Fidelio Synopsis - The Story of Beethoven’s One and Only Opera

The Story of Beethoven’s One and Only Opera

Joseph Karl Stieler/Wikimedia CC 2.0

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote and premiered his only opera, Fidelio on November 20th, 1805, in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien. Fidelio takes place in Seville, Spain during the 18th Century.

The Story of Fidelio

Fidelio, ACT 1
In a prison outside of Seville where Marzelline’s father, Rocco, works as a jailer, Marzelline is pestered by the flirtations of Jacquino, her father’s assistant.  Jacquino has high hopes of marrying her one day, but Marzelline has her heart set on Fidelio, the prison’s new errand boy.  Fidelio works hard and arrives at the prison everyday with plenty of provisions.  When Fidelio finds out that Marzelline has taken an interest in him, he becomes anxious - especially after he learns that Rocco has given his blessing upon the possible relationship.  It turns out Fidelio isn’t who he says he is; Fidelio is actually a noblewoman by the name of Leonore disguised as a young man for the purpose of finding her husband who was captured and imprisoned because of his political affiliations.  Rocco mentions that a man chained up deep within the vaults below is practically at death’s door.  Leonore overhears him and believes it is her husband, Florestan.  Leonore beseeches Rocco to accompany him on his prison rounds, to which he happily agrees, but the prison’s governor, Don Pizarro, only allows Rocco to enter the dungeon’s lower levels.  

In the courtyard where the soldiers gather, Don Pizarro is brought news that the minister of state, Don Fernando, is making his way to the prison in order to inspect it as well as to investigate the rumors that Don Pizarro is a tyrant.  With a sense of urgency, Don Pizarro decides it would be best to execute Florestan before the minister’s arrival.  Calling over Rocco, Don Pizarro orders him to dig a grave for Florestan’s body.  Luckily, Leonore is nearby and hears Don Pizarro’s evil plans.  She prays for strength then begs Rocco to take her on his prison rounds again, more specifically the condemned man’s cell.  She persuades Rocco into letting the prisoners out into the courtyard for a bit of fresh air.  As soon as the prisoners are ushered into the courtyard Don Pizarro orders them to return to their cells immediately.  He then rushes Rocco into digging Florestan’s grave.  As Rocco enters the dungeon, Leonore quickly follows behind him.

Fidelio, ACT 2
Deep within the prison’s dungeon, a delirious Florestan has visions of Leonore freeing him from the hellish place.  Sadly, when he comes to, he finds himself to be all alone and collapses in despair.  Moments later, Rocco and Leonore enter with shovels, ready to dig the grave.  Florestan sputters a few words, not recognizing his wife, asking for a drink.  Rocco shows some compassion for the prisoner and fetches him a glass of water.  Leonore can barely contain herself, but she remains composed enough to offer him a bit of bread while telling him to remain hopeful.  Once they are finished digging the grave, Rocco sounds his whistle to alert Don Pizarro that everything is ready.  Don Pizarro makes his way into Florestan’s cell, but before murdering him he confesses to his acts of tyranny.  Just as Don Pizarro draws back the dagger into the air and makes the downward swing, Leonore reveals her true identity and withdraws the pistol she had hidden on her person, which causes Don Pizarro’s movement to pause.  Within an instant, the horns are sounded as Don Fernando steps foot on the prison’s grounds.  Rocco immediately escorts Don Pizarro out to courtyard to greet him.  Meanwhile, Florestan and Leonore celebrate their reunion.

Outside, Don Fernando announces the eradication of tyranny.  Rocco approaches him with Leonore and Florestan, who happens to be an old friend of his.  Rocco asks for help and explains how Don Pizarro imprisoned Florestan and his cruel treatment of him, how Leonore’s heroic actions saved her husband, and reveals Don Pizarro’s murder plot.  Don Fernando immediately sentences Don Pizarro to prison and has his men escort him away.  Leonore is given the keys to unlock Florestan’s chains, and she happily and hastily sets him free.  The remaining prisoners are also set free and everyone rejoices and celebrates Leonore.

Other Popular Opera Synopses:

Wagner's TannhauserDonizetti's Lucia di LammermoorMozart's The Magic FluteVerdi's Rigoletto, & ​Puccini's Madama Butterfly