Beethoven Beneath the Monolith


Salzburger Festspiele/Monika Rittershaus

The chorus in Claus Guth’s Fidelio, Salzburg Festival, 2015

For the obsessive seeker of meaning, contemporary opera productions can make for some difficult evenings. At its best a new production of a well-known opera will provide some marvelous insight into what the work should mean to us. The trouble is, we can’t know in advance how much sense the production is going to make and therefore don’t know how much effort we should put into deciphering what is going on onstage. It is a tricky matter since this intellectual activity often takes place at the expense of blissful immersion in some splendid passage of music. The controversial new Salzburg production of Beethoven’s Fidelio poses a particularly acute example of the problem.

Fidelio is always challenging. It is Beethoven’s only opera, and he spent ten years revising it after its disastrous 1804 premiere, pressed by the demands of making it at once a dramatically satisfying “rescue” opera and a musical invocation of his post-revolutionary hopes for freedom and justice. Thus in the first act there are dramatic devices familiar from light, comic operas: Leonore disguises herself as a man, Fidelio, to obtain a position at the prison where her husband, the nobleman Florestan, is unjustly jailed; but the chorus of prisoners, singing movingly about their longing for freedom, also signal the gravitas of Beethoven’s deeper themes. The second act begins with Beethoven’s music leading us into the sinister depths of Florestan’s jail—the strings at first playing a low, quiet, brooding note, answered jarringly after a measure by a much higher, louder chord in the woodwinds—and creating the conditions for a thrilling passage from darkness to light. The faithful wife succeeds in rescuing her husband as he is about to be murdered by the prison governor, Don Pizarro, and a Minister of State arrives to end the reign of tyranny at the prison. The chorus of people and prisoners, now in the bright light of the parade ground, celebrate the ideals of liberty and fidelity with music, in the boldly affirmative key of C major, that is both consoling and gloriously uplifting. I once left a particularly stirring performance at the Châtelet wanting to rush into the Paris streets and do something, well, vaguely noble and self-sacrificing.

Unfortunately the libretto supplies little content for the high ideals evoked so powerfully by the music. When assessed in accordance with the usual norms for dramatic performance, such as strong characterization, psychological interest, suspense, and narrative dynamism, Fidelio is famously wanting. As a Singspiel, incorporating spoken dialogue, it can feel stilted to audiences accustomed to modern operas. Directors have often attempted to compensate for these supposed shortcomings with clever staging, whereas conductors have sought to invest such authority in the music that the staging and dialogue become relatively insignificant.

Wilhelm Furtwängler in his performances of the 1940s and 50s made the most powerful case for the latter approach. The moral dignity of Beethoven’s music created, for him, the noblest expression of a German spirit that could survive the catastrophe of the Third Reich and provide the potential for regeneration after it. But the other, directorial approach to Fidelio has not lacked moral and political ambition. Ewald Dühlberg’s radically modernist Weimar-era production (with Klemperer conducting) and Wieland Wagner’s bleakly minimalist post-war production (1955), with its references to the horrors of recent German history, were each searing in their effects.

The Salzburg Festival has, since Herbert von Karajan’s directorship, had a leading part in the interpretation of this challenging opera and it has established a strong tradition of letting political piety give way to philosophical speculation. Karajan’s productions, designed by Helmut Jürgens (1957) and Günther Schneider-Siemssen (1971), had in common an abstraction that resisted any concrete political interpretation, and the wearily pessimistic ending of Schneider-Siemssen’s—in which the darkened stage, enclosed by a cloudy sky, was dominated by a sinister, mysterious tower—implied an encroaching cynicism about the ideals of freedom with which that affirming finale had previously been associated. So as I sat in my eveningwear, anxiously perusing the program notes for the new Rolex-sponsored Salzburg production, directed by Claus Guth–the critically acclaimed German director, twice winner of the “Faust” prize, and a regular guest at Salzburg—I was not shocked by the entirely apolitical approach to the opera they indicated. But I was a little perplexed.

In an interview with the German drama critic Norbert Abels, Guth and his set designer and longtime collaborator, Christian Schmidt, reveal that they view the work as a psychological drama, comprising, as Guth puts it, “a mosaic of the solitudes in which everyone is a prisoner of their very own reaction structure.” The freedom being sought is a liberation from self-inflicted prisons of the mind. This interiority is reflected in their set design, which, Schmidt tells us, was motivated in part by Freud’s idea of the “salon of the unconscious,” presumably meaning the imagined space in which we picture intra-psychic conflict being played out.


