For almost two cen­turies, Beethoven’s Fide­lio has enjoyed a very spe­cial place in the world of opera. Its cel­e­bra­tion of mar­ried love at its most ele­vated, along with the tri­umph of polit­i­cal free­dom over the forces of tyranny, has ensured Fide­lio  a mythic sta­tus — akin to Beethoven’s own Ninth Sym­phony — in much of the world. It is a work of art which offers a well-nigh reli­gious, awe-inspiring expe­ri­ence in its hon­or­ing of the very best of human nature.  “(Fide­lio) is an ode to nobil­ity of soul and the dig­nity of man,” is the way one author put it, quite correctly.

But for all the lofty sen­ti­ments of the libretto and the stir­ring music Beethoven lav­ished on it, there is another part of Fide­lio, which is often deeply regret­ted by those who most admire the opera. The received wis­dom is that Fide­lio it is a won­der­ful, but ter­ri­bly flawed mas­ter­piece which could be an even greater work if — some­how — one could just excise those igno­ble parts which detract so much from its high minded “real” nature. On the one hand we have Beethoven at his might­i­est, writ­ing pow­er­ful, expres­sive music for his hero­ine Leonore, and her unjustly impris­oned hus­band, Flo­restan — to say noth­ing of the cel­e­brated Prisoner’s Cho­rus, which is guar­an­teed to melt the flinti­est hearts in the audi­ence, as well as some of his great­est instru­men­tal music in the var­i­ous over­tures he com­posed for the work.

On the other hand we have Rocco, the jailer; his daugh­ter, Marzelline; and her erst­while finance, Jaquino;  “minor” char­ac­ters who clut­ter up Fide­lio’s vir­tu­ous land­scape with their petty natures and picayune con­cerns. They are ter­ri­bly unheroic peo­ple, involved with the most ordi­nary affairs. But far from ruing Beethoven’s “mis­take” at includ­ing these allegedly dis­pos­able, “lit­tle” peo­ple in his mas­ter­piece, it is through their reac­tions, espe­cially those of Rocco, that we can par­tic­i­pate fully in the unfold­ing drama. Though three of the opera’s first four vocal num­bers are often merely tol­er­ated for the sake of the rest of the opera, it is a mis­take to treat them dismissively.

There is lit­tle dra­matic stuff in Marzelline, Jaquino and Rocco,” wrote Paul Henry Lang in The Expe­ri­ence of Opera, reflect­ing the view of most crit­ics and musi­col­o­gists. Lang observes of these early num­bers in the opera, “The tunes are good and the the­matic elab­o­ra­tion in the orches­tra never fal­ters. But emo­tion­ally involved the com­poser was not.”

Oh? Actu­ally the music rep­re­sents not Beethoven’s lack of emo­tional involve­ment, but rather his quite skill­ful depic­tion of these char­ac­ters through the music he wrote for them. It is a delib­er­ate “soft­en­ing up” of the audi­ence before Beethoven unleashes his main theme: the intense drama of Leonore and her quest to res­cue his husband.

A card with a scene from the opera. On the back is a recipe.

The opera begins with a perky, rather comic duet between Marzelline, who is iron­ing clothes, and Jaquino, the young turnkey who wants to marry her. When Jaquino is called away, Marzelline sings an aria about her love for Fide­lio, the young man who has recently become her father’s assis­tant. The music of these two open­ing num­bers is a per­fect reflec­tion of the rather sim­ple char­ac­ters who sing it. But rather than erring by includ­ing such mun­dane hap­pen­ings in his opera, Beethoven actu­ally is eas­ing us into Fide­lio’s world, sug­gest­ing that the tremen­dous, earth-shattering events to come are not found in some “other” world, but often sneak up on us right where we are, in the mid­dle of our mun­dane, every­day life.

This is rein­forced by the very next num­ber, the quar­tet, “Mir ist so wun­der­bar,”  which is one of the glo­ries of the entire score. But notice that its first singer, the per­son who intro­duces us to the quartet’s tran­scen­dent world, is not the opera’s hero­ine, Leonore, but sim­ple lit­tle Marzelline. It is through her, that we enter the quartet’s magic.

