MEIRION BOWEN - The Fidelio Project

New Version of Beethoven's Fidelio

Meirion Bowen`s new version of Fidelio was commisioned by the Broomhill Opera Company in the UK and completed in the summer of 1998. To date Broomhill have presented workshop performances of the opening March and Scene 1, with three specially commissioned libretti in English, Afrikaans and Zulu. A numerous of companies in Europe and America are considering a full production.

This version of Fidelio is dedicated to the memory of Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998).

Inspection scores and a recorded read-through of the score, with the voice-parts played on the piano, are available. Please send an email to:


The Fidelio Project

This is a new conception of Beethoven's Fidelio, one that would enable it to take several forms in several places. It is conceived as a mixture of fixed and variable elements, with the details of its story-line renewed many times. As such, it may bring the work close to many new audiences across the world.


Beethoven's Fidelio belongs to the genre of 'rescue operas', which developed in France after the Revolution and spread to Italy, Germany and Austria. In its third and final version (1814), it was a popular success, quickly taken up by opera houses in Germany. Within the next 25 years, it reached Prague, St Petersburg, Amsterdam, Paris, London and New York, thereafter remaining one of the most popular and highly esteemd works in the repertoire. In Fidelio, a woman disguised as a man heroically rescues her husband from unjust political imprisonment and certain death, and by so doing, causes the release of other political prisoners: and their tyrannical Governor is also brought to justice.


In the wake of all the wars, revolutions, collective intolerance and persecution prevalent throughout the world in the last 175 years, it is not surprising that an opera on such a theme should become an icon of human resistance to tyranny. But the music of Fidelio, so strong and memorable, seems to imply a wide range of new applications of its underlying message.


Most stage-interpretations have either kept the opera in its historical context (i.e. related to events at the time of the French Revolution) or have given a modern 'gloss' reflecting the experience (for instance) of the Nazi holocaust. All accept imprisonment as 'political'. Now, especially taking note of Michel Foucault's theories, it may be possible to widen the concept of 'prison' in psychological and philosophical terms.


While respecting the power of Beethoven's music, the plot and dialogue could be re-invented to relate to many different social, racial, political and psychological contexts all over the world. This conception of the opera acknowledges the possibility of not just one new, maybe localized interpretation of Fidelio, but of a proliferation of new versions. These might even be undertaken by a small touring company, conceived like a United Nations task force, dedicated to showing that Fidelio belongs everywhere and to everybody.


The implications of this are:


1) The plot and dialogue would be re-written many times over, according to the country or region where it was toured, and the nature of the national or local problems to which it would relate. It would entail performance in different languages and dialects. New names could be given to the characters.


2) A new title would be needed to take account of this constant re-writing: e.g. Mobile Fidelio, or Mobile Fidelity (in French, Fidelite Mobile, or German, Fidelio Mobil). Such a title conveys some notion of the character of the enterprise.


3) Some cuts and re-ordering of individual numbers would be necessary. These would relate very much to the nature of the touring proudction and its mixture of fixed and constantly re-formulated ingredients.


4) The music would be re-conceived in terms of (i) a group of solo singers, capable of becomng a chorus; (ii) a small ensemble adapted to small-scale venues and outdoor, as well as indoor, performance.


5) All participating in it might be thought of as 'mobile' capable of undertaking more than one role - i.e. the ensemble might not just play in a pit; they and the conductor and the cast might help with scene-changes, act as ushers, sing along as a chorus, hand out leaflets or programmes etc etc, thus contributing to an integrated presentation.


Reformulating the plot can make it appear directly relevant to the day-to-day experiences of audiencs in Bosnia, Ireland, South Africa, Vietnam, The Philippines, Sao Paolo and to the inmates of many prisons and mental institutions, thus extending Beethoven's humanitarian embrace to them all.


Re-writing the dialogue is almost a necessity, anyway, for the original was written in a stiff, old-fashioned German whose melodramatic manner is an obstacle to all stage-productions without exception. Few productions use the original libretto as it stands, let alone observing the stage-directions.


Re-conceiving the music in terms of a small ensemble is a delicate task. Particular respect has to be shown to Beethoven's obligato wind-writing. Anyone experienced in working with amateur or semi-professional chamber orchestras will, however, know that the sense and expressive power of Beethoven's music do not depend on large instrumental forces.


Fidelio was the last of three versions Beethoven made of his opera, originally entitled Leonore. These versions involved cuts and re-ordering of numbers, as well as some musical and dramatic enrichment of the score. Any adjustments made now do not therefore imply disrespect for the piece, but would be a logical enhancement of its underlying principles. My own view is that Act II is un-cuttable and probably needs little if any re-organisation. The layout_ of Act I, however, is capable of improvement, with the Jaquino-Marzellina sub-plot introduced later, rather than at the start.


The four overtures Beethoven wrote for the opera are, in truth, magnificent concert-pieces, encapsulating and anticipating the outcome of the drama in ways that unfortunately undermine a theatrical presentation. I have therefore omitted them all and used instead the March (No. 6 in the score) as a means of bringing the actors on stage. This March can be used as a reference-point, returning to frame scene 1, maybe the end of Act I as well, maybe even returning at the end of Act 2 to take the actors finally off-stage; these returns have contrasted instrumentations.


My new layout for Act I runs as follows:


Scene 1 March Rocco's Aria (originally NO. 4)

Trio: Marzelline, Leonora, Rocco (originally No. 5)



Scene 2 Pizarro: aria with chorus (originally No. 7) Leonora's Aria (originally No.9)


Scene 3 Duet: Jacquino & Marzelline (originally No. 1) Aria: Marzelline (originally No. 2) Quartet: Marzelline, Rocco, Leonora, Jacquino (originally No. 3)


Scene 4 Finale (as original) March (This re-ordering takes account of key-relationships between numbers. For example, with the normally used Overture in E major removed, the March, in B flat, leads logically into Rocco's aria in the same key.)


Instrumentation: 1 Flute

1 Oboe

1 Clarinet

1 Bassoon

3 horns

2 trumpets

percussion : timpani/glockenspiel

strings: 3 violins 2 violas 1 cello 1 double-bass

electric lead guitar electric bass guitar

[one woodwind player also doubles on harmonica, when the third version of the March is performed]

Total no. of players: 19

(Extra string players can be added whenever appropriate.)


The use of electric guitars is not gratuitous, but a means of producing a modern re-incarnation of the vernacular ingredient in Beethoven's style. The guitars are also associated with the prisoners, individually and as a chorus.


For some people, Fidelio is an untouchable masterpiece. This version is not akin to adding a moustache to the Mona Lisa or adding a synthesised beat to the Fifth Symphony. This re-thinking of the opera is drastic only in so far as its starting-point is an empty stage anywhere. Its aim is a fully integrated presentation of the opera, reflecting the fervent and defiant spirit of its creator and preventing the work from becoming merely the property of an enlightened, if self-congratulatory bourgeoisie.

© Meirion Bowen (1998)