The Spirit of Utopia – Interview on "Fidelio"
Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Caroline Damaschke, March and June 2018
Beethoven’s sole opera has a reputation of being impossible to stage. Indeed, its dramatic range, from petit-bourgeois light opera to an oratorio-like freedom symphony, presents a big challenge to any director. What fascinates you about Fidelio?
I’ve wanted to stage Fidelio for twenty years. I love the work; even when it’s poorly staged, I am always moved to tears. I think it’s necessary to allow the work to begin in a petit-bourgeois milieu. The characters are typical of Beethoven’s time, and that society is depicted fantastically in the first scenes. It is this which establishes the dramatic level from which the subsequent heightening becomes possible. It is not only the prisoners, but also the simple folk who ultimately have a right to a better life, to revolt and liberation. It is important to begin with the modest happiness of Jaquino and Marzelline so that the grandiose vision can have the desired effect.
The thread running through Fidelio is that in every musical number, the people want more than they actually say. There’s always a kind of surplus built into the composition, there’s always this moment of transcendence, the wish for a better world – in other words the very thing that fascinated Ernst Bloch and inspired him to write “The Principle of Hope”. This utopian aspect, which is concealed in every number, is to me the most important aspect of this work.
There are three versions of this opera which Beethoven himself premiered, and also four overtures. Beethoven worked on the piece for over ten years, working with three librettists on the plot and libretto to develop a dramatic framework for this opera about revolution.
The work possesses a fantastic vitality: it always goes straight upwards. In the first version of 1805, that was not the case yet. In that incarnation, there was a text-book plot – very well balanced, with slower and more exciting sections, the way every good theatre play is constructed. But this form of drama didn’t really interest Beethoven. When he re-worked the opera, he simply deleted all the slower sections which took away the momentum of the story. The version that we are performing is the one from 1814, which was performed by Beethoven as the “final” version. In the second version of 1806 he had deleted the “gold” aria and did not reinstate it in the 1814 version. However, the bass Carl Weinmüller protested, understandably, and Beethoven again included the aria after the seventh performance. Since then, the aria has always been considered a part of this version, even though it doesn’t actually belong in it. That was an interesting discovery during my research, because it was the only element that struck me as not really belonging to the work.
Beethoven’s fame primarily rests on his symphonic works. It’s said that he had no real sense of theatrical drama ...
I can’t really agree with that. In terms of musical theatre, Fidelio shows that Beethoven can hold his ground with Mozart. For instance, there is a moment during the trio in the first act in which Leonore suffers a breakdown or a depressive episode – she recoils from the immense task to which she has committed herself. Marzelline, who is in love with Leonore, tries to encourage her. Musically, it shifts back and forth between B-flat major and B-flat minor, though actually only one semitone is different: Marzelline always sings a D and Leonore sings D-flat. It is brilliantly composed.
As a director, how do you deal with discoveries like that?
To me, this dimension of the work is more important than the story and its interpretation. I always stage the music. Even to the extent that in the course of rehearsals, the text tends to fade more and more into the background. My main concern is to develop a choreography that exactly corresponds to the architecture of the music, and at the same time to provide the psychological motive for every step, every glance. Both are essential. Pure psychology without any relation to the musical construction leads to an inappropriate realism that has no place in opera. In contrast, a musical choreography alone would simply be a kind of formal game – art for art’s sake. If I’m lucky – and the composer helps me, such as in this brilliant trio – it is the form, not the text, that reveals to me what the character is feeling at a given moment.
The work is inspired by an event that took place during the French Revolution and describes the liberation from the tyrannical rule of a despot. Beethoven himself was an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution. However, in order to circumvent the censors, the opera’s story was set in 17th-century Spain. In your view, how strong is the link between this work and the French Revolution?
