This style of opera appeared in the late 1700s and early 1800s primarily in Germany and France. Rescue operas center around a main character in trouble. They are rescued, hence the name. Typically, they end happily and are supercilious in content.
The came out in response to the French Revolution and a new genre that grew out of the opéra comique, or comedy opera. These types of operas include spoken dialogue as well as singing. Operatic tales of this nature were also shaped by gothic themes.
We would like to take a look at a few of the operas that fall under the category of Rescue Opera.
Our first rescue opera is the only opera ever written by Ludwig van Beethoven. It is a German language libretto that was written by Joseph Sonnleithner. The original staging premiered at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna on November 20, 1805.
Originally a three act opera the following year Stephan von Breuning helped shave down the content and the opera then was performed in two acts. Still, this is not where the revisions on the libretto ended and Georg Friedrich Treitschke worked on it a little bit more and another version of this opera was produced at the Kärntnertortheater in 1814.
The lead character Leonora is masquerading as Fidelio, a prison guard. Her husband is in prison for political reasons and she rescues him. This story surrounds the themes of putting someone else before yourself. Of course, being a rescue opera, Leonora succeeds and all is happy in the end.
This Luigi Cherubini rescue opera has a French language libretto written by Claude-François Fillette-Loraux. It was based on a section of the novel Les amours du chevalier de Faublas by Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvrai. It consists of three acts and also falls under the genre opéra comique.
Some historians see this work as a Romantic piece but Cherubini, it is said, worked primarily in Classical. This Cherubini work is significant in where it highlights the composers leap into opéra comique and over the more restricting tragédie lyrique. Lodoïska has been seen as unique in the psychological subjects and dramatic pressure.
Premiering in Paris at the Théâtre Feydeau on July 18, 1791, this Cherubini work had a long run at 200 performances. The acclaim it received prompted a revival at the same theater in 1819. It has been reproduced many times in Germany and Austria. It was also showing in New York in 1826.
3. Richard the Lionheart
Composed by Belgian André Grétry, this work is considered, by some, as his masterpiece. The text, which is written in French, was penned by Michel-Jean Sedaine and is part of the reason why it is considered an important opera in French history. The story is based on King Richard I and the time he was held captive in Austria.
In tradition of rescue operas, the King is liberated by Blondel de Nesle. The original version, completed in three acts, opened at the Comédie-Italienne in Paris in October of 1784. The next year it was revised to four acts and was staged at the Fontainebleau, also in Paris. In 1786 this rescue opera was performed in the United Kingdom and in Boston in 1797.
This work reached instant success and was still being produced throughout France when the century turned to twenty. As of 1910, Richard the Lionheart had been performed over six-hundred times at the Opéra-Comique alone. Most importantly, this rescue opera was a significant mark in the era of opéra Comique and their interpretation of historical subjects that are typically of a serious nature.
4. Torvaldo e Dorliska
Giochino Rossini is the next composer on our list to contribute to the genre of rescue operas. This particular work is also known as a drama semiserio opera, or semi-serious opera. Cesare Sterbini wrote the libretto based on the same work as Lodoïska, de Couvrai’s Les amours du chevalier de Faublas.
First opening in 1815 at the Teatro Valle in Rome this piece would be on the repertoire of many opera houses in Italy for the next quarter century. We don’ know of any productions in New York or London but it was reproduced in 1987 in Vienna and 1989 in Savona. This opera was also performed in Pesaro at the Rossini Opera Festival for their season in 2006.
The title characters in this tale are lovers yet the lovely Dorliska has also attracted attention from the Duke of Ordow. The Duke uses his powers to attempt to kill Torvaldo, and he believes that he does. Yet when Torvaldo returns to claim Dorliska, once again the Duke tries to kill him. Yet he townsfolk won’t have it and revolt against the Duke.
This next opera was written by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana with a libretto by Josef Wenzig in German but was translated into Smetana’s native language by Ervin Špindler. The premiere was held in Prague at the New Town Theatre in May of 1868.
After its release some claimed that the work was far too influenced by German ideologies, specifically those of Richard Wagner. The plot is about Dalibor of Kozojed, a Czech military hero and martyr. Coincidentally enough, it is said the story is similar to Fidelio, a previous entry in this list.
Sadly, enough, the composer passed away before he could see the great success Dalibor had become. The opera would be produced in Hamburg, Zagreb, Munich, and Vienna.
The title character is on trial for murdering the governor of Ploskovice. Dalibor did this to avenge the killing of Zdenek, his friend. When Dalibor is sentenced to life in prison the community supports him and Milada comes to the realization that she is in love with Dalibor. She tries to reunite with him but they are found out and Dalibor’s sentence is changed from life to execution.
In the heart of rescue operas this couple does escape, but not without a tragic end.
Also a semi-serious opera this work was composed by Ferdinando Paer, who hails from Italy. The libretto was written by Giovanni Schmidt and they were inspired by the Jean-Nicolas Bouilly work Léonore ou L’Amour conjugal. This is the second work to inspire two pieces on our list, the first one for this is Fidelio by Beethoven.
Kurfürstliches Theater in Dresden was the place where this rescue opera premiered, on October 3, 1804. Paer’s wife sang in the lead role. Strikingly similar to Fidelio, this plot is about a woman, Leonora, who disguises herself as a guard to save the man she loves, Florestian, who has been imprisoned. Leonora does this by getting a job at the prison after duping the head jailor, Rocco, into believing she was a man.
Even in this final rescue opera, the captive is freed. Don Pizarro, Florestano’s captor, gets wind that the governor, Don Fernando, will be arriving shortly, so he commands Rocco to execute Leonora’s love. Thinking that Leonora is a man, Rocco has her help bring Florestano down to the catacombs and, when the three are alone, she helps him escape.
Depicted in the cover photo is Richard Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten by the Mariinsky Theatre.