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When the world’s greatest composer writes only a single opera, it’s entitled to instant respect.  Although he considered such other deep and inspiring sources as Macbeth, Ulysses and Faust, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote and stuck with only Fidelio, a silly tale with cardboard characters and a contrived plot. Why was he so attracted and devoted to this seemingly trifling work?

In notes for his 1950 Salzburg production, Wilhelm Furtwängler wrote that “Fidelio is a Mass, not an opera – its emotions touch the borders of religion. … After all we have experienced and suffered in recent times, this religious faith has never seemed so essential as it does today. … This is what constitutes the unique power and grandeur of Fidelio. … What Beethoven was trying to express in Fidelio cannot be encompassed by any form of historical classification but extends beyond the narrow limits of a musical composition – it touches the heart of every human being and will always appeal directly to the conscience of Europe.”

Furtwängler, of course, was reacting to the recent grievous traumas and losses of World War II – and perhaps was hoping to deflect memory of his country’s atrocities through artistic idealism. Writing in 1979, Rodney Milnes goes even further – he asserts that all over the world today countless Pizarros, with the aid of as many Roccos “carrying out orders” try to silence Florestans who dare to tell the truth. Yet, he asks, where are our Leonores – “Are they only to be found in opera houses?” Their points are well-taken – the true power of Fidelio has nothing to do with Spain or the French Revolution, but rather the aspiration of every human soul for justice, and its timeless message is as much a contemporary warning as an historical lesson. Beethoven’s opera is not a discrete story or an abstract theoretical concept but arises from the very depths of the human condition and bolsters the ideals that resonate within each of us.

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Leonie Rysanek, sings Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin? from Fidelio.

Conducted by Eugen Jochum, recorded live 1957 in Rome.