Karita Mattila as Leonore and Richard Margison as Florestan in  “Fidelio” in 2006. Beethoven had an “ideal of this incredible, strong woman who saves her husband through her love,” says Antony Walker, who will conduct “Leonore,”  forerunner to “Fidelio,” at the Lisner Auditorium on March 5. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Classical music critic

“The idea of a strong female who ends up liberating somebody who’s been unjustly imprisoned, and helping bring down a powerful, evil person, I think still really resonates today,” says the conductor Antony Walker. 

He’s describing the plot of “Fidelio,” Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera. And it resonates indeed. Throughout the 20th century, this story of a woman who disguises herself as a man to infiltrate the prison where her husband is unjustly confined (the opera’s subtitle is “Conjugal Love”) has been a beacon of heroic freedom and resistance to injustice. “Fidelio” was the first opera performed in Germany after the end of World War II; the prisoner’s chorus, an ode to freedom, has become a veritable anthem. And more than one stage director has moved the opera to a contemporary setting — including Jürgen Flimm’s powerful production, set in a 20th-century prison camp, which returns to the Metropolitan Opera on March 16. 

But the plot was just as resonant in 1805 when Beethoven premiered the piece he initially called “Leonore” (the heroine’s name) rather than “Fidelio” (the name she assumes as a man). In France, around the time of the French Revolution, “rescue operas” — in which characters are saved from perilous situations — enjoyed a great vogue. One of these was “Léonore,” written in 1798 by Pierre Gaveaux, a now-forgotten tenor and composer, and popular for several years after its premiere. The libretto Gaveaux used, by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, became the basis for several other operas, including versions by Ferdinando Paer and Simon Mayr as well as Beethoven’s “Leonore;” all three of these opened in 1804 and 1805, although Beethoven’s final, hard-won version, “Fidelio,” didn’t come to the stage until 1814. 

Not everyone feels that “Fidelio” is the definitive take on the story; but not many people have had a chance to experience all of its antecedents. This month, however, audiences in Washington and New York will have a chance. On Feb. 19, Opera Lafayette will give the modern premiere of the Gaveaux work, which has lain nearly forgotten since the early 19th century (it will go to New York later that week). And on March 5, Walker will lead the Washington Concert Opera in the 1805 “Leonore,” which is the version of Beethoven’s work that Walker has always preferred. If you go to the Met production, as well, you can see three different versions of the same opera. 

“It’s exactly the same story,” says Ryan Brown, the founder, conductor and artistic director of Opera Lafayette, of the Gaveaux piece. “Beethoven had the Bouilly libretto and was working with it. What we don’t know is whether he saw a copy of the [Gaveaux] score. After doing this [piece]” — Brown has been rehearsing “Léonore” for months — “I tend to think he did. But it’s one of those cases — Okay, that’s the same response to this situation in the libretto musically, the same use of figuration; is that just a trope of the time or did Beethoven hear [Gaveaux’s interpretation] and then make it so much more complicated?”

“Fidelio” is one of a number of operatic masterpieces that hover between two genres. It represents an uncertain juxtaposition of comedy, with the story of the jailer’s pretty daughter and her suitors, and high drama, with the story of a prisoner wasting away in a dungeon, rescued by his wife. The discrepancy stems from Bouilly’s libretto, which was purportedly based on a true story (perhaps a reason it doesn’t lend itself to neat pigeonholing), and every composer who has taken it on has wrestled with it. Mayr focused entirely on the humor; his opera based on this material is a one-act work he categorized as a “sentimental farce.” Paer tried to create a more Mozartian take that dips in and out of humor and seriousness. And this balance was one of the things that kept Beethoven struggling with the work for so many years.

“You start off with this sort of domestic comedy,” says the WCO’s Walker. “Then you find out about the man in the dungeon, and you start thinking very strange thoughts about Rocco [the jailer]: How can he just be sort of the jolly guy whose day job is actually helping to stab somebody to death? It’s the dilemma of the everyday person in that time, and still today it resonates. Ordinary, good people being put into intolerable situations.” Indeed, it is a modern trope: the loving family man who perpetrates acts of cruelty because he is just following orders. 

Beethoven’s 1805 “Leonore” is considerably longer than the 1814 “Fidelio”: It extends over three acts rather than two and contains several entire numbers that were eliminated from the sparer final version, including a duet for Fidelio and Marzelline, the jailer’s daughter, that Walker calls “sublime,” and a big heroic aria for the villain Pizarro and the men’s chorus. Where “Fidelio” is “more symphonic in scope and more seriously heroic,” its original version presents “a more gradual progression” and arguably a smoother dramatic line, Walker says.

Brown is eager to present both works to his audience, as well. Opera Lafayette will present its own “Leonore” in the 2018-2019 season (financial concerns have led the company to put the production off for a season). In his view, the 1805 “Leonore” has closer links to the Gaveaux than the final “Fidelio,” including lighter voices. He has deliberately cast the Gaveaux opera with native French Canadian singers whom he plans to use in his staging of Beethoven’s “Leonore” as well, to underline the comparison and forward the hypothesis that Beethoven’s later, more heroic work also called for a different kind of voice.

Walker, however, sees Beethoven’s two versions as more closely linked; the same soprano, he points out, sang the title role in 1805 and 1814. There has been much debate about whether that indicates that the role was essentially written for the same voice type, or whether the singer’s voice became heavier with age, as voices tend to do. Walker, in any case, is casting the opera with the kind of Wagner/Strauss voices that have become standard in this piece: Marjorie Owens and Simon O’Neill will sing the leading roles, with Alan Held, who sang Wotan in the Washington National Opera’s “Ring” last year, as Pizarro.

For a modern audience, the main interest of the Gaveaux opera, obviously, is to see how it anticipates Beethoven’s later masterpiece. “We kind of want to have it both ways,” Brown concedes. “We want people to come because they’re heard of it, but we don’t really want them to compare it to what they already know. I think [the Gaveaux opera] really stands up, and you see why people found the story compelling.”

And whether it’s based on fact or not, the story does seem to have undergone a particular alchemy when Beethoven encountered it. “Beethoven never had a relationship that lasted with a female,” Walker points out. “And this ideal of this incredible, strong woman who saves her husband through her love and devotion — he was so passionate about trying to find somebody like that of his own; he never did. I think one of the reasons he was so interested in this was that it combined two topics that were passionate for him: revolutionary zeal and the immortal beloved.”

Opera Lafayette’s “Léonore ” will be performed in Washington at Lisner Auditorium on Feb. 19 and in New York at John Jay College on Feb. 23. The Washington Concert Opera’s “Leonore ” will be performed at Lisner Auditorium on March 5. “Fidelio” will be performed at the Metropolitan Opera from March 16 to April 8.