Happy endings are not exactly the norm in the opera house. Brünnhilde rides into the flames, Tosca jumps from the battlements, Lucia goes mad, and Salome is crushed to death by a shield. And when all does seem to end well there’s sometimes a bitter after taste in the mouth. Can anyone ever really trust Dorabella and Fiordiligi again or has Ford followed his jealousy for the last time? We know for sure what happens when Rosina becomes the Countess Almaviva, her husband starts chasing the servants.
So is the happy end simply an easy way of tying the plot together and send us home whistling the best tunes in a score, no more than a theatrical convention. And do we really believe it, knowing that in life that completely happy endings are as rare as … well love draughts and elixirs.
These thoughts are provoked by the closing scene in Calixto Bieito’s production of Fidelio. I won’t spoil things by revealing what actually happens on stage, except to say that Bieito seems determined to challenge that sense of transcendent joy that we usually experience at the end of Beethoven’s only opera. For so many of us it has become an article of faith that in rescuing her husband Florestan and in appearing to secure freedom for the other prisoners, Leonore has vindicated the idea of freedom. The sublime trumpet call announcing Don Fernando has ushered in a better time.
That’s certainly what the music tells us. Indeed the final pages of this score which cost Beethoven such pains to write to his own satisfaction seem to reach for the stars quite as much as the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. And the musical journey that Fidelio follows is exactly that of the symphonies, from darkness to blazing light.
Yet is it a genuinely happy ending, have we turned the page on tyranny? Or is this how we want things to be, a representation of our better selves rather than things as they really are. Music and music theatre can sometimes make us believe ten things at breakfast that we know to be untrue by lunchtime and have forgotten by supper. The power of the final scene of Fidelio may be that for a brief span we believe the impossible.
Let me continue to play devil’s advocate. We are asked to accept that Florestan and Leonore fall into each other’s arms as if it was only yesterday that he had been arrested and imprisoned. The memories of hostages in our own time, the testimony of men and women who came out of the Nazi camps or the Gulag or returned from the countryside to their families after Mao’s Cultural Revolution speak of a much more complex period of readjustment, a readjustment that was sometimes impossible. And what about the other prisoners in Don Pizzaro and Rocco’s gaol? They cheer and sing, but will they be going home tonight to Seville or wherever. A last thought … Don Fernando and Don Pizarro are presumably political allies within the same government, so someone must have appointed Pizzaro. Are we expecting regime change as the curtain falls on Fidelio?
Yet these thoughts can never banish what I feel at the end of Fidelio. Instinctively I know that things don’t have to be the way they are. We can strive for justice and liberty and freedom for all. As William Furtwangler said of this opera in 1948, just three years after the defeat of Nazi Germany “the sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a 'religion of humanity' which we never found so beautiful or necessary as we do today, after all we have lived through.”
What do you think? Does the final scene in Fidelio simply convey a happy ending for Florestan and Leonore? Does Beethoven’s ending signal a striving towards a new future, a new society or a new way of thinking? Or are we all still prisoners of our minds; masters or servants of fate? Let us know what you think by adding your thoughts to the comment thread below.