It is always a shock for the audi­ence, which usu­ally is still under the spell of the quar­tet, when Rocco then launches into his “Gold” aria.  “Its joc­u­lar, vul­gar char­ac­ter is curi­ously at vari­ance with the style of the quar­tet it fol­lows,” wrote Lud­wig Misch in The Beethoven Com­pan­ion.  But Beethoven under­stood that most human beings can only briefly live in the exalted, rar­efied atmos­phere that so per­me­ates “Mir ist so wun­der­bar.”  It gives us hope, it nur­tures our souls. With­out it we merely exist, rather than truly live fully. But most of us mere mor­tals can­not take the spir­i­tual heights for very long at any one stretch of time, how­ever much we might wish it otherwise.

And the “joc­u­lar, vul­gar char­ac­ter” of the music of Rocco’s aria is, in its own way, quite life affirm­ing. The words to the aria are rather cyn­i­cal, even soul­less. “If you don’t have gold, hap­pi­ness is hard to fine,” Rocco sings, “but if it jin­gles in your pocket, fate is at your mercy. Gold can bring you love and power. For­tune is like a paid ser­vant and serves its mas­ter, mighty gold.” It is the oper­atic equiv­a­lent of the song “Money Makes the World Go Around,” from the musi­cal Cabaret.

Beethoven obvi­ously has a lot of affec­tion for Rocco as a char­ac­ter, despite the man’s obvi­ous flaws (or, per­haps, because of them), because the music he wrote for this aria is far from the cold music he could have writ­ten, music that would have reflected the harsh words. In fact, the music Beethoven wrote is down­right cheer­ful, if, per­haps, a bit too-obviously hearty. But that’s Rocco. He embod­ies many of the same con­tra­dic­tions we do. In fact, Rocco’s ambiva­lence and ambi­gu­ity make him a lot like most of us. In a sense, he our rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the drama.

Vick­ers, Nils­son and Boehm, a mar­velous performance.

How­ever much we might like to iden­tify with Leonore or Flo­restan in the purity of their motives and the nobil­ity of their cause (or, when we are angry, per­haps with Pizarro and the single-mindedness of his revenge), most of us are, actu­ally, much more like Rocco. We have our good sides and our less than admirable traits.  Our first con­cern when pre­sented with a new sit­u­a­tion is often how it will affect us and our fam­ily, rather than eval­u­at­ing it from a moral philo­soph­i­cal perspective.

Dur­ing the course of Fide­lio, Rocco grad­u­ally under­goes a remark­able change. In fact, of all the char­ac­ters in the opera it is Rocco who trav­els the fur­thest. Leonore and Flo­restan are com­pelling, vivid, life-affirming char­ac­ters, but dur­ing the opera, they do not undergo much in the way of trans­for­ma­tion, how­ever much they might have evolved before the opera itself begins. Pizarro, sim­i­larly, is the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of evil, and Beethoven’s music makes his need for revenge quite pal­pa­ble and dra­matic. But he, too, is a rather one-dimensional figure.

Matti Salmi­nen, a mar­velous Rocco.

Rocco, how­ever, is much more neb­u­lous in his out­lines. At first he seems sim­ple: a middle-aged jailer with a daugh­ter, delighted that fate has sent him Fide­lio, who seems to be a young man of mar­riage­able age who works hard at his job. Rocco decides Fide­lio and Marzelline will marry each other and some­day Fide­lio will inherit Rocco’s job. Life seems good, sim­ple and straight­for­ward: well, pretty much, any­way. There’s a pris­oner Rocco has been instructed to starve and that both­ers Rocco’s con­science a bit, but he jus­ti­fies it as just fol­low­ing the order of his boss, Pizarro. “Your heart will harden in the pres­ence of ter­ri­ble things,” Rocco assures Fide­lio, obvi­ously speak­ing from experience.

