Peter Gülke: Omnipotence and Impotence in "Fidelio"

Film: » Fidelio «

Why does Don Pizarro not quickly stab his intended victim when the signal sounds? The armed lady would hardly present an obstacle. He had already calculated that there would be little time between the murder and the minister’s arrival ( “Now, old man, we must hurry...” ). He was also aware of Rocco’s knowledge of the crime; If necessary, he would do away with Leonore and Rocco too, and he would certainly be able to keep the minister, who had neglected his duty by failing to enquire about his vanished friend Florestan, away from the cistern.

But he cannot. The most common, and in no way mistaken explanation is that this is the dividing line between a realistic and a symbolic act; that the trumpet call that penetrates the depths of the dungeon is heralding the day of liberation; that Leonore represents all of mankind – summoned to self-determination – in her rebellion against the tyrant. Realistic considerations about this short window of opportunity thus seem hopelessly banal. However, the power of the penetrating symbol cannot remain the only explanation: it is not the only thing that paralyses Pizarro’s arm. No matter how precisely he may calculate the pivotal moment, he is not able to prevail – although he has not yet been robbed of his power. Pizarro’s paralysis reflects the helplessness of a dictatorship that has subjected everything to its rule, that has made everything calculable and that has perfected itself – in a paranoid security mania – to a system of rules, which now abruptly falls apart, because the tolerances have been set too tight. In the tyrant’s seamless relatedness to the tyrannized there is no tolerance at all; and if the latter is required to accommodate an unexpected malfunction, omnipotence is transformed into impotence. He who fails to strike the blow for which he has lived, who thus fails more due to himself than to Leonore, “blinded” by the sound of the trumpet as if by a dazzling light, is an example of Hannah Arendt’s distinction between power and violence: “Everything depends upon the power behind the violence”. There are parallels to those who let things run their course in Eastern Germany in the autumn of 1989, even though they could have organized a dilatory bloodbath instead. They declared the death sentence for their country “on the side, so to speak" (Schabowski*).

And like them, he refutes the antinomic conception of necessity and coincidence. How much coincidence, how much error of judgement was required, for Leonore to remain unrecognised; for her to inveigle her way into Rocco’s employment at precisely the same time that the minister made an official inspection visit; that on that same day, Rocco allowed Fidelio to talk him into taking her into the deepest, most forbidden cistern; that Schabowski appears to find a written note with the government’s orders in his jacket pocket; that the public in the GDR understood this as a signal that the border was opening up, which it wasn’t; that the overwhelmed border guards were unable to contact the authorities; that they allowed themselves to be persuaded that other borders had long since opened up. The more compulsive the tendency, the more careless it is in its choice of means. Joshua’s trumpets, the forefathers of the “Fidelio trumpet”, did not need to resound loudly to make the walls of Jericho tumble down.

* Günter Schabowski was a member of the Central Committee of the SED party in East Germany. His – possibly intentional – misunderstanding concerning the announcement of the opening of the border at the Berlin Wall contributed significantly to the eventual collapse of the GDR (editor’s note).

From: "Fluchtpunkt Musik" by Peter Gülke, Kassel, Stuttgart, Weimar 1994

Film: » Fidelio «