Academic journal article Criticism

Fidelio: Melodramas of Agency and Identity

Academic journal article Criticism

Fidelio: Melodramas of Agency and Identity

Article excerpt

This essay was meant to be an introductory paragraph or perhaps a page on the way to an analysis of Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) and two films widely recognized as being in its orbit, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven (2002).1 My aim was to read these melodramas in terms of the ways in which sexual identity affected possibilities of agency. In the course of thinking about that question, it occurred to me that it also might be asked about a much earlier example of melodrama. This essay takes up that point; it stands as a prolegomenon to an investigation that would lead to Sirk and the melodramas in his debt. That future path is, at times, indicated.

In the score of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio (1814), the duet between Leonore and Rocco in the second act is introduced by what the heading for musical number 12 calls a "Melodram."2 This is the appropriate technical term for this brief two-minute stretch of the opera: the two characters speak, their utterances punctuated with musical phrases. Beethoven's opera is formally a Singspiel or opéra comique; everywhere else in the score, we find either speech or concerted numbers. If the orchestra is playing, the singers will be singing. If not, the singer speaks. Music and speech never interact except in this melodrama. This raises some obvious questions: Why does Beethoven introduce melodrama into his opera? Why at this point in his score does he violate the rules of composition about speech and song? In his stunning 1972 essay "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Drama," Thomas Elsaesser has pointed to melodrama of the kind we find in Fidelio as a "system of punctuation" through which the emotional weight of the moment is underscored.3 For Elsaesser, this formal feature lies at the heart of all melodrama, in the work most readily associated with melodrama in the twentieth centurythe films of Douglas Sirk, most notably. What it might be doing in an opera, where, it is easy to presume, the singing voice heightens emotion, is a question that Elsaesser does not ask.

Elsaesser's point is not about opera but does help to remind us how much the plot of Beethoven's opera and the moment at which it arrives at its dramatic/musical Melodram brings his score into the orbit of a family drama. Leonore is, at this moment, descending into the lowest reaches of a prison in the company of Rocco, the jailer in charge of the prison. In male disguise and bearing the name Fidelio, she has insinuated herself into Rocco's company by winning the affection of his daughter Marzelline away from her previous lover, Jaquino. Now engaged to her, she has persuaded her future father-in-law that she should be a fuller partner to him in his job, his assistant in the most arduous tasks. The job before them is to dig the grave of a long and unjustly held political prisoner whom the commandant of the prison, Pizarro, is about to murder. This prisoner may be her husband Florestan, as Leonore suspects, and as we, but not she, know it is. This is why she has disguised herself-to find him, to save him. At this melodramatic moment of disguise and blocked knowledge-at this moment when Beethoven writes a Melodramdiscoveries of identity-his, hers-are incipient. Will all be revealed or will she be there only to witness his death, to prepare his grave?

Beethoven's Melodram (figure 1) begins with a brief descent partway down a scale, ending with a tremolo punctuation on a diminished seventh chord. After this moment of musical descent and suspension, Leonore speaks in a voice that, the stage direction indicates, is "halb laut" (164), mezza voce: she remarks how cold it is this deep underground. Rocco responds by commenting that it is quite natural since they are down deep ("Das ist natürlich, es ist ja tief" [164]). Rocco's common sense is belied by the unresolved musical descent down the scale and by a tremolo chord that changes from a seventh to a diminished seventh. …

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