Béatrice et Bénédict (with German libretto)
Béatrice et Bénédict (1860-62)
Opera in two acts on a libretto by the composer after Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing
(b. La Côte-St-André, 11 December 1803 – d. Paris, 8 March 1869)
“With this score, the cycle of innovation begun by Berlioz upon the symphony, opera, oratorio, and cantata, was closed. Under his hand each had acquired flexibility from crossing with elements from the others, and responding to the needs of subject
and mood, music was now free.”
Jacques Barzun, Berlioz and the Romantic Century, ii, p. 217.
Thus the great Berlioz scholar Jacques Barzun, summing up the place of Béatrice et Bénédict in the composer’s lifetime achievement. Even if Barzun’s list of generic innovations has some inexplicable gaps (what of Berlioz’s redefinition of the concerto in Harold in Italy, or the song cycle in Nuits d’été?), there is little doubt that in this opera the composer sought a renewal of French opéra-comique in the face of Meyerbeerean grand opera on the one hand and Offenbachian operetta on the other. He was also fully aware that this work would be his final musical statement: as he wrote to his son Louis upon finishing the score, “I have now done everything I had to do” – and indeed, in the seven remaining years of his life, he did, compositionally, nothing more. Béatrice et Bénédict is imbued with an air of benign nostalgia and witty detachment that singles it out as a work of the composer’s old age, much as these same qualities infuse the octogenarian Verdi’s own late Shakespearean comedy, Falstaff. If Les Troyens is a testament to Berlioz’s lifelong commitment to musical drama, Béatrice et Bénédict is its conciliatory epilogue, “a caprice,” as he put it, “written with the tip of a needle.”
There is a sense in which this bejeweled little opera bestrides Berlioz’s creative lifetime. Although he never witnessed a stage performance of its literary source, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, he was familiar with the play from early youth: he considered setting it as an Italianate opera buffa in 1833, and in 1852 he drew up a three-act draft libretto on the same play for use as an opéra-comique. When he eventually came to write the score, he even reached back at one point to the earliest stages of his career by quoting, in the Sicilienne (Acts I and II), his very first published work: the unassuming strophic romance Le dépit de la bergère (1819), published when he was a boy of sixteen. A comparison of this simple song with the reworked version in the opera, recast in the minor mode and vastly expanded in emotional and tonal range, gives a good idea of the artistic distance that Berlioz traversed in the course of a creative lifetime.
Béatrice et Bénédict owes its existence to one man, Edouard Bénazet, the director of the gambling casino in the German spa of Baden-Baden, who sought a work to inaugurate city’s newly built theater. At first Berlioz was given the prospect of writing an opera on a subject from the Thirty Years’ War, but it did not require much reflection on his part before he scrapped the idea in favor of his long-cherished plan for a Shakespearean comedy. Using the French translation by Benjamin Laroche (1839), he whittled down the original Much Ado About Nothing to a single act, disposing of the villainous Don John and his dastardly intrigue, transforming the comic Dogberry into an inept composer-conductor named Somarone (Italian for, literally, “big donkey”), and divesting Shakespeare’s Hero and Claudio of their original characteristics in order to recreate them as a happy foil to Béatrice and Bénédict’s sophisticated badinage. Being an opéra-comique, such dialogue as remained from the original play was to be spoken; the musical side was filled out with arias, duets, trios, ensembles, and choruses (all on texts of Berlioz’s own devising) as well as dance and even, in the entr’acte music, a bit of pantomime.
