Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, for Mahler ‘the opera of operas’, celebrated the ostensible ideals of the French Revolution and of the dramatist Schiller, who maintained that tragic art should represent morality resisting suffering. Fidelio’s Prisoners’ chorus and its story portray liberation from darkness into light.
With the Moonlight and Pathétique sonatas behind him, Fidelio was premiered in 1805, the year of his Third Symphony (Eroica) and of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz. The heroine Leonore was the ‘ideal woman’, the virtuous wife, just like the Countess Josephine Brunsvik whom Beethoven wanted to marry then. The final revised version of Fidelio was delayed until 1814 during the Congress of Vienna.
Leonore, the wife of Florestan, a political prisoner, works in the Spanish prison, near Seville, where he is being starved in a dark, freezing dungeon. She intervenes in time to save him from his political opponent Pizarro, the prison governor, who must murder him before a government minister arrives for a surprise inspection. Florestan and Leonore rejoice in the duet O namenlose Freude which praises conjugal married love, L’amour conjugal, the subtitle of the libretto. It depicts their hope and optimism
As well as the Overture to Fidelio, Beethoven composed three ‘Leonore’ overtures.