Leonora

Paer

Information

Libretto by Giovanni Schmidt, after Jean-Nicolas Bouilly
English translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray

The Deanery garden, Bampton, 18 and 19 July 2008
St John’s, Smith Square, London, 16 September 2008

Cast

Rocco a jailer Adrian Powter
Marcellina his daughter
Emily Rowley Jones
Giacchinno in love with Marcellina Samuel Evans
Leonora disguised as Fidelio, wife of Florestan Cara McHardy
Don Pizzarro a ruthless prison governor Jonathan Stoughton
Don Florestan a political prisoner Michael Bracegirdle
Don Fernando John Upperton
   
Conductor Robin Newton
Director Jeremy Gray

with the Orchestra of Bampton Classical Opera (July)
The London Mozart Players (September)

Synopsis

For two years, Don Florestan has been held as a secret prisoner in a deep dungeon, the innocent victim of the machinations of a corrupt prison governor Pizzarro.  Although his friends, including the government minister Don Fernando, believe he is dead, his wife Leonora clings to hope and is determined to find and rescue him.  In disguise as a young man, ‘Fidelio’, she manages to get herself engaged as an assistant to the head jailer of the prison, Rocco.  However, her disguise is so effective that Rocco’s daughter Marcellina falls in love with her, to the dismay of the prison gate-keeper Giacchino, who had planned to marry the girl himself.

Act 1

In the prison courtyard, Marcellina is washing clothes and musing on her new love for the stranger ‘Fidelio’.  Giacchino tries to court her, but is repeatedly interrupted by deliveries at the prison gate.  Rocco joins them and complains about their bickering.   Leonora, in disguise as Fidelio, returns bearing heavy chains which have been repaired and, to ‘his’ embarrassment, plans are discussed for marriage to Marcellina.  However ‘he’ manages to lead Rocco onto the subject of the secret dungeons, who explains that there is one cell where the inmate, whose identity is unknown even to him, is being slowly starved to death.  Pizzarro enters with his guards and receives a message warning him that the Minister is suspicious about illegally held prisoners and is planning a visit of inspection.

Left alone, Leonora expresses her hatred for Pizzarro, her undying love for Florestan, and begs for heavenly courage and strength.

Marcellina is still being pestered by Giacchino and declares that only magic could transform him into Fidelio and therefore cause her to love him.  Rocco returns from discussions with Pizzarro and gives orders for certain preparations to be made – Leonora prises out the truth that the secret prisoner is to be murdered that day, Rocco having been paid handsomely with gold for his complicity.  Pizzarro is prevailed upon to allow Rocco to take ‘Fidelio’ as an assistant down to the dungeons.   Marcellina urges her father to allow her wedding to take place immediately, but Leonora manages to delay this until the evening.  The act ends with an ensemble of conflicting emotions.

Act 2

In a dark and deep dungeon, Florestan has been languishing for two years and is weakened by starvation and isolation.  In a passionate outburst he bewails his fate but holds dear to the memory of his wife, whose portrait he has managed to secrete. He collapses before Rocco and ‘Fidelio’ enter the cell.  Leonora cannot see the prisoner’s face and so cannot be certain that it is her husband.  They move rubble to uncover an old well where Rocco, on Pizzarro’s orders, plans to dispose of Florestan’s body.  Florestan recovers and begs for water, revealing his name.  Rocco is prepared to offer a little wine, and Leonora has some bread, but Florestan’s gratitude is almost unbearable to her.

Rocco gives the pre-arranged signal, and a masked man enters to murder the prisoner.  Leonora is ordered to leave, but hides in the shadows.  As the assassin is about to kill Florestan, she rushes out to interpose herself, revealing that she is Florestan’s wife.  In turn the assassin reveals himself as Pizzarro.  In a struggle, Leonora produces a pistol and aims it at Pizzarro, but her action is interrupted by the sound of a trumpet.  Pizzarro and Rocco realise this heralds the arrival of the Minister, but Leonora and Florestan imagine that it is a signal of doom.  Pizzarro exits with Rocco, who wrests the pistol from Leonora as they leave.

