Béatrice et Bénédict: Berlioz’s Neglected Comedy

Hector_Berlioz,_Béatrice_et_Bénédict_score_title_page_-_RestorationBéatrice et Bénédict, Hector Berlioz’s two act opéra comique adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, isn’t exactly a staple of the modern opera repertoire. It gets occasional performances, but is commonly overshadowed by more famous Shakespeare-based operas: Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, and Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

But Béatrice et Bénédict was a smash hit when it premiered at the the Theater der Stadt in the German spa town of Baden-Baden on August 9, 1862. Berlioz referred to the opera as “A caprice written with the point of a needle.” Its sparkling score comes to life with a uniquely vivacious energy. At the same time, the forward motion of the plot occasionally gives way to atmospheric moments of serene, otherworldly beauty. Berlioz biographer David Cairns writes, “Listening to the score’s exuberant gaiety, only momentarily touched by sadness, one would never guess that its composer was in pain when he wrote it and impatient for death.”

The opera’s libretto, written by Berlioz, simplifies Shakespeare’s play, eliminating subplots in order to emphasize the relationship between the title characters. As the first act opens, the citizens of the Sicilian town of Messina have gathered to welcome home the victorious army of Don Pedro of Aragon, following a successful battle campaign against the Moors. Héro eagerly awaits the return of her fiancé, Claudio. Meanwhile, Béatrice greets the returning Bénédict in a strikingly different way. The two take great pleasure in trading insults, masking their mutual attraction. In the opening of Berlioz’s Overture we can hear the couple playfully hurtling verbal barbs at one another. It’s a musical cat and mouse game which is constantly throwing us witty curve balls. We hear this “needling” opening motive throughout the overture, sometimes as teasing and taunting background interjections (listen around 4:12 and 6:13). The music which follows suggests the farcical trickery of the plot, which includes “accidentally” overheard conversations. But we also get a sense of the supernatural lurking underneath…the mystery and eternal beauty of a still summer night and a hint of Nuit paisible et serene! (“Peaceful and Good Night!”), the nocturne duet which concludes the first act.

Here is Colin Davis’ 2005 recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle:

Kathleen Battle battle sings Je vais le voir, Héro’s quietly majestic aria from the opening of the first act. Héro awaits the return of Claudio, their marriage and their trouble-free life ahead:

Sylvia McNair and Catherine Robbin sing Nuit paisible et serene! (“Peaceful and Good Night!”), the nocturnal duet of Héro and Ursule at the end of the first act. The duet embodies a “French sound” which seems to subtly anticipate everything from Léo Delibes’ Flower Duet from Lakme (1883) to Gabriel Faure’s Pavane, Op. 50 (1887).

Human follies evaporate as Héro and Ursule comment on the serene, moonlit night, the faint hum of insects in a nearby meadow, and the gentle sound of wind rustling through the trees. From the brief opening recitative, which strangely suggests the vocal purity of baroque opera, Berlioz’ orchestration draws us into the stillness of the night. As the curtain falls on Act 1, the music fades into the night…

  • Find Colin Davis’ recording of the Béatrice et Bénédict Overture with the Dresden Staatskapelle at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Kathleen Battle’s recording, French Opera Arias at iTunes, Amazon
  • The third clip, featuring Sylvia McNair and Catherine Robbin comes from a recording of the entire opera with John Nelson conducting Opéra de Lyon. Find at Amazon.

Beethoven’s Ghost

The manuscript of Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio
The manuscript of Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio

When you hear the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1, you’ll immediately understand why this piece earned the nickname, the “Ghost” Trio. It’s some of the most eerie, strange and terrifying music ever written. It constantly keeps you off guard, taking sudden and unexpected turns, like a shadowy apparition which is there one minute and gone the next. As the second movement unfolds, it may play tricks with your perception of time.

Beethoven’s ability to pack a universe of drama and color into three instruments is amazing. There are moments which seem strikingly symphonic (he had just finished the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies). At times, even tonality seems to be on the verge of slipping away (the second movement’s prolonged trills in the low depths of the piano which confuse the ear).

Gustav Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” It’s easy to get a similar sense with this trio. The outer movements are emotionally far removed from the haunting Largo. There are moments of giddy joy, love and gratitude. All of these contrasting emotions are a great reminder that this music expresses much more than the frustrations and torment of a man who was slowly losing his hearing. Beethoven’s music transcended his life, tapping into something much deeper and more universal. In that respect he “heard” things no one else could.

Beethoven wrote the two Op. 70 Trios in Heiligenstadt during the summer of 1808. Around this time he was contemplating an opera based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The opera remained unwritten, but its ghosts seem to have found their way into Op. 70, No. 1.

Here are Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax in concert in Paris in 1992:

  1. Allegro vivace e con brio (0:00)
  2. Largo assai ed espressivo (6:02)
  3. Presto (17:09)