Opera Scotland

Beatrice and Benedick Béatrice et Bénédict

Music

Hector Berlioz (born La Côte St André, Isère, 11 December 1803; died Paris, 8 March 1869)

Text

The composer

Source

Tragi-Comedy Much Ado About Nothing (1598-9) by William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

 

Premières

First Performance: Baden-Baden (Neues Theater), 9 August 1862.

First Performance in UK: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 24 March 1936.

First Performance in Scotland: As above.

Scottish Opera première: N/A.

 

Background

This wonderful, if flawed, late masterpiece by Berlioz has taken a long time to gain widespread acceptance. The composer turned to the subject as light relief after his years struggling with The Trojans, and he adapted the libretto from his beloved Shakespeare. He cut the serious elements of the plot quite ruthlessly to concentrate on the comic courtship of Beatrice and Benedick, omitting many sections of dialogue. Shakespeare's own source, a tale from Ariosto, (and used by Handel for a wonderful serious opera) was set in Scotland, and involved Ariodante being tricked by Polinesso into believing his fiancée, Ginevra, unfaithful. In Shakespeare, relocated to the more naturally hot-blooded climate of Sicily, these are Claudio, Don John and Hero. In Berlioz, the character of Don John, brother of Don Pedro, disappears altogether, and Claudio's importance is much reduced. This is all quite acceptable when you get used to it. Where Berlioz perhaps miscalculates is in his removal of the low comedy element represented by Dogberry and the members of the Watch, only to introduce a dull and pedantic musician, Somarone, who has a tendency to outstay his welcome in a way not done by the singer Balthasar in the play.

The British premiere, by Glasgow Grand, was an appropriate follow-up to their famous staging of The Trojans, but the opera has not been seen in Scotland since. It was left to the Buxton Festival, in only its second year, 1980, to show how wonderful the work can be in performance. A sterling cast, led by Ann Murray and Philip Langridge, was directed by an experienced Shakespearian, Ronald Eyre, working in opera for the first time in his life. He adapted both sung and spoken text to contain as much genuine Shakespeare as possible, and the quality of the enterprise made it difficult to understand why there had ever been a problem. However a second staging by ENO in the much larger Coliseum, was less successful. Since then it has been presented with better results by both Welsh National and Opera North, in a clever staging by Elijah Moshinsky - the cast included Sara Fulgoni as Beatrice and Donald Maxwell as Somarone. The pair of performances by the SCO and Robin Ticciati in October 2013, even if only in concert, and shorn of all dialogue, was enormously welcome, and very well done.

 

Characters

Léonato, Duke of Messina (spoken)

Héro, his daughter (soprano)

Béatrice, his niece (mezzo-soprano)

Ursule, Héro's maid (mezzo-soprano)

Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (bass)

Bénédict, an officer in Pedro's army (tenor)

Claudio, another officer (baritone)

Somarone, a musician (bass)

 

Plot Summary

Don Pedro's victorious army is on its way home, and a group of officers and men comes to stay at Leonato's palace. An understanding exists between Hero and Claudio, while relations between Beatrice and Benedick are characterised by their constant bickering, to the amusement of everyone else. Pedro and Claudio decide to pass the time before the marriage to Hero by trying to convince the warring couple that they in fact love one another. While Somarone directs rehearsals of the music he has composed for the wedding, Leonato, Pedro and Claudio allow Benedick to overhear a discussion in which they reveal that Beatrice now loves him. Meanwhile Hero and Ursula carry out a similar ruse against Beatrice to mislead her as to Benedick's feelings. This intriguing is brought to a climax as everyone assembles for the wedding, which now becomes a double ceremony.

The Cast

Béatrice
 Leonato's niece
Bénédict
 an officer in Don Pedro's force
Claudio
 an officer in Don Pedro's force
Don Pedro
 Prince of Aragon
Héro
 Leonato's daughter
Leonato
 Duke of Messina
Somarone
 a musician
Ursule
 Héro's companion

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