Berlioz started work on the score in September 1860 and completed it within a year. In the course of his labors, as so often in the past, his original conception began to expand, and in the end the opera filled two acts instead of the original one. Though suffering from various illnesses, much hardship, and the loss of many close friends and companions, the composition flowed easily from his pen. The ravishing nocturne “Nuit paisible,” perhaps the most famous number of the score apart from the ever-popular overture, was jotted down, as Berlioz later confided to the Grand Duke of Weimar, during a particularly boring speech at the Institut de France. In April 1862 two pieces from the new opera, Béatrice’s aria Dieu! Que viens-je d’entendre and the above-mentioned Nocturne for Héro and Ursule, were heard, and warmly received, at a private gathering in the salon of Mme Escudier. Three months later, on 26 July, the opera was given a complete run-through with piano for a select audience at the Théâtre-Lyrique – the last event to take place in that venerable house before it was demolished as part of Baron Haussmann’s plans to redesign the streets of Paris. Berlioz himself, in scenes we would be only to happy to have witnessed, rehearsed the singers in their spoken dialogue, feeling that they lacked the requisite realism: “It is infuriating to hear lines uttered contrary to sense, but by dint of making the actors parrot after me, I believe I shall succeed in making them talk like humans.” As the New Theater in Baden-Baden had been built with an undersize orchestra pit (the architect felt it was more important for the audience to be comfortable), many last-minute adjustments had to be made to accommodate the musicians. But at last the opera was fully rehearsed and could go on the boards on schedule to inaugurate the new theater.
The première, conducted by Berlioz himself on 9 August 1862, was an unmitigated triumph, and seemed almost to reconcile the composer to the lifetime of theatrical setbacks he had suffered in Paris. An inkling of the audience’s response can be gleaned from Charles Gounod’s words on the very first performance of the Nocturne: “Here is all that the silence of night and the serenity of nature may do to imbue the soul with tenderness and reverie …. It is absolutely beautiful and perfect; it is immortal like the sweetest and deepest things ever written by the great masters.” Unfortunately, although Berlioz was handsomely remunerated by the Duke for his efforts, only two performances of the opera were scheduled, and he had to be consoled with an invitation to perform the piece the next year in the same theater, and again in Weimar. He also took to heart some criticism of the work’s form, which deemed the second act less substantial than the first. In consequence, he wrote a new trio for Héro, Béatrice, and Ursule (a counterweight to the men’s trio in Act I) as well as a Chœur lontain, both to be incorporated in Act II. Thus expanded, this second version of the opera was premièred the following year, likewise in Baden-Baden.
Thereafter Béatrice et Bénédict became almost a prerogative of the German stage. In the course of the century it was heard at various theaters throughout the German-speaking lands, and was even supplied with newly composed recitatives by the great Berlioz conductor Felix Mottl for a performance in Karlsruhe (1888). But it was not until 1890, two decades after Berlioz’s death, that the Opéra-Comique in Paris deigned to produce the work, at which time it supplied new lines for Berlioz’s original dialogue. (The original dialogue had to be rescued over a century later from the performance material in Baden-Baden, and first appeared in print in the New Berlioz Edition of 1980.) Since then Béatrice et Bénédict, despite the efforts of its many admirers, has had a difficult time taking hold in the repertoire, being perhaps too refined for popular consumption, and perhaps lacking those dark hues that lend proper depth to great comedy (as witness Signor Fontana in Verdi’s Falstaff, or, nearer the mark, Don John in Much Ado About Nothing). But it has not lacked for distinguished champions: the role of Béatrice has been taken by, among others, Josephine Veasey, Yvonne Minton, Janet Baker, Susan Graham, and Joyce DiDonato; that of Bénédict by such outstanding tenors as Robert Tear, Stuart Burrows, and Placido Domingo; and a beautiful rendition of Héro exists by Sylvia McNair (1991). Even the uncouth Somarone has been interpreted by none other than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in a 1979 reading by Daniel Barenboim. No fewer than five complete recordings have been issued under the baton of the great Berliozian, Sir Colin Davis, spanning his entire illustrious career from 1962 to 2009. New productions of the opera are generally confined to smaller houses, more recently the Welsh National Opera (2001), the Santa Fe Opera (2004), Strasbourg (2005), the Chicago Lyric Opera (2007), Houston (2008), Boston (2011), and Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. Especially noteworthy is a 2010 staging at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, if only because it is the sole staged performance of the work available on DVD. For the future of Béatrice et Bénédict we can only second the words of Berlioz’s biographer Hugh Macdonald (in The Master Musicians series, 1982): “Encased in an overture and finale of such brilliance and with the beautiful Nocturne as its heart this short opera is anything but problematical or puzzling. It can be as much a source of delight and satisfaction as we know it to have been for the composer himself.” …
Bradford Robinson, 2013
Read full preface / Komplettes Vorwort lesen > HERE