Above: Production shot of Fidelio Credit: Vienna State Opera/EBU
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Vienna State Opera, one of the most influential and historically important opera houses in the world, brings two excellent performances to US airwaves: Beethoven’s sole operatic masterpiece Fidelio, and Strauss’s biblical setting of Salome.
Disguised as a man and using the name Fidelio, Leonore, who is determined to do anything, works as an assistant in a prison. She plans the liberation of her innocently imprisoned husband Florestan, who had dared to expose the criminal machinations of the powerful governor Don Pizarro.
Many see Fidelio – with its apotheotic final jubilation glorifying the ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity – as the freedom opera par excellence. In a visionary way, Beethoven shows that faith, love, hope work from the small to the large – and can even shake political systems.
In Salome, composer Strauss confronts a princess harassed by her stepfather with a captive prophet who recognizes in her not the desirable young woman but the traumatized child. When the prophet Jochanaan, desired by Salome, rejects the young princess, however, she prevails upon her stepfather Herod to behead him.
The one-hundred-minute one-act play glows like a feverish frenzy; the composer courageously exploded both the sound and moral concepts of his time. To this day, the music captivates the listener with its enormous imagery, highly charged emotionality and sharp, sometimes garish characterization. Strauss not only portrays the decadent, sultry atmosphere of the royal court, which has Salome’s childhood on its conscience, with a tremendous orchestral artistry, but also shows a differentiated fanning out of the external and internal psychological events in a captivating way.
In his direction of Salome, Cyril Teste wants to make Salome’s energy and heartbeat tangible, to make her traumas real and to tell the family history of a powerful dynasty whose inner mechanisms must produce what is at the end: Destruction.
Don Pizarro, the governor of a Spanish state prison, has instituted a reign of terror in his establishment. Innocent citizens are often the political victims of his brutal nature. Florestan of Seville determines to put an end to this despotism, but in the process falls into the hands of this man of violence. For over two years he has languished in solitary confinement under inhuman conditions. His friends believe him dead, and only his wife Leonore has not given him up for lost since his disappearance. Suspecting that Florestan has been imprisoned, she enters into service as a warder with the jailer Rocco. She carries out her heavy work in men´s clothing under the name of Fidelio, gaining the confidence of her superior and even winning the love of his daughter Marzelline.
In vain, the gatekeeper Jacquino vies for the affection of Marzelline. She, however, has been indifferent to his approaches ever since Fidelio has been working there. Fidelio/Leonore returns from Seville where she has been attending to some business. Rocco is once again very pleased with his new assistant´s cleverness and sense of duty—very soon Fidelio and Marzelline will be united as one. As Marzelline and Rocco dream of a happy future, Jacquino sees his prospects vanishing, and Fidelio / Leonore dreads the uncertainty. Then Don Pizarro appears on the scene. From a confidential letter, he learns that the minister has gotten wind of his abuse of office, and hopes to catch Don Pizarro out with a surprise visit. Pizarro reacts promptly to the situation: a warder is sent to watch the main road and signal the minister´s arrival with a trumpet signal. Florestan, the most prominent victim, must be eliminated as fast as possible. As Rocco refuses to commit a murder, the governor determines to carry out the deed himself. However, first the jailer must dig him a grave in the dungeon. Marzelline and Fidelio / Leonore ask Rocco to allow the petty criminals out for a while. Full of joy, the prisoners enjoy the warm spring sun – in vain, Fidelio / Leonore watches for a familiar face. To her dismay, she learns of Rocco´s latest task, and asks to share his heavy work in the dungeon with him. Will she have to help dig her own husband´s grave? Furious, Pizarro sees the prisoners walking about, and will accept no excuses. Only his pressing plan to murder Florestan prevents terrible consequences.
