Fidelio in Dresden, or, Why do women like Fidelio so much?

I went to see Fidelio
in Dresden and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

The Dresden Semperoper premiered a new production of Fidelio
scarcely a month before the fall of East Germany. Much has changed in the
intervening decade. But it doesn’t take much knowledge of German history to
understand why it was a sensation at the time. The prison guards and the
politics are those of the dying East Germany itself, and the crowd that hails
Leonore and Florestan, triumphant fighters for freedom and justice, at the end
of the opera looks no different from the one protesting in Dresden’s streets in
October 1989.

You can read the whole thing here. Excepting the always-excellent orchestra it wasn’t a very good performance but the history is interesting.
I jumped at the chance to see Fidelio, as I always do. (That this one turned out not to be very
good, well, alas, they can’t all be. It had historical and local interest, as
you can read in the full review.) I belong to a not very exclusive club: women
who have a reflexive, excessive love for this opera. I don’t want to speak for
all the other ladies out there but I know enough of them to think that I’m not
alone in this. (We’ve heard all the stuff about the awful libretto and
mismatched acts, and I at least can say, I
don’t care.
The reasons why we love it seem at first painfully obvious:
unlike the majority of women in opera who spend their time onstage pining or
dying, Leonore does stuff. When the men of her world prove helpless, she takes
their place, does their job better than they can themselves, and rescues the
man she loves for the ideals they both believe in. She doesn’t dither or worry,
she takes decisive action. And significantly, she saves him without sacrificing
her life for his. Instead of dying for a two-timing jerk like Gilda, she saves
someone who seems to be worth saving, and acted for a higher, abstract political
purpose as well as for her own love. She gets to triumph through Beethoven’s brutal
vocal writing (we hope), while he’s absent through the whole first act. When he
finally appears he is more often than she brought to extreme grief by Beethoven’s
brutal vocal writing. At the end the chorus hails not him but her.
Leonore is the most decisively, straightforwardly heroic
woman in opera. Her lack of a backstory is an asset, because it isn’t there to
weigh her down. We have no answers to the questions that normally determine a woman’s
existence—her virtue and her beauty. We have to take her as she is, that is to
say judge her as if she were a man, the man she is pretending to be. And we
have no choice but to approve of her. Disapproving of her actions would be to hate
all that is good in the world. No one wants to be on the side of Don Pizarro.
But I think it goes deeper than that. Sometimes it can be
hard to be a woman who loves opera, the genre treats so many of our gender
terribly and you have to satisfy yourself with a very limited range of
representation. It can be hard to be a woman studying classical music in
general, where the two most powerful figures, the Composer and the Conductor were
inevitably, until extremely recently, almost exclusively male. The epitome of
this is, cast in a role he never asked to play, Beethoven, Classical Music’s
Greatest Composer, or, as a recent biography called him, The Universal Composer.
Whose universe are we talking about here? Beethoven’s “heroic style,” though it represents only a small portion of his music, has outsized
importance in his image (see the Secession statue on the right), and also has come to
serve as a keystone of an entire network of representations of the Romantic.
But the figure in the center is inevitably a masculine one. The feminine
Romantic doesn’t get her E-flat major, her Liszt, her Napoleon, her horns. The Romantic
artist, which is to say the Romantic hero, is a man. The woman is, most commonly,
relegated to the status of object.
Except in Fidelio
she gets to be the hero, and she gets her horns (literally, I mean). (That the
plot is a relic of the eighteenth century, well, we can ignore that part right
now.) In Fidelio the Romantic heroic
is given a woman’s voice, a woman in men’s dress because she has to be but
nonetheless a woman’s voice. Here is one of the central works of Beethoven’s
heroic style and that heroism is vested in a woman, a woman who is just as
capable of heroism, and in fact more capable, than anyone else around her. What
everything else has insisted is not our property is, here, finally ours.
How to end this except with this:

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1 Comment

  1. Nie wird es zu hoch gesungen. 🙂 I do love Leonore as Romantic hero, but had not thought about the meta-implications of this. Thanks for the thoughtful piece… and the excuse to listen to Christa Ludwig's "Abscheulicher!" again.