Fidelio is an opera in two acts by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is Beethoven's only opera. The German libretto is by Joseph Sonnleithner based on a French story. The opera tells how Leonore, disguised as a prison guard called "Fidelio", rescues her husband Florestan from death in a political prison.
Fidelio is an example of a “rescue opera”, a type of opera which was popular at the time. The hero (or heroine) has to fight against cruel people in order to rescue a lover. It was written at the time of the French Revolution. At this time, ideas about freedom and peace were being talked about by everyone, and this led to wars all over Europe. The famous Prisoners’ Chorus is a song for freedom, just like the last movement of his Ninth Symphony.
Beethoven spent some time working on the opera before he was completely happy with it. The first time it was performed (in 1805) it was a three-act opera called Leonore. There were a lot of French military officers in the audience and they thought they were being criticised. In 1806 it was performed again with two acts and a new overture (now known as "Overture: Leonore No. 3"). But arguments between Beethoven and the theatre management meant there were no more performances. Eight years later Beethoven revised his opera again. This time it was called Fidelio, and it was a great success. It has remained a famous opera ever since.
Jaquino is a prison guard. He wants to marry Marzelline, the daughter of Rocco who is the warden of the prison. But Marzelline has just fallen in love with someone she thinks is a man called Fidelio. Actually Fidelio is a woman who has dressed up as a man so that she can get into the prison where her husband Florestan is a prisoner (he has been arrested for political reasons). She is pretending to return Marzelline’s love so that she can find a way of rescuing Florestan. Rocco says he is happy for Marzelline to marry Fidelio. Fidelio (Leonore) says she will help Rocco with his job of looking after the prisoners. Rocco says she can do this, but there is one prisoner she is not allowed to guard. He has been locked up alone for two years. Leonore thinks it may be her husband, but she is not sure.
Don Pizarro, the military governor of the prison, hears that the prison is going to be looked at by inspectors who make sure that the prison is being properly managed. He knows that he should not have locked Florestan up, so decides to kill him before the inspection starts. He asks Rocco to dig the grave so that he can get rid of the body quickly. Rocco does not want to do this, but has to agree.
Leonore lets the prisoners have a walk in the garden. Rocco tells Leonore that he must help him dig the grave. Rocco is very cross that the prisoners are walking in the garden, but Rocco says they should be allowed because it is the King’s name-day. Rocco says they should be locked up again.
Leonore goes with Rocco to the prisoner. She is still not sure whether it is her husband. She gives him some bread. When Pizarro comes he gets ready to kill Florestan, but Leonore stands between them and tells Pizarro she will shoot him if he comes nearer. A trumpet is heard playing a fanfare because the Minister is arriving.
Outside the prison the Minister says that all the prisoners are now free. He is horrified to find Florestan among the prisoners, because he is his friend. The crowd ask for Pizarro to be punished. Leonore frees her husband from his chains and the crowd say that she is a great heroine.
Beethoven made several changes to the opera at different times. This included writing four different overtures. They are called "Leonore 1", "Leonore 2", "Leonore 3" and "Fidelio". The overture "Fidelio" is the one that is normally heard now at the beginning of the opera. "Leonore 2" was the overture performed at the first performance in 1805. "Leonore 3", composed in 1806, is the most famous of the overtures. "Leonore 1" may have been written in 1805, or it may have been intended for a performance in 1807 in Prague which never took place". Sometimes the "Leonore 3" overture is played during Act II between the two scenes. However, many people think it does not work dramatically there. It is usually heard today as a separate concert piece. The overture "Fidelio" was composed for performances of the opera in 1814.