Ah, Perfido!, Scene and Aria for Soprano and Orchestra Op. 65
Ludwig van Beethoven
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When Beethoven composed Ah! Perfido in 1796, he followed the pattern Mozart had established in his dozens of concert arias. Beethoven’s soprano, Josefa Dušek, had been a good friend of Mozart, who had written several concert arias expressly for her, including Bella mia fiamma, addio (K. 528) in 1787. Another overlap was that Beethoven’s scene set a text by Metastasio (1698–1782), the Italian-born librettist who settled in Vienna and whose writings dominated the opera world through the middle of the eighteenth century. Mozart had also excerpted texts by Metastasio many times for concert arias, and his early opera Il re pastore featured a Metastasio libretto. (For that matter, hundreds of composers shared in Metastasio’s trove of libretti, plays and poems, including Pergolesi, Handel, Gluck, and Haydn.)
Beethoven did not publish Ah! Perfido until 1805, and it appeared without an opus number. It was later assigned Opus 65, erroneously placing it in proximity to his works of 1807–08, including the Fifth and Sixth symphonies (opp. 67 an 68). Ah! Perfido appeared on the marathon program in December 1808 that featured the premiere performances of those two symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Choral Fantasy—a spectacle remembered for the lack of heat in the theater and the sloppy performances by the orchestra. Anna Milder, the soprano who sang Leonore in Fidelio, withdrew over a spat with Beethoven, and her replacement, a seventeen-year-old with no professional experience, apparently butchered Ah! Perfido.
The recitative, from Metastasio’s Achille in Sciro, portrays the violent mood swings of a woman scorned. One moment, she reaches an angry climax on the line, “Vedrò le mie vendette” (“I will live to see my revenge”); seconds later, in a somber adagio, she coos “Risparmiate quel cor, ferite il mio!” (“Spare that heart, wound mine!”) The text of the aria comes from a different, unknown source, but it continues in the heartbroken vein of the recitative. Within the delicate and transparent scoring, the woodwinds break free of the strings, a hallmark of Beethoven’s orchestration throughout his career.
The first half of the aria trails off, repeating the word “morirò” (“I will die”), and then it picks up in a new key and an agitated Allegro assai tempo for the line, “Ah crudel! Tu vuoi ch’io mora!” (“Ah, cruel man! You want me to die!”) Toward the end, coloratura flourishes show off the soprano’s virtuosity and heighten the emotion, as in the descending chromatic lines that stretch out the words “grief” and “pity.” As this concert aria proves, Beethoven was a great composer for the voice, even if the setbacks he faced in the opera world left him underrepresented in the genre.