An interview with the conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, however, reveals an entirely different and much more Furtwänglerian interpretation of the opera. He insists that “Beethoven is not concerned with penetrating the minds of his characters,” and that he “is not concerned with individual destinies,” but rather with a universal ideal of freedom and equality that is expressed in a musical idea carried throughout the work and finding fulfillment at its end. And as the overture unfolded it was clear that Welser-Möst’s conducting would emphasize the nobility of the score—a nobility realized effortlessly by the Vienna Philharmonic—and that his taut, transparent style would be employed to illuminate the architecture of the music, no matter what conflicting suggestions the director’s staging implied.

During the course of the overture, as the stage set was unveiled, the audience was reassured that the “salon of the unconscious,” though monumental in scale and minimal in content, was a recognizably bourgeois salon, with wooden paneling painted white and an elegant parquet floor. But interpretive challenges quickly arose. The “salon” was dominated by a giant, featureless black rectangle, reminiscent of the enigmatic black monoliths in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the movie these monoliths appear to channel an alien force that shapes human evolution, so those who picked up on the association had to wonder at least in passing whether it suggested an unseen external force directing affairs in the drama, and what relation this might have to the Freudian unconscious.

As the overture ended the production’s perplexing effects seemed only to deepen. Guth’s production deals with the spoken dialogue ruthlessly, excising it entirely. In the nineteenth century it was often replaced with a recitative composed by Michael William Balfe. Wieland Wagner cut it and had a narrator fill in a minimum of essential information. Guth replaces it with “sound installations,” which again place us in the cosmos of 2001. In Kubrick’s film, the first extended shots of space and spacecraft are accompanied by Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, in Karajan’s unerringly elegant recording; when it ends, Kubrick cuts abruptly to an opening electronic door and silence except for its low mechanical hum. In the Salzburg Fidelio, Guth cuts to the slowly rotating monolith and the same mechanical humming overlaid with fainter, more sinister sounds.

The dialogue in Kubrick’s film is sparse and notoriously banal; mechanical sounds and other inarticulate noises accompanying many scenes are employed to provide a more viscerally disturbing commentary on the action. In scenes where the astronauts have to exit their craft to investigate problems, the heavy, close sound of their breathing in their helmets, over long stretches, creates a powerful sense of foreboding. Guth’s production uses the same sound of close breathing in some of the interludes in Fidelio where dialogue is replaced, but what it insinuates here is not clear.

My confusion about these interludes kept intruding on the stirring music that they punctuated. During the Act II trio, here immediately preceded by an episode of heavy breathing, when I would normally be appreciating the tender religiosity of the gentle music—the trio begins with Florestan’s lovely vocal line (doubled first in the soothing strings and then in the hopeful flutes) giving thanks for a drop of water offered by a disguised Leonore—I instead found myself picturing the body of Dr. Frank Poole against the blackness of outer space, unmoored and limp-limbed in his yellow spacesuit, and wondering to myself whether there was some important analogy between Leonore’s or Florestan’s fate and his.

Critics complained that essential information was omitted from the opera by cutting the dialogue, for example the news that the Minister of State, Don Fernando, is soon to arrive to inspect the prison, news that spurs Pizarro’s plot to kill Florestan before his unjust imprisonment is discovered. But the cuts in Guth’s production omit more than plot information. The transitions between the spoken and sung passages in Fidelio indicate something important about the expressive meaning of the music. In the libretto for the sung arias and ensembles, the characters describe their joy and pain as namenlose (inexpressible), their happiness as unaussprechlich (unutterable). On the romantic understanding of musical meaning, music can express what mere words cannot. The contrast between the dialogue and the music makes this palpable. And in those moments, such as the Act I quartet, where the musical meaning seems to transcend completely the meaning of each individual’s words, Beethoven is pointing us towards a higher meaning, a higher hope, than the ones expressed by the limited characters on stage. The contrast between mere mechanical noise and music cannot serve the same dramatic function.


Perhaps the production offers us, instead, a different form of meaning—an exploration of the human psyche and its self-imposed limitations. Further complexity may be found in the form of doppelgängers who shadow Leonore and Don Pizarro, the two characters involved in deception and therefore leading, in some sense, double lives. Leonore’s shadow, a feminine counterpart of Fidelio, tries frantically to communicate with the audience through signs. I was momentarily moved by the thought of Beethoven’s deafness but otherwise uncomprehending. The Pizarro pairing was both more distracting and intriguing since it bore a clear allusion to the film The Matrix.

Florestan Fidelio.jpg

Salzburger Festspiele/Monika Rittershaus

Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan in Fidelio, Salzburg Festival, 2015

Both Pizarros are dressed in the long black coats and distinctive black sunglasses familiar from that film, so beloved of philosophy students, in which the world as it appears to human beings is in fact an elaborate simulation generated by intelligent machines. Characters in the film who know the truth can attain a measure of freedom within the Matrix by using their minds to control their avatars in defiance of its rules, hence their soaring balletically during the famous fight scenes. In the second act of the opera, Leonore’s double, standing several feet away from Pizarro’s double, casts him to the ground with a violent gesture that doesn’t touch him physically. Perhaps we should infer that the drama as we see it is not reality but an imprisoning illusion.