But when Pizarro tells Rocco to kill the spe­cial pris­oner, Rocco refuses. “I can­not do it. I am not hired to kill,” he tells Pizarro. But he man­ages to jus­tify Pizarro mur­der­ing the pris­oner by telling him­self the man is prob­a­bly dying of hunger any­way, he is suf­fer­ing greatly, so “to kill him is to save him, and [Pizarro’s dag­ger] will set him free.”  No sooner have we decided Rocco is a pretty morally rep­re­hen­si­ble guy, than he turns around, while Pizarro is momen­tar­ily away, and gives in to the plead­ing of both Leonore and Marzelline that the pris­on­ers be let out of their cells to enjoy some sun­shine and fresh air.

When an enraged Pizarro learns of this kind­ness and con­fronts Rocco, the jailer shows just how wily he is. First he sug­gests the deed is jus­ti­fied by the spring sea­son itself, the warm sun­shine — but he notices Pizarro is not buy­ing his rea­son­ing. Beethoven’s music quite clearly tells us Rocco is mak­ing all this up as he goes along, it fully cap­tures Rocco’s uncer­tainty and search­ing, some­times com­ing to a full stop, before he finally com­ing out with an excuse (obvi­ously thought up on the spot) that it is the King’s name day, and they must do him honor. As Pizarro begins to weaken, Rocco moves in for the clincher, “Down below [the spe­cial pris­oner] will die. Spare your rage for him.” Pizarro has been suc­cess­fully dis­tracted from his rage against Rocco.  The exchange only take a cou­ple pages in the score, but it is a telling exam­ple of Rocco’s char­ac­ter, being quick on his feet when he needs to save him­self — bril­liantly mir­rored in Beethoven’s music.

Through­out the course of the opera we get numer­ous exam­ples of Rocco being good, then Rocco being less admirable. But one fact is quite clear: if Rocco had not taken Fidelio/Leonore down into the dun­geon with him, she could never have saved Florestan’s life. It is Rocco who gives her the oppor­tu­nity to it. The suc­cess­ful res­o­lu­tion of the drama does not work with­out him, with­out their mutual coöperation.

Even in the dun­geon scene, Rocco’s dual nature is fully evi­dent. He allows Leonore to give Flo­restan some wine, to ease his thirst, but when she starts to offer her hus­band a crust of bread Rocco at first stops her — “I’d like to, but it really would be risk­ing too much.” — before finally relent­ing.  (Notice, too, the ele­ments of the Eucharist, sym­bol­i­cally bring­ing Life into the dark­est depths of the dun­geon, to the dying Florestan.)

Klaus Ten­ndt­edt led incan­des­cent per­for­mances of FIDELIO at the Met.

While it is true that Leonore saves Florestan’s life by jump­ing in front of him as Pizarro moves to stab the pris­oner, and holds off Pizarro with a gun, it is Rocco who ensures the suc­cess­ful out­come of Leonore’s deed. After the trum­pet call, sig­nal­ing the arrival of Don Fer­nando, the Min­is­ter of State, Jaquino (one of the “lit­tle char­ac­ters”) enters the dun­geon, ver­i­fy­ing the news. In the ensu­ing con­fu­sion it might still be pos­si­ble for Pizarro to do his dirty work, but Rocco foils him by order­ing, “Those fel­lows with the torches must come down and accom­pa­ny­ing [Pizarro] upstairs.” And it is Rocco who breaks through the guards in the parade grounds, pre­sent­ing Flo­restan and Leonore to the Min­is­ter of State and relates all that has hap­pened (and also, true to char­ac­ter, in the process puts his own actions in the most favor­able light possible.)

Florestan/Leonore and Pizarro are The Hero and The Bad Guy, but Rocco embod­ies both. He is the con­nec­tion, lit­er­ally, between good and evil, between Florestan/Leonore and Pizarro. He begins by prepar­ing the way for Pizarro to mur­der Flo­restan, but ends by ensur­ing Florestan’s sal­va­tion and Pizarro’s pun­ish­ment. Rocco is us, part hero, part bad guy. He is human. No won­der Beethoven felt such obvi­ous affec­tion for him, and for the jour­ney he trav­els dur­ing Fide­lio.

This arti­cle first appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, Octo­ber 2000.

The por­trait of Beethoven at the top of the page is by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.