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.