The hapless couple, trapped in the dungeon, are abandoned to despair, tempered only by their rediscovered love.  As Leonora is about to explain her ploy, Marcellina enters – she has stolen her father’s keys and is intent on rescuing her beloved from any danger.  ‘Fidelio’ refuses to leave and, in front of her husband, has to swear love to Marcellina in order to persuade her to take a message to the Minister.

The couple cling to each other and steel themselves for possible death.  Suddenly the dungeon is entered by the Minister and the others.  Florestan recognises his old friend, Don Fernando.  Fernando has had the situation explained to him by Rocco.  Rocco now explains that he had seized Leonora’s pistol in case desperation drove her to rash action.  Marcellina complains about Leonora’s deceit, and Leonora promises to pay her a dowry: Giacchino quickly presents himself as a candidate.  Pizzarro is condemned and led away, and the opera ends in praise of virtue and courage.

Reviews

A fascinating evening
Opera, October 2008

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A fascinating evening

Opera, October 2008

Pierre Gaveaux’s French revolutionary opera Leonore ou L’Amour conjugal, which appeared at the Theatre feydeau in 1798, and was published, had three successors in 1804-5: Ferdinando Paer’s Leonora ossia L’amore conjugale in Dresden in October; Beethoven’s Leonore oder Die eheliche Liebe at the Theater an der Wien a month later (the title Beethoven wanted, though the management changed it to Fidelio); and Simone Mayr’s L’amore conjugale in Padua in July.  Paer’s Leonora had a Viennese private performance at the Lobkowitz Palace in 1806, and 12 performances (in German translation) at the Burgtheater in 1809-10.  Beethoven attended, and scholars have speculated whether it may have influenced his 1814 revision of Leonore into the familiar Fidelio.  After a live encounter with Paer’s opera, my conclusion is that it probably did – but chiefly in confirming the composer’s convictions about what not to do, what to avoid, when refashioning his own great, serious opera.

This was the first British performance of Paer’s work.  Attending a Bampton performance is often essential for enthusiasts, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.  No way of getting there except by motoring is listed on its website (whereas Glyndebourne is reachable, and indeed encourages access, by public transport).  If we wish to sit during the performance, we are instructed to bring our own chairs.  (Garsington provides tiered seating, some shelter from the British summer, and picnic tents and tables).  So we lugged our chairs to the Deanery lawn, umbrellas in readiness (but there was only a drop or two on the first night), and on a cold, damp evening shivered beneath rugs and shawls as we prepared to enjoy the opera.

Enjoy it we did.  Bampton Classical Opera offers operas that one wants to hear, albeit in modest stagings.  Arne’s Alfred, Benda’s Romeo und Julie, Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni, Salieri’s Falstaff figure in its annals.  Promising young singers appear in its casts.  Paer’s Leonora began well.  The overture, led by Robin Newton, was eloquent.  So was the prelude to the second act, and many another instrumental contribution in a score remarkable for its varied obbligatos.  The orchestra played in a tent to the right of the stage whence the players couldn’t see the singers, and they occasionally lost contact.  Bampton’s open-air acoustics, entirely without resonance, are curious.  The first impression may suggest an acoustic recording played on a portable gramophone; but the ear swiftly attunes, and then welcomes an honesty of excellently audible sound.  Paer’s instrumental inventiveness was again and again striking.  Everything was clearly heard.

And the sung drama began well: Marcellina and Giacchino’s opening utterances were delivered, by Emily Rowley Jones and Samuel Evans, with every word clear.  Bampton knows that opera ‘makes sense’ when the listeners understand what the singers are saying.  Verbal communicativeness continued to inform the Bampton performance.  Cara McHardy, the Leonora, though underpowered in the heroine’s biggest moments, didn’t push into stridency, and she matched Marcellina well in the flibbertigibbet flights that Paer write for them.  Michael Bracegirdle was the Florestan, Adrian Powter the Rocco, Jonathan Stoughton the Pizarro (a tenor, with no aria), and John Upperton the Don Fernando.  The action, directed by Jeremy Gray, was shifted from Spain to revolutionary Paris, and Gray was also the designer; his back-of-stage guillotine won a laugh when it made its first chippy-chippy-chop descent.  The English translation, by Gilly French and Gray, had some Gilbertian rhymed moments but sang fluently and matched Paer’s music well enough, except when Rocco sang a jarring ‘OK’ and ‘get cracking’.

