Fidelio was Beethoven’s only foray into opera. It is based on a popular story at the time, Léonore, or Conjugal Love, by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly. It is from the genre of ‘rescue drama’ that emerged from the French Revolution and its aftermath and is supposedly an account of an actual episode. A political prisoner is saved from imminent murder by a bitter rival through the bravery of his wife. Leonore dresses up as a youth and takes the name Fidelio. She gets work in the prison where her husband, Florestan, is being cruelly held and manages to save him and release fellow prisoners, and denounce their gaolers.
Vienna was being threatened by the French while Beethoven was working on Fidelio in 1805. He transposed the story to a gaol in Spain but the opera is nevertheless a fairly transparent indictment of French tyranny against the people. It was staged just days after French troops seized Vienna and French officers were well in evidence at its first performance. It ran for three nights only.
Beethoven reworked the opera and its overture several times, settling finally on the title Fidelio in 1814. The Leonore Overture No. 3 was substituted for two earlier versions in 1806 and is the most rewarding of the overtures in fully rehearsing the main themes of the opera. Its magnificent solemn, measured opening sets the scene for the high themes of personal good and evil. It develops with themes from the prisoners’ hymn to liberty and Florestan’s arias celebrating the springtime of life. Trumpet calls punctuate the story and are answered with Leonore’s song of thanks before rising to the final triumphal statement.
A subtitle of the story and the opera is Conjugal Love and this runs in counterpoint to the heroic themes throughout Fidelio. Beethoven, himself unlucky in love, brings these themes together in the Finale to present the unity of them and express all that he yearned for. The victorious principal characters are in dialogue with the chorus to celebrate
release and victory, rising to an ecstatic hymn of praise to the ‘noble wife’ who has rescued her husband.