Fidelio, Ludwig van Beethoven's only opera, takes as its subject a theme close to the composer's heart: the defeat of tyranny through man's innate desire for liberty. The first version of the opera, premiered in 1805 under the title Leonore (the name of the heroine), was staggeringly unsuccessful. This was largely the result, however, of circumstances beyond Beethoven's control: Vienna was then occupied by Napoleon's troops, who made up a large part of the audience. It seems likely that the Beethoven-loving but troubled Viennese had more pressing concerns than attending such an entertainment. And the members of Napoleon's army might not have appreciated the opera's themes, which ran counter to the soldiers' very presence in Vienna.
Beethoven retooled the opera in 1806, shuffling certain sections and making cuts. In this form Leonore was revived with considerable success, although Beethoven withdrew the opera from performance because of suspicions that he was not receiving his full share of the proceeds. In 1814 Beethoven revised the opera yet again, changing its name to Fidelio. This final version was a success, both in the theater and in the composer's own esteem, and it is this version that is generally regarded as the "definitive" incarnation of the opera. Each of the three "Fidelios" featured a different overture: the first version used what is now called the Leonore Overture No. 2; the second, Leonore No. 3; and the final used the Fidelio Overture. (Beethoven composed Leonore No. 1 for a Prague staging which never took place.) Though rarely heard in performances of the complete opera, each of the "Leonore" overtures has retained a place in the concert repertory.
The original libretto was fashioned by Joseph Sonnleithner after Jean Bouilly's Leonore (1798). The text for the final version was reworked by the Leipzig-born playwright and poet Georg Friedrich Treitschke, whom Beethoven had met in 1811. The story concerns Leonore, who is trying to free her political-prisoner husband, the Spanish nobleman Florestan, from the prison of the evil Pizarro by disguising herself as a man, Fidelio, and working in the prison.
Highlights from the score include the Act One quartet "Mir ist so wunderbar," which is certainly the most famous excerpt from the opera; Marcellina's Act One aria, "O wär' ich schon mit dir vereint," in which she discloses her burgeoning love for Fidelio; Florestan's Act One aria, "In des Lebens Frühlingstagen," which he sings in his cell thinking of his wife; and the lovely "O namenlose Freude," a moving duet between Florestan and Leonore that follows her foiling of the murder plot. There is much spoken dialogue throughout Fidelio; some have cited this aspect in criticism, saying that it robs the work of its momentum. That view is a minority one, however, and Fidelio has generally been held in high critical esteem; despite its sometimes shaky plot, the music is unassailably great and blazes with Beethoven's steadfast commitment to liberty and humanity. Fidelio makes explicit the strand of political idealism that seems to simmer beneath the surfaces of many of his other works, and if it does not have the universal appeal of some of his better-known orchestral classics, it nevertheless seems very close to Beethoven's own heart.