Guth is clearly interested in this notion. His production of Wagner’s Ring involved references to another film The Truman Show, in which the protagonist’s entire world is a simulation for a television show, a fact he discovers only when he tries to escape it. Guth presents Wotan as a movie director manipulating models of the Ring’s sets and characters, suggesting that what those characters perceive as a reality in which they act freely is in fact a construction in which they are manipulated. Both The Matrix and The Truman Show are films which raise philosophical questions concerning our knowledge of reality and our desire for authenticity. Discussions of them frequently involve comparisons with Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which prisoners have only ever seen shadows that they take to be reality. It is hard not to see the large, stark shadows cast by the characters on Guth’s set (through the remarkable lighting design by Olaf Freese) as allusions to the same allegory.

In his interview with Guth and Schmidt, Abels asks rhetorically whether the imprisoning nexus of intertwined but isolated individuals they envisage is escapable, “Is there a place outside of this monadic, windowless and probably desolate system? Are there really encounters between people who overcome the magnetism of the system? Probably not many.” Guth assents to this anti-utopian view. His Matrix, apparently, does not have a Neo, the hero played by Keanu Reeves, to redeem it. What it does have is Jonas Kaufmann, offering a vocally masterful and moving account of a doomed Florestan. From the moment his “Gott! Welch’ Dunkel hier!” is heard, the first note achingly faint and ethereal then rising gloriously to a brave but agonized forte, we are in the grip of a formidable presence. For the first time (in spite of strong vocal performances from the rest of the cast, particularly Adrianne Pieczonka as Leonore), we feel the real weight of someone’s psychological burden.

But it is not Beethoven’s drama. This Florestan twitches and writhes and flinches before imagined demons, collapses suddenly, rises again with the uncanny strength of a madman. We can’t be sure whether what he fears is real or imagined. During the finale, with the muted chorus placed offstage, he falls to his knees and clutches his head when he hears them, covering his ears as if oppressed by an unshakable auditory hallucination. And the audience, having seen a prisoner’s chorus emerge ghost-like from the darkness in white silk suits, and a chorus of guards appear in the replicated uniforms of The Matrix, can no longer be sure what is supposed to be real and what unreal, who is imprisoned and who is imprisoning.

In the scene that begins “O Gott, welch ein Augenblick,” the most beautifully serene moment of the opera, in which Florestan and Leonore are finally, blissfully reunited, the key shifts to F major and the characters move as if hypnotized, a giant chandelier casting its spectra in fragments like psychedelic confetti across the transfigured stage. A jarring (and very effective) lighting shift, to an ordinary, harsh electric light, shatters the illusion as the chorus returns in C major, and Florestan’s dementia reasserts itself. Though Leonore takes his hand to rush to the front of the stage, a triumphal gesture with which the opera often ends, this Florestan abruptly drops dead.

It is true that the finale, in which everyone lauds the virtues of a faithful wife, never seems to fulfill the opera’s highest hopes. Welser-Möst tells us in the program notes that he sees it as musically unresolved, with its brusque twelve-bar epilogue and continuous repetition of the final melody. But his vivacious rendition of it clearly expressed an enduring hope that contradicted the desolation onstage. The moment of greatest emotional catharsis and musical brilliance had already come and gone with the Leonore Overture no. 3, placed (in accordance with the convention established by Mahler) between the prison scene and the final scene on the parade ground. But Fidelio needs neither triumph nor despair to make sense.

Fidelio, like Beethoven’s late masterpieces, the 9th Symphony and the Missa Solemnis, is a work about hope. And hope is a complex attitude, incorporating both the thrill of anticipation and the pathos of unfulfilled longing. Beethoven is a master of drawing out and prolonging each of its aspects. The Kyrie that opens the Missa Solemnis sounds so glorious as to be almost the fulfillment of our highest hopes, but joyful anticipation is not triumph and the pathos of longing is not despair. At the end of the Missa, the “dona nobis pacem” (“give us peace”), accompanied by martial sounds implying ongoing war, leaves that work unresolved too. Fidelio has moved many audiences in the same profound way.

But what, then, of the Leonore Overture no. 3? Wagner claimed that it encapsulated the entire dramatic action of the opera more successfully than the opera itself. It appears to end in triumph. But in Mahler’s placement, at the moment of Florestan’s anticipated liberation, it does so in the register of hope. It represents the ideal outcome for which we long in that strange dramatic hiatus. Welser-Möst did not wrest from it the urgency and swelling surges of emotion that Furtwängler did, but rather assuredly sustained the nobility of the hopes that the production denied. At the opera’s premiere he received wild applause, whereas Guth and Schmidt were loudly booed. He took Beethoven’s side and he won.

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