Edmonton Opera stages Beethoven’s first, last, only opera Fidelio

It’s fun to imagine what Ludwig Van Beethoven was like.

There are so many depictions, caricatures and stories about this frowning old composer – some of it must be true. Ornery, given to wild experimentation, perfectionist, did great work and knew it, enjoyed his fame, went deaf, music was used to torture a criminal in a Stanley Kubrick film – modern equivalent: Pete Townshend? Close enough. All entertainment was popular entertainment in those days.

On the heels of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Beethovenic bombast depicting the composer’s last day on Earth (an example of too much fun) comes Edmonton Opera’s production of Beethoven’s last, first, only opera, Fidelio. Continuing a run at the Jubilee Auditorium Tuesday and Thursday, the show’s director Brian Deedrick says that while he loves the man’s music, he’s not sure he would’ve liked Beethoven as a man.

“He was such a perfectionist, and while I admire that, they’re not always much fun to sit beside at the dinner table,” says Deedrick, adding, “You don’t get the feeling he’d pick up the tab, either.”

The director admits he has “nothing concrete” to base his opinion on, save for maybe that Gary Oldman film Immortal Beloved, plus all the depictions, caricatures and stories. What is well documented is how the composer and countless opera singers since pulled their hair out over the opera – especially that pesky F minor Andante un poco agitato between the A flat and F major section in Florestan’s aira: “Gott, welch dunkel hier!”

It’s no surprise Beethoven only wrote one.

“It does certainly put demands on the singers,” Deedrick says, “But there’s something bracing, something exciting about it. You really feel like you’re biting into a full meal deal.”

Under its original title Leonore, Beethoven opened the opera in 1805 in Vienna, which at the time was occupied by the French army. Tough crowd. It was a flop. Beethoven revised the work and did it again the next year, not much luck there, either, revised it again for a show in Prague in 1807, but the gig got cancelled, and then yet again – this time with the help of French playwright Georg Friedreich Treitschke – a major revision and the new title most know today in 1814. Finally it was a hit.

It connected with audiences then as it does now: Because it involves a wrongfully imprisoned hero in a political conflict – Florestan – and the woman (Leonore) who moves heaven and earth to save him (played by soprano Maida Hundeling, top picture, making her Canadian debut). In this case it’s by disguising herself as a man, but the theme is universal.

“The timelessness of the piece is what makes it so important,” Deedrick says. “Our production is set in the modern day, but is it yesterday, tomorrow or today? I don’t want to specify. The minute you hear about people being plucked off the streets and you don’t hear from them again – in Chile, Bosnia – it could be anytime, anywhere.”

Beethoven eventually thanked his collaborator in a letter: “This opera will win for me the martyr’s crown … but by your work you have salvaged a few good bits of a ship that was wrecked and stranded.”

It’s comforting to find out that not all great works of art came out all at once in a single rush of divine inspiration. There’s sometimes a lot of sweat involved. And the “director’s cut” is nothing new. Deedrick is a fan of the “redux,” the artist going back to change an already finished work of art, ostensibly to make it better. Filmmakers do it all the time. Beethoven had a chance to do it with Fidelio. Not all his peers were so lucky.

“The problem is that a lot of these composers up and died,” he says. “I wonder how many would walk out there and say: What I have done is a perfect masterpiece – or given the opportunity later, go back and fix it.”

Depends on how much of a perfectionist he was.