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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.