In the dungeon, the weakened Florestan ponders his fate. His situation seems hopeless, and he is consoled only by the knowledge that he has done his duty. In an ecstatic vision, he imagines that he is transported to heavenly freedom by an angel with the countenance of Leonore. Rocco and Fidelio / Leonore laboriously open up a cistern. Florestan finally learns who the governor of this prison is, and wants to send word to his wife in Seville. Fidelio / Leonore now knows for certain who the man before her is. It would seem that a light meal of bread and wine is to be Florestan´s last earthly pleasure, when all of a sudden Pizarro is heard approaching. As he draws back to deal the fatal blow, Fidelio / Leonore jumps in front of the prisoner, crying “First kill his wife!” As she points a pistol at Pizarro, the trumpet signal is heard. The arrival of the minister promises a different turn of events: release for the oppressed, punishment for the oppressor. Pizarro rushes out of the dungeon, Rocco dissociates himself from his former master, and Leonore and Florestan rush delighted into one another´s arms. Eagerly, the people and the prisoners welcome the minister Don Fernando on the parade ground in front of the palace. In the name of the king, the minister pronounces a general amnesty and the end of political despotism. He recognizes Florestan as his old friend, long supposed dead. Leonore is allowed to release the chains of the man who has been humiliated for so long, and Pizarro is arrested. The jubilant crown applauds the reunited couple, raising their voices in praise of true love: “Never can one extol too highly the woman who saves her own husband!”
Herod, the Tetrarch, is celebrating his birthday with a select group of guests. Two soldiers and the captain of the guard, Narraboth, are watching the prisoner, Jochanaan (the prophet, John the Baptist). Narraboth loves Herod’s stepdaughter, Salome. He ignores the warnings of the Page. The voice of the prophet sounds from the dungeon. He is announcing the arrival of the Messiah.
Repelled by her stepfather’s advances, Salome leaves the feast. She hears the prophet’s warnings and wants to see him. She persuades Narraboth to ignore the Tetrarch’s explicit ban and grant her wish.
Jochanaan appears before Salome. Without at first paying attention to her, he accuses her stepfather of his incestuous marriage with her mother, Herodias. The strange man arouses Salome’s curiosity and desire. She is seized by a longing to touch his hair, his body, and to kiss his lips. Her ecstasy drives Narraboth to suicide. The prophet spurns Salome, saying there is only one who can save her – Jesus of Nazareth. When Salome continues to harass Jochanaan, he curses her and returns to his prison.
The Tetrarch enters, looking for Salome. The prophet’s voice is heard again, reprimanding. Herodias demands that he be given into the hands of the Jews. Herod refuses, as he believes Jochanaan is a holy man, an opinion that prompts a sharp disagreement among the Jews – while some believe he is a charlatan, the Nazarenes honor him as a herald of the Savior.
Herod presses Salome to dance for him. She refuses until he swears to give her anything she wants. Salome dances, and demands Jochanaan’s head. Appalled, Herod offers her his most precious treasures, but Salome insists on her demand. She loses herself in gazing on the severed head. When she finally kisses the prophet’s bloody mouth, Herod orders the soldiers to kill her.
About Vienna State Opera:
The Vienna Opera House is a marvel, with a deep history that touches the very core of Austrian and European classical music. The structure of the opera house was planned by the Viennese architect August Sicard von Sicardsburg, while the inside was designed by interior decorator Eduard van der Nüll. It was also impacted by other major artists such as Moritz von Schwind, who painted the frescoes in the foyer, and the famous “Zauberflöten” (“Magic Flute”) series of frescoes on the veranda. Neither of the architects survived to see the opening of ‘their’ opera house: the sensitive van der Nüll committed suicide, and his friend Sicardsburg died of a stroke soon afterwards.
On May 25, 1869, the opera house solemnly opened with Mozart’s DON JUAN in the presence of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth. The popularity of the building grew under the artistic influence of the first directors: Franz von Dingelstedt, Johann Herbeck, Franz Jauner, and Wilhelm Jahn. The Vienna opera experienced its first high point under the direction of Gustav Mahler. He completely transformed the outdated performance system, increased the precision and timing of the performances, and also utilized the experience of other noteworthy artists, such as Alfred Roller, for the formation of new stage aesthetics.
About the Host:
Lisa Flynn has been a program host and producer for WFMT since 1991. She presents The New Releases and has hosted many programs for the WFMT Radio Network, including War Letters (which won the 2002 Peter Lisagor Award) and a series of live broadcasts from Salzburg to celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday in 2006. As WFMT’s midday weekday announcer, Lisa hosts live studio performances and interviews guest artists including Renée Fleming, John Adams, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, John Eliot Gardiner, and many others. Before coming to Chicago, Lisa presented classical music at WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, and at WMFE and WUCF in Orlando, Florida. She holds a music degree from the University of Central Florida.
This program is a part of the WFMT Radio Network Opera Series, a series designed to complement the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts to fill out the year with great Opera content. The series begins in June and lasts until December.