Most of Paer’s numbers begin well.  The arias for Leonora and for Florestan are large-scale bigger than those in Beethoven’s opera; and the introduction to Florestan’s is particularly striking.  (‘Paer at his least insipid’, Winton Dean called it.)  Most of the numbers – though not these two – fail to sustain interest, go on too long, are extended by cliché.  It was a fascinating evening, honestly, decently and ambitiously performed: a page of musical history brought to life, a first encounter that for opera-goers with long memories recalled the rewarding St Pancras adventures long ago.
Andrew Porter

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a high quality cast
Opera Now, November/December 2008

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a high quality cast

Opera Now, November/December 2008

Bampton Classical Opera makes a habit of putting on less well-known operas.  Ferdinando Paer’s Leonora, despite being the most famous of his 55 operas, thus received its UK premiere here.  The story is based on the same plot as Beethoven’s work, and so comparisons are inevitable.  Though this performance was sung in English, its Italian origins are shown in the continuity of its sung recitative, not the spoken dialogue of Beethoven’s Singspiel; a larger difference is more of a focus on the intimate relationships of the main characters that Beethoven’s epic portrayal of freedom.

Paer was, by all accounts, a thoroughly unpleasant character, not thinking twice at slandering his fellow composers and, according to contemporary sources, frequently putting away a staggering amount of booze with seemingly no effect.  Notwithstanding these faults, his operas were extremely popular; the premiere of Paer’s Leonora was considerably more successful than Beethoven’s.

Into his struggle for freedom, Paer intersperses a fair amount of humorous moments, particularly seen in the comically turbulent relationship between Marcellina, Leonora and Giacchino, something that creates a reasonably well-rounded drama.  Unfortunately, the arias hold up this drama to the extent that much of the sense of movement or dramatic tension is lost.  Paer’s musical style is pleasant enough – much closer to Mozart than to Beethoven – but there’s something of a lack of variety here, and all those extended perfect cadences and repeats get a little wearing by the end.

The singers, however, brought the music to life.  Marcellina (Emily Rowley Jones) was a pleasure to watch and hear; her voice was freash and enticing and she had a clarity that was beguiling.  What Cara McHardy (Leonora) occasionally lacked in accuracy she made up for in power and richness of tone; their second-act duet was the stand-out highlight of the night.  The jailer Rocco (Adrian Powter) was excellent, as was Michael Bracegirdle as Florestan, who only appeared in act II, but who made up for it by singing a succession of high-tessitura and high-tension arias with admirable strength and stamina.  Samuel Evans and Jonathan Stoughton (Giacchino and the villain Don Pizzarro) were perhaps slightly less convincing, but this was a high-quality cast.  Robin Newton did his best with the orchestra – it can’t be easy playing in a tent to the side of the stage as the sun and temperature go down; the set was simple but effective.  I’m not sure I’d rush to hear Paer again, but the singers made the evening worthwhile.

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Jonathan Wikely

 

this imaginative, focused production
Opera Today, 22 September 2008

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this imaginative, focused production

Opera Today, 22 September 2008

Musically and dramatically Ferdinando Paer’s Leonora and Beethoven’s Fidelio might be said to belong respectively to pre- and post-revolutionary ages.  Based, like its more well-known successor, upon Jean Nicolas Bouilly’s play Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal, Paer’s opera has many textual similarities with Beethoven’s drama of heroic rescue and noble sentiments.  The faithful wife who disguises herself as a boy in order to reach and rescue her unjustly imprisoned husband forms the core of both works; yet, in Paer’s opera it is not Leonora but the flighty daughter of the jailor who actually releases him from bondage.  Indeed, from the light-weight dalliances of the opening moments to the exuberant, self-satisfied moralising of the final sextet (echoes of Don Giovanni or Cosí?), Paer reveals himself to be more comfortable with the world of petty intrigue and human foibles than with the exalted idealism of Beethoven’s utopian aspirations.

