I can understand how Beethoven was drawn to the story of FIDELIO as Leonore and Florestan encompass the ideals of Enlightenment that Beethoven embraced. Leonore is liberty and freedom; Florestan, the political whistle blower turned captive. Together they represent the romanticized everlasting conjugal love. Many believe that Leonore embodies Beethoven’s ideal woman; loyal, virtuous, and courageous; while Florestan epitomizes Beethoven’s own feelings of being cut off from his music and society as a result of his hearing loss.
But what of the other characters?
I studied the role of Marzelline in school as a vocal performance major, and so I think of her and the other forgotten ladies of opera whose stories are often overshadowed by the central characters’ grief or joy. A few of them I’ve come to know well.
Mozart’s Despina in COSI FAN TUTTE provides us with comic relief as she gives, uh, advice and aid to those she serves. But she is excluded from taking any romantic part herself in the scandalous love affairs. (“Una donna a quindici anni”)
Bizet’s Micaela seems to be constantly searching for, or pleading with Don José, who ends up murdering Carmen out of jealousy. Perhaps leaving Micaela brokenhearted and alone with Don José’s mother. (“Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante”)
Puccini’s loyal servant girl, Liu, sacrifices herself to protect Prince Calaf, who she secretly loves. Then he warms the ice princess’s heart (Princess Turandot) and they live happily ever after. Not Liu, she kills herself, remember. (Singore, Ascolta!)
Perhaps including Gilbert and Sullivan’s Katisha in THE MIKADO is a bit of a stretch, but the old lady of the court thought she had her golden ticket to love and marriage, until she realizes that her own court appointed fiancé, Nanki-Poo, is in disguise and in love with Yum-Yum, a younger, prettier maiden. (Important to note that in this case, I was the younger, prettier maiden). Katisha ends up with an unenthusiastic marriage agreement from Ko-ko. But, at least not forgotten…or dead.
Douglas Moore’s Augusta Tabor is left by her husband for the younger, prettier Baby Doe (again, I got to be the younger, prettier one this time as well). Some years later, Augusta is still confronting her decisions and regrets she has made regarding her ex-husband. (Augusta! How can you turn away?)
Certainly these characters are integral to their respective operas – despite their stories feeling a little unresolved.
In studying the role of Marzelline, I’ve explored how I can endear her to the audience. In the opening scene we learn that the young maiden has fallen for Fidelio (really Leonore, a woman in disguise as a man), while she rejects poor persistent Jacquino (a young man). This scene, no doubt, contains an element of humor in the wink wink, nudge nudge sense. Leonard Bernstein remarked, “Now ordinarily such a set-up would produce a hilarious comedy of mistaken identity, awkward complications and lots of belly-laughs.” We see a glimpse of this here:
Jacquino: My dear, we are alone, we can speak privately.
Marzelline: Well nothing important, I have work to do.
Jacquino: …just hear me out, and then I’ll leave you in peace. (Pleading)
Marzelline: Speak already, or I’ll never have peace.
Jacquino: …I have chosen you for my wife! (Desperate)
Marzelline: That is indeed very clear. (Uninterested)
Marzelline goes on to sing her aria, “O wär’ ich schon mit dir vereint,” where she daydreams about a delightful future with Fidelio. Blissful Beethoven is great, but do we remember Marzelline next to the glitz and glam of Leonore’s passionate Abscheulicher aria? As the opera continues, the love triangle between Marzelline, Jacquino and Leonore gets caught up and lost in the drama. As a performer, this leaves me to fill in a lot of blanks. For example, at the end of the opera when Florestan is finally freed and Leonore’s true identity is revealed, does Marzelline feel compassion, or betrayal? Is she left broken hearted? After all, she had been hoping for a wedding to Fidelio.
The only insight we are privy to is her one line response of, “uh.” Jacquino is not even afforded that much at the conclusion. Yet often, the opera is staged with Marzelline and Jacquino holding hands as they join in singing the triumphant finale.
I wonder what Beethoven envisioned for Marzelline and Jacquino. Despite Beethoven’s rough demeanor, he really was a romantic – and like Marzelline and Jacquino – (and Despina, Micaela, Liu, Katisha and Augusta) on the romantic sidelines in love.
I invite you to join us in Kentucky Opera’s upcoming production of Fidelio. Together we can gain new insights and interpretations into these characters.
-Aubrey Baker, Manager of Education Programming and Community Outreach