Setting: Early 2000’s, somewhere in remote middle America
Near the beginning of our process, Maestro McDonald told me about his reading of Fidelio as Beethoven's Freudian wish-fulfillment…the composer desperately wished to marry, and wished for the liberal republican Europe promised by Napoleon. In life, these were left unfulfilled. He never found his perfect wife, and when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France in 1804, a disillusioned Beethoven removed the dedication that he had placed on the “Eroica” symphony. In writing Fidelio, Beethoven creates a world where his betrayed ideals can be fleshed out: where the kind of moral absolutes he yearned for in his marriage and in politics can operate. These are absolutes that can only survive when they are never questioned from more than one angle. Examined from within the individual relationships in the opera, the absolutes are maintained; examined with a view of all the relationships from above, Fidelio is an opera full of musical, dramatic, and moral vagaries.
The heroes of Fidelio have their absolutes fulfilled in action, but only as they pertain to the track of a single relationship. Leonore, as Rocco describes her in the finale, is "der Frauen zierde," a credit to womanhood. She is virtuous in that she is unflaggingly faithful -- but only to Florestan. In her quest to rescue her husband, she is willing to deceive a naïve young woman, knowingly sacrificing Marzelline’s and her father Rocco’s happiness for her own. Rocco only dubiously justifies abetting Florestan's murder, presumably to maintain his own comfort, but also to protect the only person in his life, his daughter Marzelline. The reasons for Florestan’s imprisonment are left murky. He tells us in his aria "wahrheit wagt ich kühn zu sagen, und die Katten sind mein Lohn" [I boldly dared to speak the truth, and chains are my reward]. But we don't know what this truth was: revealing injustice, informing on accomplices, or even a confession of his own crimes. Pizarro is a super-villain only in how he treats Florestan, and in our telling, only in his own self-image. Don Fernando, the deus-ex-machina, appears at the eleventh hour to rescue Florestan, citing no reason other than their previous friendship. He also presumably frees all the other prisoners, about whose innocence or guilt we have no information. (I fantasize that Fernando is a reference to Neptune's appearance in the end of Idomeneo, in its own right an operatic anachronism of Mozart, whose operatic writing Beethoven idolized.)
Leonore and Florestan get their happy ending, but at what cost? The libretto doesn't tell us if the jilted Marzelline ultimately finds happiness reuniting with Jacquino. (I take their musical union in the final ensemble as a hint that she does.) Nothing is said of what becomes of Rocco and Pizarro, both caught by Fernando in their varying levels of human-rights violations. I imagine that Fernando would not prevent the newly freed prisoners from throwing Pizarro into the cell where Florestan had been held, leaving Rocco in the same ethical dilemma as before, only with a new victim and a new boss. So ultimately, Beethoven's Freudian wish-fulfillment is denied in the opera as it was denied in life…but only if we choose to look at the situation from more than one perspective at a time. The discrepancy between the score and the libretto of Fidelio, so often criticized or described diplomatically as a challenge, I see instead as a luxury. We can have our triumphant choruses, and our narrative complexities, and eat them too. Perhaps Beethoven's conflict between a flawed human reality and the neat resolution he knew was impossible is what led him to struggle through so many versions of Fidelio, giving us that much more glorious material to experience.