The scene and aria Ah Perfido for soprano and orchestra is an early work by Beethoven, one that places his usually highly revolutionary art in an entirely different context. The great vocal tradition derived from the opera seria of Naples never seemed to function as a point of reference for the Bonn master. Yet the scene Ah perfido, composed to the lyrics by Pietr Metastasio, almost an icon of 18th-century vocal music, in many aspects takes us back into a distant past. The very idea of this work connotes with Baroque affect of maximum contrast where pain brushes against anger, despair against longing. The dramatic context of the aria is based on the relationship between Deidamia and Achilles. The despair of the woman abandoned by the antique hero was the subject of countless operas; arias of the scorned lover include the masterly M’hai resa infelice in Händel’s Deidamia. There is yet another significant side to Beethoven’s piece: Ah perfido was addressed to Josepha Dušek, once the dedicatee of Mozart’s concert aria Bella mia fiamma (KV 525). In terms of form and composing technique, this Mozartian piece is the unquestioned point of departure for young Beethoven.
The piece begins with a long and tempestuous recitative for the heroine to express her utter disdain, which then changes into a lament on the sudden chill in Achilles’ heart. The fluctuating emotions are accompanied by highly contrasting music: changing tempo and constant agitato in the orchestra. The initial accompagnato resolves into an introduction that ushers the audience into the aria itself, the emotional core of the composition. In a quiet moment, the longing heroine repeats her entreaty, her rejection of rejection. By law of contrast, the rapid Allegro returns, closely followed by emotional fury. The last phase of the piece is a space of agogic contrast. The dramatic recedes again and again before pleas for mercy, expressed by a threefold change from the relentless Allegro to the subdued Piu lento. The polarised affects of the protagonist and her “emotional instability” hark back to the arias and vocal rondos of Mozart; thus Beethoven’s Deidamia is, in a way, a younger sister of Donna Elvira, Fiordiligia or Vitella. Yet Ah Perfido contains elements that can act as premonitions of Beethoven’s later vocal style, where the mosaic of changing emotions is replaced by consistent and deepened psychology.
The composition was first performed in Leipzig as late as in 1805, yet it is the Viennese premiere three years later that made history. The scheduled performer of Ah Perfido, Anna Milder – the once-charismatic Leonore – quarrelled with Beethoven and was replaced by the inexperienced Josephine Killitschgy. The performance of this singer, whose stage fright bordered on nervous breakdown, became known as one of the most spectacular disasters in the history of vocal music and, obviously, did nothing to promote the popularity of the piece.