That said, this imaginative, focused production by Bampton Classical Opera, directed and designed by Jeremy Gray – and first presented under gloomy summer skies at Bampton Deanery on 18 July – made a strong case, both musically and dramatically, for this infrequently performed work.  Act 2, in particular, revealed serious musical and dramatic intent, the dramatic momentum of the recitative and the emotional intensity of Florestan’s long opening aria of darkness and suffering, proving surprisingly progressive.

Paer makes little distinction between the music of the two female roles, Marcellina and Leonora/Fidele; both are high sopranos, but the star on this occasion was Emily Rowley Jones, who expertly conveyed the spirited passion, tempered by an essential kindness and innocence, of the jailor’s daughter.  Rowley Jones possessed the stamina required of this demanding role, and her voice remained well-centred and sweet throughout; virtuosic flourishes were dispatched with apparent ease, and intelligently nuanced to serve the dramatic situation.  She brought Mozartian grace and wit to the opening scenes; her movements on the small stage were well-choreographed and deftly executed.  It was through the dynamic contrast between Marcellina’s unrequited passion for ‘Fidele’ and her impatient dismissal of Giacchino’s courtship that the drama gained vitality.

Both female roles demand a wide range and much staying power – Marcellina requires the compass of a Queen of the Night; in the title role, Cara McHardy initially seemed ill-at-ease, her breath control a little insecure and the more virtuosic passages not always firmly controlled.  However, as the performance progresses she showed herself on occasion more than capable of rising to the challenges of the taxing coloratura and bringing both meaning and beauty to her interpretation.  Unfortunately her lack of confidence dramatically was noticeable in the ensembles where she appeared uncomfortable and at times vocally subdued.

As in previous Bampton productions, Adrian Powter, as Rocco, revealed his instinct for the dramatic moment, moving confidently and establishing a strong stage presence.  He injected appropriate weight and bluff into his boasting tirades, which benefited also from excellent diction.  Samuel Evans, as the hapless prison janitor, Giacchino, similarly demonstrated sound comic timing and nuance, and together they significantly contributed to the dramatic momentum, which might have been hampered by the many long reflective arias and by the extensive duet for Marcellina and Leonora in Act 2. 

The challenges of the twenty-minute aria for Florestan which opens Act 2 are many; but Michael Bracegirdle proved himself able to shape the various sections of his painful, desolate lament on his lengthy suffering in the darkness into a convincing whole, employing an extensive dynamic range and sensitive tonal variations.

Despite the foreboding guillotine and imposing dungeon walls which dominated the set, it was difficult for the cast to inject any real menace into Paer’s drama.  There is no prisoners’ chorus to emphasise the themes of imprisonment and despair; and Pizarro, the prison governor, is a rather unconvincing stage-villain – his comic arrogance emphasised here by his Napoleonic cape and eye-patch.  His bluster may be less than threatening, but Jonathan Stoughton sang securely if a little blandly.  It was not Stoughton’s fault that, following a rather feeble confrontation with Leonora, Pizarro found himself cast in chains, and one immediately forgot about him.  Indeed, there is a deflation of dramatic tension towards the close of Act 2: the arrival of Marcellina, demanding a marriage proposal from ‘Fedele’ somewhat dispels the threat of violence, and the arrival of Don Fernando, sung here with warm radiance by John Upperton, swiftly and effortlessly restores harmony and accord.

However, Paer’s opera does have many notable features, not least its strong melodic character.  This is evident from the first bars of the overture, a seemingly simple medley of forthcoming themes, which has an original feature in the heroine’s romantic ‘motto’ theme, heard three times here and subsequently reiterated most effectively at crucial points in the action.  Throughout the orchestration surprises and delights: while the rather clichéd trumpet call introducing the sinister dungeon setting and the three percussive chimes announcing the hour of Florestan’s murder may fail to send a shiver up the spine, overall the writing revealed some striking colours, exploiting unusual instrumental combinations, especially for the woodwind.  The score was well-executed by the London Mozart Players.  Situated behind the imposing set, conductor Robin Newton led them in lively fashion; indeed, he set off at a pace which left the singers somewhat trailing in the orchestra’s wake, anxiously glancing at the distantly-placed monitors; but secure ensemble was quickly restored and the overall balance between soloists and orchestra was well-judged.

Paer’s Leonora is an excellent example of its genre – a semi-seria opera, in which the frivolous and tragic co-exist and interact.  It may be that the comic plot slightly overshadows the high drama of wrongful imprisonment and tyranny, but this intelligent, well-paced production by Bampton Classical Opera made a convincing case for the composer’s melodic lyricism and left this listener eager for another opportunity to hear this unfairly neglected work.

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Claire Seymour

 

something out of the ordinary
The Oxford Times, 25 July 2008

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something out of the ordinary

The Oxford Times, 25 July 2008

For those who haven't been, Bampton Classical Opera is rather eccentric, in an English sort of way. The audience bring their own chairs and the organisation has a charmingly quality. The singers are professional, however, and the repertoire usually provides an opportunity to hear something out of the ordinary.

Saturday's offering was Leonora, by Ferdinando Paer, a contemporary of Beethoven. The work is based on the same literary source as Fidelio. Paer specialised in semiseria operas with two plot lines - one serious and dramatic, the other comic. The wrongfully imprisoned Florestano and his wife Leonora (disguised as a man - Fidelio) provide the high drama, while Marcellina, the gaoler's daughter, and her suitor Giacchino deliver the comedy.

Dramas involving prisoners being rescued by faithful spouses were popular around the time of the French Revolution and the play on which this opera and Fidelio are based is a typical example of this genre. The central plot is overly melodramatic and plods along towards an outcome which is never in doubt.

Leonora has two affecting arias in the middle of the first act which temporarily elevate the overall tone, and Florestano sings a moving aria in which he pleads for water. There is also a fine dramatic moment in Act II when three chimes ring out from the percussion announcing the hour of Florestano's appointed murder. Otherwise the show is stolen by the comic subplot.

It was with Marcellina's unrequited passion for Fidelio, and Giacchino's clumsy wooing, that this production came to life. For me the young Emily Rowley Jones as Marcellina was the star of the piece. Both her singing and her acting were delightful. Adrian Powter was persuasive as Rocco and Cara McHardy (Leonora) was in fine voice in the arias in Act I, and in the lovely duet with Marcellina in Act II. The rest of the cast gave capable performances, and the orchestra provided good support.

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Simon Collings

 

Programme notes

Historical fact or musical fiction?

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Historical fact or musical fiction?

“An excellent and jolly fellow” was the estimation by the Irish tenor and raconteur Michael Kelly of the character of Ferdinando Paer (1771-1839), whom he met in Paris in 1814: what’s more, Kelly was much impressed by the Italian composer’s ability to consume significant quantities of champagne, burgundy, coffee and brandy, and still to be able to sit down at the piano and accompany himself singing “with infinite grace and expression, as sober as a judge.”  Not all found Paer so amenable, and his apparently dissolute life and tendency to undermine his rivals made him a frequent target for criticism and defamation.  Most acknowledged, however grudgingly, his talents, and Paer was a far more important composer than the current paucity of performances indicates - indubitably one of the dominant figures in Italian music between the generation of Cimarosa and Paisiello, and that of Rossini.  Having established his reputation in his home-town of Parma (and where his godfather was conveniently the Grand Duke Ferdinand), he moved to Vienna in 1797 to assume musical direction of the Kärntnertortheater.  By this date he had 23 operas under his belt - to say nothing of the “women of the theatre” with whom he liked to pass his time.  Four years in Vienna led to the creation of several significant works, including Camilla, or the Underground Vault, a semi-seria opera based on a French revolutionary libretto, and replete with fashionably gloomy gothic imagery, anticipating several aspects of character and setting which were later to be explored in Leonora.  Vienna also brought opportunities to study the music of Mozart, and to meet his contemporary Beethoven, and it is recorded that here “his harmony became more vigorous, his instrumentation richer, his modulation more varied”.  Perhaps his own German ancestry (his name was variously spelt Paër, Pär or Per) enabled him to marry Italian grace and energy with a Germanic sophistication of orchestration and tonal richness.  

Paer was wise however not to put down too many roots as mobility between the courts and theatres of Europe was usually the best way for an ambitious composer to achieve status and wealth.  Via Prague in 1801, he moved to Dresden as court Kapellmeister to the Elector of Saxony, and here Leonora was written and first performed at the Kleines Kurfürstlichestheater on 3 October 1804, with Paer’s wife Francesca Riccardi taking the title rôle.  Here he came to the admiring attention of Napoleon who attended a performance of Achille in 1807 and consequently persuaded Paer and his wife to join his retinue during his Polish campaigns.  Taking Paer back to Paris (where his wife left him), Napoleon appointed him ‘Composer to the Emperor’ on a very grand salary.  Napoleon’s fall in 1814 inevitably led to something of a demise and his influence and prestige waned further in the 1820s, partly thanks to the arrival and success of Rossini.  However, as musical director of the Théâtre-Italien from 1812 until 1827, Paer was well-placed to attempt to damage the reputation of his younger rival and he waged a virtual war against him, and other rivals, for several years.  Even Beethoven was the victim of his conceit, as Berlioz recorded, describing him as “the crafty Italian, who claimed to have known Beethoven, and told stories about him more or less discreditable to the great man and favourable to himself.”

It is of course thanks to Beethoven that Paer’s dramma semiserio, Leonora, ossia L’amore coniugale has emerged as effectively the only one of his 55 or so operas to bring him lasting fame.  Paer’s choice of subject and text was fashionably topical in the aftermath of the French Revolution.  His Italian libretto was by Giovanni Schmidt, a dominant figure in Neapolitan opera who later worked for Rossini: another composer-collaborator, Pacini, says that “misery was Schmidt’s constant companion, so that his personality, distressing beyond description, inspired melancholy just on seeing him.”  Schmidt’s text for Paer was not an original work, but a fairly close translation of the play Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly (1763-1842), which had already been set to music by Pierre Gaveaux in Paris in 1798.

Bouilly’s text was also to serve another Italian librettist Gaetano Rossi, working for the composer Simon Mayr in 1805 (L’amor coniugale).  Rossi and Mayr took greater liberties with the text which they recast into a single act farsa sentimentale, moving the action to ‘exotic’ Poland, and changing the names of the characters.  Significantly the motivation of Pizare (renamed Moroski) in imprisoning Florestan (Amorveno) is his lust for Amorveno’s wife Leonore (Zeliska).  The opera contains some glorious music, especially Zeliska’s outburst aria Rende il consorte amato, a constant feature in all the versions, and some fast-moving and exciting ensembles.  But, notwithstanding the fact that the Marceline/Jacquino sub-plot is cut, perhaps there is less sense of the weight and sublimity which are implicit in the original story.

Bouilly, the original librettist of Léonore, was keen to provide his text with the piquant topicality of historical truth.  Although expediently relocating the action to fifteenth-century Spain, the author enhanced the reality appeal of his narrative through the appellation ‘fait historique’: those who had lived through the recent years of French terror, whatever their political colour, would have empathized with its theme of unjust and tyrannical imprisonment thwarted by marital bravery effected through daring disguise.  The risky duplicity adopted by Bouilly’s eponymous heroine, who in her male disguise as an orphaned stranger gains entrance not only to the prison where she hopes to find her incarcerated husband but also to the besotted heart of the jailor’s daughter Marceline, was undoubtedly a skill shared by the author.  Juggling a career as a lawyer and man of letters, Bouilly himself played a dangerous role through the traumatic years of Revolution; if he had stayed in Paris in 1791 (where his four-act Pierre le grand with music by Grétry had been well received at the Théâtre-Italien), his Rousseauesque liberalism and support for the concept of benign royalty could well have singled him out for revolutionary suspicion.  Wisely retreating to his birthplace of Tours, he progressively reinvented himself as a leading judicial figure in the burgeoning revolutionary committees of the district.  At the Festival of the Unity and Indivisibility of the Republic in August 1793 and in his official legal capacity he publicly hurled despised symbols and portraits of royalty into a purging bonfire.  By early 1794, the months of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, he had become a public prosecutor and president of the Touraine Commission Militaire, and his duties including signing death-warrants for anti-Revolutionaries. 

Yet, if his autobiographical memoirs of 1836-7 are to be believed – and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Bouilly was not adverse to embroidering fact with fantasy – this fervent agent of revolution was using his official duties as a mask for a double-life as a protector of the citizens of his home-town from the worst excesses of this tumultuous period.  He claimed to be one of a band of ten courageous citizens who – Scarlet Pimpernel-like – put their own lives at risk in order to protect the safety of those under threat.  As a regular visitor at La Plaine, the recently-acquired estate of the wealthy Mercier family from Paris, Bouilly basked in his dangerous infamy: 

“Once night had covered the beautiful banks of the Loire with its protective shadow, I would walk along them for an hour in secret, and so arrived for a delightful visit to la Plaine, where I could free myself from the cares of the day and where I could recount what I had been doing… alleviating the lot of prisoners and calming the fear of accused innocents.”

One of the undoubted attractions of La Plaine was the beautiful Eugénie Rével, a young relative of Elisabeth Mercier and who was to become Bouilly’s wife in November 1793.  The elegant Madame Mercier however is of greater significance in the gestation of Léonore.  Bouilly’s friendship with the Merciers had originated through a series of circumstances which bear some resemblance to his “fait historique”.  As Touraine judge, Bouilly had received a denunciation against the Merciers from Louis-Julien-Simon Héron, an unscrupulous police agent of the Parisian Committee of Public Safety.  On investigating the case, Bouilly discovered that Héron, who owed significant sums of money to M. Mercier in Paris, had repaid the kindness by attempting to seduce his wife.  Elisabeth had resisted him strenuously and Héron consequently sought revenge: ‘full of resentment against an honest woman, who had remained faithful to her vows rather than surrender to a vile intriguer, [he] now took vengeance by seeking her execution.’  Bouilly helped to protect the Merciers and revealed Héron’s duplicity to the Parisian authorities.  Here then, perhaps, was a model of depravity for the character Pizare, and Elisabeth’s fidelity finds echo in the virtue of l’amour conjugal displayed so resourcefully by Léonore.  Bouilly’s specific claim for his play Léonore was that it was based on ‘a sublime act of heroism and devotion by one of the Touraine ladies whose noble efforts I had the pleasure of assisting’.  Whether this was a further reference to the story of Elisabeth Mercier, ‘cette femme adorable’, he never explicitly stated.

Léonore, completed by the time Bouilly and his new wife returned to a slightly calmer Paris in 1795, may indeed therefore have had some basis in history.  In returning to the capital, he was anxious to recover his former career as a dramatic writer, and in creating what was ultimately to become his most famous story, he was also taking up a topical theme.  Rescue dramas and operas in which, often, an innocent prisoner is liberated through the bravery of a spouse, were becoming staple fare in the Parisian theatres.  Such stories pitted selfless bravery and virtue against the machinations of tyranny, and drew on a growing taste for the gothic sublime, expressed in the frisson of gloomy towers and dank dungeons.  But Bouilly’s text would have remained an unimportant example of the genre had he not met and nurtured the successful singer-composer Pierre Gaveaux in 1797.  Gaveaux was persuaded to set the play, which opened as an opera comique at the Théâtre Feydeau on 19 February 1798.  Gaveaux himself created the role of Florestan and acclaim for both text and music was considerable.  It remained in the repertory for eight years, although Bouilly was to crown this success with one even greater when his Les deux journées was given operatic treatment by the most original operatic composer in Paris at the end of the century, Luigi Cherubini. 

