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.

Remembering Tenor Jon Vickers

Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015)
Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

 

The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who brought “a colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity” to some of opera’s most powerful roles, passed away on Friday following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88.

After studying at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, Vickers rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early 60s with appearances at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. His recordings suggest that he had an extraordinary ability to lose himself in the character and dramatically “go for broke.” His personality was reportedly volatile and quick-tempered. During a 1975 Dallas Opera performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Vickers broke character to chastise the audience for coughing. You can hear a recording of the incident here.

Here is an excerpt from Vickers’ 1960 recording of Verdi’s Otello with the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The haunting Dio! mi potevi scagliar is from the third act of Otello. The jealous Otello is losing his grip on reality, believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio. Following her exit from the room, he is left alone to ask God, “Why have you afflicted me in this manner?”

This late-Verdi score, which premiered in 1887 (over 15 years after Aida), integrates vocal lines and orchestra in a remarkable way. Following a long chromatic descent into Hell, we hear a numb, obsessively repeated string motive as Otello enters a dark inner world of contemplation:

Here are a few more links:

Music Inspired by Shakespeare

ShakespeareHistorians believe that today marks the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare. Throughout history, Shakespeare’s plays have been a rich source of inspiration for composers. A few months ago we heard Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet tone poem. Now let’s celebrate with some more music inspired by the Bard of Avon:

Play, music! And you, brides and bridegrooms all,
With measure heap’d in joy, to the measures fall.

-As You Like It

The man that hath no music in himself, 
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

-The Merchant of Venice

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Felix Mendelssohn was 17 years old when he wrote the famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream concert overture in 1826. Sixteen years later, he composed incidental music for the play, which included the Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March

Mendelssohn’s overture captures vividly the atmosphere of the play. We hear the magic of the forest and the scurrying fairies who interfere hilariously in the lives of the other characters. Listen for all the subtle tricks and surprises in the fairy music, such as unexpected, “wrong” chords and out of place voices. Also notice the musical depiction of a braying donkey (3:07):

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To hear other musical adaptations, listen to Henry Purcell’s 1692 semi-opera in five acts, The Fairy-Queen, and Benjamin Britten’s twentieth century opera.

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

If we shadows have offended, 
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

King Lear

“No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” said George Bernard Shaw. Hector Berlioz was in the audience when an English repertory company came to Paris in 1827. Berlioz’s exhilarating King Lear Overture was written in 1831:

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Could you hear the stubborn, proud character of King Lear in Berlioz’s music? Maybe you also sensed the pure Cordelia in the oboe solo in the introduction (2:47). In his memoirs, Berlioz outlined the program he followed while writing this overture, from the introduction (representing the entrance of the king) to the fast allegro section (the storm). We hear Lear’s increasing insanity as his theme merges with the storm music (10:49). You might have noticed the influence of the recitative music from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the opening.

Throughout his innovative career, Berlioz was interested in expanding the orchestra and combining instruments in shocking new ways. I love the noisiness of this piece and its slightly deranged quality. The dissonances following the 9:00 mark would have sounded even more jarring in the 1830s. King Lear Overture has all of the romantic, schizophrenic drama of Symphony fantastique. 

I have no way and therefore want no eyes
I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen
our means secure us, and our mere defects
prove our commodities.

Othello

In Act 4 of Verdi’s opera Otello, just before she is strangled by the jealous Othello, Desdemona sings a quiet prayer for all who suffer (Ave Maria). Read the translated text here. Here the aria is sung by Renee Fleming:

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O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss,
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger:
But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

The Tempest

Tchaikovsky’s tone poem The Tempest begins and ends with the musical depiction of a calmly undulating sea. Listen for the sudden ferocity of the storm (5:37). Notice the way Tchaikovsky introduces the love theme of Miranda and Ferdinand, following 8:18, suggesting their initial shyness:

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Also listen to incidental music for The Tempest by Jean Sibelius. English composer Thomas Adès’s recent opera, which premiered in 2004 at the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, offers a uniquely twenty-first century take on the play. Here Audrey Luna sings a haunting and vocally demanding excerpt.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

Henry V

We’ll finish up with a film score by English composer William Walton. This music was written for the 1944 film version of Henry V, starring Laurence Olivier. Memorable excerpts include Passacaglia: Death of Falstaff and the triumphant Agincourt Song.

“Touch her soft lips and part” underscores the scene in which Pistol bids farewell to his new wife Mistress Quickly, before leaving for battle in France:

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From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Now it’s your turn…

It isn’t The Listeners’ Club without you. Leave a comment in the thread below and tell us what you heard in the music. What pieces would you add to this list of Shakespeare-inspired music?

Verdi’s 200th Birthday

Today marks the 200th birthday of the great Italian opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi. Verdi wrote dramatically powerful operas such as AidaOtello, Un Ballo in Maschera and Rigoletto

Here is the Overture to La forza del destino performed by Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic. What moods and dramatic situations are suggested by the music? How does Verdi convey these emotions?

[quote]The greatness of Verdi is a simple thing. Solitary by nature, he found a way of speaking to limitless crowds, and his method was to sink himself completely into his characters. He never composed music for music’s sake; every phrase helps to tell a story. The most astounding scenes in his work are those in which all the voices come together in a visceral mass— like a human wave that could carry anything before it. The voices at the end of Simon Boccanegra, crying out in grief; the voices at the end of Un ballo, overcome by the spiritual magnificence of a dying man; and, of course, the voices of “Va pensiero,” remembering, in a unison line, the destruction of Jerusalem. In the modern world, we seldom find ourselves in the grip of a single emotion, and this is what Verdi restores to us— the sense of belonging. -Alex Ross, Listen to This[/quote]

Here is a great performance of Verdi’s Requiem by Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Conductor Riccardo Muti has some interesting things to say about this piece here.

Learn more about Verdi and his music here.