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.

Your 2014 Christmas Playlist

xmas-tree-generic

With Christmas just a few days away, here is a short collection of music guaranteed to get you in the holiday spirit. Take a break from the rush of last minute shopping, light the tree, pour some eggnog and explore the playlist:

Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes

Let’s start off with music from the late 12th century. Pérotin was part of a group of composers at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral who were influential in early polyphony (more than one voice occurring at one time). Viderunt omnes is built on Gregorian chant, which was probably used in Paris for the Christmas Day liturgy. Here is a translation of the text:

All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Rejoice in the Lord, all lands.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
in the sight of the heathen
he has revealed his righteousness.

The long, sustained pitches of the original chant, known as a Cantus firmus, form the foundation for the musical lines above. Consider the way the music is flowing. Does it feel linear or circular? Listen to the way the voices fit together, sometimes in canon, and the way the music alternates between pure open fifths and octaves and occasional dense, crunching dissonances.

The music of Pérotin influenced modern minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. In Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboardsrepeating musical patterns gradually develop over long, sustained pitches.

Here is the Hilliard Ensemble:

Handel’s Messiah

The Christmas season isn’t complete without a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Here is a 1987 performance by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with soprano Sylvia McNair, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, tenor Jon Humphrey, and Baritone William Stone:

Greensleeves

Christmas texts have been set to the folk song melody, Greensleeves since at least 1686. Here is Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves:

Now listen to the way another English composer, Gustav Holst combines the Greensleeves melody with dance music in the final movement of his Second Suite in F for Military Band. In 1912 Holst adapted the same music for strings in the St. Paul Suite. 

Christmas with the Pittsburgh Symphony Brass

The Pittsburgh Symphony Brass has released at least three Christmas recordings since the ensemble was formed in 1994. The group has the sound of a brass choir rather than a quintet, with both bass trombone and tuba. Listen to the rich, powerful harmonic overtones in their playing.

Here is Ding Dong Merrily on High and I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:

Three Nativity Carols by Stephen Paulus

This excerpt comes from a CD called Wonder Tidings: Christmas music of Stephen Paulus.

Here is The Holly and the Ivy, This Endris Night, and Wonder Tidings: