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One opera seems perfect for this New Year’s Day. It portrays a triumph over tyrannical abuse and an affirmation of the dignity and worth of human beings against a backdrop of hope and love. It is Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” op. 72, completed in its final version in 1815. “Fidelio” is a tale of love, intrigue and of political prisoners. It is based on a historically verified incident that occurred during the French Reign of Terror in Tours in 1790. The work’s hero is a woman, Leonore, who disguises herself as a man (Fidelio) to gain entry to a prison, where her husband, Florestan, is being held for political crimes. Through her tireless efforts, Florestan is sustained, emotionally and physically, and ultimately gains his freedom. Beethoven portrays the facts of his times, in which petty monarchs could and did imprison all they suspected of opposing them without any semblance of process. Here a couple of choice scenes from the wonderful Metropolitan Opera performance from 2003 under the baton of James Levine, Ben Heppner sings the role of Florestan and Karita Mattilla sings Leonore/Fidelio.
In the moving finale of the first act, Fidelio, without the permission of the prison warden, lets the prisoners out to experience a few minutes of sunlight and fresh air as she searches through their ranks for her husband.
Florestan is an advocate of freedom and democracy who refused to bend to the demands of a petty tyrant, who ordered him locked away. He sings of his misery in prison, where his jailers hope to crush him and his spirit, but his somber tones turn to defiance and a resolve to seek freedom, the word “Freiheit” rings repeatedly through the last lines.
Shortly before the work’s conclusion, Florestan is set free by his wife Leonore, and they sing a duet, “O Joy Without Name,” which the stress falling on the word “Freude,” an suggestion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its concluding hymn drawn from the Schiller Ode.
The rousing finale: the prisoners are set free, and they emerge into the sunlight and the promise of a new day. The prison guards come again: Don Pizarro, the intriguer who falsely sent Florestan and many others to prison, is himself hauled away to await a restored justice.
As Wilhelm Furtwängler reminds us, “Fidelio” often seems less an opera than an act of religious devotion. Beethoven’s music is a ringing appeal to the human conscience, a reminder of the essential role of freedom in a society worthy of humanity and a sharp admonition of the collective duty of care and fairness that society as a whole bears to those who are imprisoned in its name. It is an opera for the age of Bush. Our march to the sunlight still awaits, on January 20.
More from Scott Horton:
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Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."