I think of the work as being rooted in Beethoven’s time, and that’s the starting the point. The prison staff, Rocco, Don Pizarro, Marzelline and Jaquino are characters from this time – that is, the beginning of the 19th century. But Leonore stands out. To me she is a character who transcends all boundaries, an extraordinary female figure with visionary power and charisma. The only comparison that springs to mind is Jean of Arc. But where does such a person come from? To me she seems to come from a different world, a different time. Where exactly we don’t know. She enters this world to liberate her husband, who also comes from that other world.
How do you make it clear that Leonore does not come from Rocco’s and Marzelline’s world?
Leonore wears a modern dress in our production; she is not disguised as a man. Her character comes across through her aura, her charisma, and her extraordinary personality. The people she meets are so fascinated by her that she is able to convince them that she wants to work as a turnkey in the prison – and in fact she could tell them anything, because they have never met anyone like her. Everyone translates this fascination into his own language: To Rocco she seems like the perfect son-in-law and employee, and Marzelline wants to marry her.
Leonore seems very different, very alien, at first, but in the course of the piece the other characters become like her – with the aid of very simple means: They wear several layers of clothes and in the moment of utopian exuberance in the musical numbers they remove them layer by layer. These items of clothing left lying around are a provocation to the despot Pizarro, because they herald the revolution. In the final scene, everyone – except Pizarro – has arrived in the era, or more precisely, the philosophical point, from which Leonore comes, and all look the same, style-wise. In that way we integrate the finale, which is essentially just one big chorus tableau, into the plot. I think that Beethoven composed this finale as an oratorio, because this utopian idea is impossible to portray on a stage. The music needs to have the last word in this case. In music, utopia can take place. In the arts it’s possible to create something which does not exist in everyday life: perfection. True perfection in an imperfect world – that’s fantastic!
What comes after that?
As soon as you leave the musical level and return to studying the people, you realize that they are not perfect. Leonore bears the scars of her exhausting ordeal and the journey she has made, and Florestan is scarred by his experiences in prison. He is no longer the same man to Leonore: she is disappointed when she can no longer see the charismatic sparkle in his eyes that she had always loved, but which was extinguished in prison. Paradoxically, mankind finds redemption, but the people have been sacrificed along the way. Yet their sacrifice was not in vain. During a lighting rehearsal I recently said, “Don’t make it so gloomy! It’s a happy end, after all. It’s sad, but happy!”
Three months have passed: Your production has now become a film. Has the performance changed in any way as a result?
First of all, I’m very glad that the work on the filming and editing helped me avoid falling into a kind of hole, as usually happens when you finish a very intense production. I was able to spend another three months working on the wonderful Fidelio!
I’m sure that the performance has changed, at least as a result of the transfer to a different medium. On the stage I always try to direct the attention of the audience so that, ideally, they are always looking in the direction that I want them to – free and unfree at the same time. In the film I’m forced to substitute this artistic means of directing the viewer’s attention for the technical means of editing. Therefore, the danger arises that subtle references have a cruder effect because they are forced upon you. On the other hand I’m able to shift the focus differently than on the stage. In the finale, for example, the camera stays on Leonore, so that the events around her seem to fade away as if in a dream. You can only do that in film.
The film seems more like a studio production. We don’t see an audience, there is no applause...
I initially wanted to emphasize the live character of the performance, which has a special quality all of its own. And I did in fact primarily use the material from the opening night. But as a viewer of the film, when you really find yourself immersed in a passage such as Leonore’s aria, the applause can actually pull you out of experiencing this fictional world. I wanted to avoid that. Moreover, we finished the lighting rehearsals one day earlier than planned. I was able to use the extra day with the lighting and film crews to film certain shots with the singers that would not have been possible during a performance or a dress rehearsal because you need to have the camera on stage. So during the editing I had close-ups of Leonore, details like hands and feet, or a subjective view of the auditorium which you don’t usually see. This gave the whole performance a more cinematic feel and elevated it somewhat from being simply a recording of a theatrical performance.