- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

You and the jailer feel your way carefully down the slippery stone steps, down, down into the dripping, dank dungeon, your passage illuminated only by the occasional spluttering torch jammed into the rough-hewn walls. To either side of the main passage are holding cells jammed tight with cowering masses of prisoners. Some are petty thieves, but most of these skeletal husks had the misfortune to be overheard speaking ill of their violent and vindictive dictator. They may never leave here alive.

Now you are headed for a darkened cell at the end of a long row of stinking pens where you and the jailer are to dig out an ancient cistern. It will serve as the final resting place for the notorious dictator’s greatest opponent, now chained in that cell, a once robust man kept in solitary confinement and slowly starving to death. Surely, you are in one of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi horror chambers.

But this prison is in Seville, Spain, and everyone is speaking German.

And you? Your name is Lenore. You’re disguised as a youth and are accompanying the jailer in hope of saving that prisoner, whom you believe to be your long-lost husband, Florestan, imprisoned by the tyrant Pizarro.

Stories not much different from this appeared daily throughout March and April on cable news and in newspapers and magazines. However, this particular scenario is from Ludwig von Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” first staged nearly 200 years ago. Evocative of its own turbulent times and relevant once again to our own, Beethoven’s one and only opera is, like his Ninth Symphony, an extended hymn to freedom. It is being mounted here this month at DAR Constitution Hall in a new production created by the Washington Opera for its new temporary space.

The production features as the heroically liberated Leonore/Fidelio the aptly named American soprano Susan B. Anthony. Reversing traditional roles, Florestan, the damsel’s freedom-fighting husband in distress, will be sung by tenor Christopher Ventris.

Directed by Francesca Zambello, who was at the helm for the company’s smashingly successful “Of Mice and Men” two seasons back, this production also will benefit from the sure hand of the company’s chief conductor and music director, Heinz Fricke.

Less frequently performed today than the more popular Italian operas of Verdi and Puccini, “Fidelio” is a work that gradually found its audience. Beethoven based it on a French play by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly titled “Leonore, ou L’amour conjugal” (“Leonore, or Married Love”). The play opened to fine reviews. It was part of a popular genre of “rescue drama” in which the hero is saved from evildoers at the last possible moment — something the French, and, indeed, many Europeans could relate to as their corrupt monarchies tried to contain the irresistible and heady spread of freedom inspired by the successful American Revolution.

Originally conceived as a German “singspiel,” or German sung drama with spoken dialogue, “Fidelio” had its first performance in Vienna on Nov. 20, 1805. It wasn’t much of a success because of the chaotic political situation in Vienna and in the rest of Europe as Napoleon turned the French Revolution into an imperialistic dictatorship.

Beethoven withdrew the work and reconceptualized it, revising it and shortening the original from three acts to two. The opera opened again the following year to much greater success, but the composer withdrew it again in a royalty dispute. The final version, the one we usually hear today, received its premiere in 1814.

In its final version, “Fidelio” focused more clearly on the issues of freedom and liberty. Indeed, its most popular elements — the inspiring Prisoners’ Chorus, sung when the dungeon’s wretched inmates are led out for a brief moment of welcome sunshine and a ray of hope; the stirring trumpet call when rescue is at hand; and the final triumphant hymn to freedom — involve the most serious philosophical issues debated in the 19th century and still in play today.

Just recently, a group of female prisoners, including at least one hapless victim of Saddam’s sadistic sons, was discovered and released from the dark bowels of Saddam’s Olympics Headquarters building. Perhaps they, too, blinked in amazement at the daylight and freedom they had thought they had lost forever.

“Fidelio” marked in many ways the musical end of arbitrary aristocracy, as Europe became intoxicated with the American and French idea that all men are created equal. Composers as disparate as Berlioz, Wagner and Verdi championed both freedom and intense nationalism, forever altering the course of government in the Western world.

Wagner’s and Verdi’s increasingly daring operas took these tentative beginnings a step further as opera became less an entertainment for a jaded aristocracy than a popular art form accessible to the middle classes. It is almost impossible for modern audiences to perceive just how revolutionary and threatening many of these works appeared to the ruling class of Europe. Composers, Verdi in particular, were constantly in hot water with the censors — and thus beloved by audiences who appreciated their rebellious spirit.

“Fidelio” marks an interesting transition between the classical and Romantic periods; Beethoven is frequently seen as the earliest champion of the latter. While the openly revolutionary plot of “Fidelio,” along with its liberated heroine and the work’s support of individual freedom and violent action in its defense, are pure early Romanticism, the opera remains an artifact of the classical period in terms of its interpersonal relationships.

There are no love affairs here, no straying from the path of marital fidelity. Leonore is bent on saving her husband, not giving up on him and taking another lover. Florestan, for his part, is doubly tormented. Losing his freedom is bad enough, but the loss of his beloved wife and equal is what makes his captivity unbearable.

As Leonore and Florestan are reunited in the finale, the opera comes to a positive, ringing close, far different from the tragic denouements that become the norm later in the century. Thus, “Fidelio” also becomes a hymn to the sanctity of married love, a theme increasingly uncommon as 19th-century opera moved steadily toward more radical subject matter. For a revolutionary opera, it also is remarkably conservative.

It is serendipitous that the Washington Opera is mounting “Fidelio” a little more than a week after President Bush declared active hostilities in Iraq at an end. The opera is a stirring reminder that freedom is a precious and sometimes fleeting thing, something that cannot be taken lightly or defended halfheartedly. It is clear that the kind of revolution Beethoven envisioned has yet to be completed.

WHAT: Washington Opera’s production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio”

WHERE: DAR Constitution Hall

WHEN: Tonight and May19 at 7 p.m.; Tuesday, Friday and May 21 at 7:30 p.m.; May 24 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $42 to $285

PHONE: 202/295-2400 (or check the Washington Opera Web site at www.dc-opera.org)

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