an der Wien in April 1804, but by August had been reinstated; he completed Leonore by the following September. The premiere, originally scheduled for October 15, 1805 was banned by the court censor; the ban was lifted a week later, but another work had by then taken its place. The premiere of Leonore finally took place on November 20; by this time, Vienna had been occupied by the French army, so much of the audience consisted of soldiers. Reviews were generally unfavorable, and lengthy delays in the first act impeded the action. At first Beethoven refused to make any revisions, but in the 1806 revision allowed librettist Stephan von Breuning to reduce the first two acts into one, keeping most of the numbers. Whereas Breuning closed the new first act with the original Act II Finale, Georg Treitschke's final 1814 version contains an entirely new ending for the first act.
The opera takes place in eighteenth-century Seville. The noble Florestan (tenor Julius Patzak) has been imprisoned for political reasons. His wife, Leonore (soprano Paula Baumann), has disguised herself as the boy "Fidelio" and entered the service of the jailer Rocco (bass Georg Wieter). Rocco's daughter Marzelline (soprano Lore Wißmann) has fallen in love with "Fidelio," to the displeasure of the gatekeeper Jacquino (tenor Richard Holm). Leonore discovers that Florestan is in the deepest dungeon and that the evil governor Don Pizzaro (bass-baritone Gerhard Misske) plans to murder him before an imminent ministerial inspection takes place. Rocco and "Fidelio" dig Florestan's grave in the dungeon, and Pizzaro attempts to murder his political rival but is prevented from doing so by Leonore, who reveals herself as Florestan's wife. The arrival of the minister, Don Fernando (baritone Georg Hann), ends the murder attempt. Pizzaro is arrested, and Fernando allows Leonore herself to remove her husband's chains.
Hans Altman conducts the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Chorus in this 1950 Preiser recording, CD number 90468.
From a 1997 DG Arkiv Production recording, with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, here are highlights from Leonore, featuring Kim Begley (Florestan), Hillevi Martinpelto (Leonore), Franz Hawlata (Rocco), Matthew Best (Don Pizzaro), Christiane Oelze (Marzelline), Michael Schade (Jacquino), and Alastair Miles (Don Fernando):
As a bonus, we'll hear a pair of choral works by Beethoven: the 1814 Elegischer Gesang (Elegiac Song) and the 1824 Opferlied (Song of Sacrifice). Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Ambrosian Singers and the London Symphony Orchestra; they're joined in the latter work by soprano Lorna Haywood.
Next Thursday, December 19, we'll present an encore performance--from the Ruocchio Archives--of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, hosted by the late Al Ruocchio (1937-2007). Soprano Renata Tebaldi sings the title role and tenor Mario Del Monaco is her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi. The sleazy Roman police chief is portrayed by bass-baritone George London.
The WCPE Opera House is heard every Thursday evening at 7 o’clock in the Eastern time zone on 89.7 FM in central North Carolina, and we’re streamed online at http://www.theclassicalstation.org.
— W. Robert Chapman, Host of the WCPE Opera House
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Born This Week
- 2 Monday
John Barbirolli 1899
Maria Callas 1923 (90th anniversary of birth)
- 3 Tuesday
José Serebrier 1938 (75th birthday)
- 4 Wednesday
Hamilton Harty 1879
- 5 Thursday
Francesco Geminiani 1687
Vítezslav Novák 1870
José Carreras 1946
Krystian Zimerman 1956
- 6 Friday
Nikolaus Harnoncourt 1929
Henryk Górecki 1933 (80th birthday)
- 7 Saturday Pearl Harbor Remembrance
Pietro Mascagni 1863 (150th anniversary of birth) Daniel Chorzempa 1944
- 8 Sunday
Jean Sibelius 1865
Manuel Ponce 1882
James Galway 1939
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