The importance of the Revolutionary-era opéras-comiques for the origin and conception of Beethoven’s Fidelio is well established. The Viennese productions that earned the composer’s admiration did not, however, present the French versions transmitted in published scores and libretti. In addition to translating the texts from French into German, the Viennese versions typically entailed changes, sometimes quite radical, to accommodate such factors as Austrian censorship, singers’ strengths and limitations, and audience sensibilities.
The present study seeks to illuminate the French repertoire that Beethoven and Viennese audiences had the opportunity to witness between 1802 and 1805, the peak of the vogue for French opera in Vienna as well as the formative years of Beethoven’s first opera. In so doing it casts new light on the 1805 version of Fidelio. At issue are the ways in which Beethoven’s opera participated in the Viennese practices of adaptation. The study adds to the extant scholarship on Joseph Sonnleithner’s libretto by pointing out similar phenomena in Viennese versions of other French works and interpreting such adaptations in light of the growing body of research on censorship in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Knowledge of the adaptations also clarifies the horizon of musical expectations for opera in Beethoven’s Vienna and brings to light a possible model for one of the most famous moments in the operatic repertory: the off-stage trumpet call in the dungeon scene in Fidelio.