Bouilly’s lasting fame with Léonore was however thanks not to Gaveaux but to its ultimate transformation into the text wrestled with by Beethoven and a series of librettists over several years to become Fidelio.  Beethoven first worked on the theme in a German version by Joseph Sonnleithner in 1804 leading to a disastrous first performance (the version we now call Leonora) in Vienna in November 1805.  His revised second version followed four months later, and the final version, the Fidelio now generally known, was first performed in May 1814.  Despite its dramaturgical and even musical flaws, Fidelio has become a cornerstone of the operatic repertory and it is inevitable that most listeners to Paer’s Leonora will seek comparisons with Beethoven’s profound and formidable work.

One of the main criticisms levelled against Beethoven is the fact that he seems ill-at-ease with the subplot of the avaricious jailor Rocco, his flighty daughter Marzelline and her frustrated and petulant would-be fiancé Jaquino.  The opening numbers of Fidelio are considered by some to be light-weight, and somehow unworthy of the profound seriousness which permeates Leonora/Fidelio and her noble mission of liberation.  Petty domesticity sits uneasily when juxtaposed with the sublime universal of freedom and “the triumph of married love”.

Paer, whose musical language was much closer to Mozart than was Beethoven’s, clearly relished this inherent clash of social strata and mood.  Even in the overture (which could qualify for the title “Leonora No 4”), after the initial statement, later reiterated, of the noble theme which represents Leonora’s courageous determination, and which reappears in the introduction to her formidable Act 1 aria as well as in the Act 2 trio, he moves into an allegro of almost Haydnesque playfulness.  Marcellina’s opening aria in which she declares her infatuation for ‘Fidelio’ and her subsequent argument with Giacchino is highly reminiscent of the music and character of Susanna and Figaro, and that spirit returns in the ironic Act 2 duet when Marcellina, having stolen the keys to the dungeon, tries to persuade ‘Fidelio’ to leave, forcing protestations of love from Leonora in the presence of her hapless husband. The virtuosic music for Marcellina in any case renders her a much more prominent seconda donna than in the Beethoven, and the overall dramaturgy of the plot, however unlikely, gains integration and even a realism of sorts as a result.

The relationships between the four Leonora/Fidelio operas have been much debated and they form a fascinating sequence of literary and musical transformation.  It has been argued that Beethoven knew the published score of Gaveaux and he certainly heard Paer’s work in 1808; a score was in his studio when he died.  A number of points of similarity, although dismissed by some scholars, suggest that he could have known Paer’s opera at the time he was working on his first drafts – the two composers had met as early as 1797.  As Peter Maag has commented, “those who know and love Fidelio are in for a strange experience when they renew acquaintance with the familiar characters in Pizzarro’s prison illuminated by entirely different music.”  Points of familiarity include the knocks on the gate which interrupt Giacchino’s attempt to woo Marcellina, the serene entrance of ‘Fidelio’ bearing the chains, the powerful heroism expressed in the huge (even longer than in Fidelio) solo scenas for Leonora and Florestan, the Act 2 trio about the piece of bread, and the trumpet-call announcing the arrival of the Minister.  But striking differences give the work its own colour and integrity -  as an Italian opera it benefits from the continuity of sung recitative rather than the spoken dialogue of Beethoven’s Singspiel, and Pizzarro is a sung role rather than the spoken character in Fidelio.  Most significantly, with no chorus of prisoners and no final return to the light, Leonora is more concerned with an intimate ‘conjugal love’ than with epic freedom, and the bold lyricism of Paer’s style paints and elaborates that theme with expressive beauty and verisimilitude.

In recent years many directors have sought to give universal relevance to Beethoven’s Fidelio through updating to settings such as the prisons of the Third Reich or Guantanamo Bay.  Bouilly’s text, whatever its origin or historical context, is indeed a parable for all times.  A current (June 2008) Amnesty International leaflet highlights the ongoing plight of political repression in a major modern state -  “In August 2007, X was chained to an iron bed for six days.  His arms and legs were stretched so tightly he couldn’t move…  At the time, he had not been charged with any crime.  He had been detained solely for his involvement in raising a petition…  After eight months in detention, he was sentenced to five years imprisonment for ‘inciting subversion of state power.’ ”  Florestan – sadly – remains a child of our time.


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