Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sunday Classics Preview: Berlioz' "Béatrice et Bénédict"


Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as verbal warriors Beatrice and Benedick make peace in Branagh's film of Much Ado About Nothing.Alas, YouTube seems to have been successfully scrubbed of anything professionally watchable of the many notable Beatrices and Benedicks who've been captured sparring on film and videotape.

by Ken

Last night we sampled Berlioz' "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette, and as promised tonight we're taking a quick peek at his mostly comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict. And for once, why don't we start at the beginning?

BERLIOZ: Béatrice et Bénédict: Overture

Oh, just one thing before we let the music rip, or maybe two things. I encourage you to take note of some thematic material that's not only important to the devlopment of the Overture but to the characterization of the Shakespeare-derived cousins, the could-hardly-be-less-alike Héro and Béatrice. The haunting melody first sounded by the clarinet at 0:57 belongs to the worldly-wise Béatrice -- and actually so does what serves here as introductory material, at 0:45, while the tune first heard at 3:17, which will lend the piece its joyously triumphant air, belongs to the purely innocent Héro.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded 1958


If you know Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, you may already sense from the title of Berlioz' opera the most basic thing he's done in his operafication. The relationship between Hero, the daughter of the governor of Messina, and Claudio, a military officer, is at the center of the play: their courtship, and engagement, and her subsequent frame-up, with its near-catastrophic results. Berlioz has stripped most of that away, and I say, on the whole, good riddance. Even the relatively happy ending can't wash away the repugnance of Hero's betrayal by most of her family as well as her fiancé in believing her to have been unfaithful.

As the opera begins, the engagement of Héro and Claudio is a done deal. Preparations are being made for their wedding, as soon as Claudio returns from war, assuming of course that he does return. Now Héro receives word that Claudio has reached Sicily alive and is on his way back. It's just a matter of time before she'll see him again.

Béatrice et Bénédict: Act I, "Je vais le voir"
("I'm going to see him")

HÉRO: I'm going to see him! I'm going to see him!
His noble brow will radiate
with the halo of the victor.
Dear Claudio, if only I had a crown,
I would give it to you. I have given you my heart.
I'm going to see him, etc.

He returns to me, faithful.
No more mortal anguish!
Our torments are finished.
We're going to be united.
For his faithfulness,
for his courage
my hand will be the prize.
He returns to me, faithful, etc.

Sylvia McNair (s), Héro; Orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon, John Nelson, cond. Erato, recorded March 1991


What Berlioz has done is to make the center of his opera Shakespeare's "second couple," Hero's older and oh-so-much-wiser cousin Beatrice and Claudio's friend and fellow officer Benedick, who spend most of the play wisecracking each other out of acknowledging what's pretty clear to everyone else: their powerful attraction to each other.

The operatic Béatrice is in such deep denial that it's only now, after overhearing (in a conversation staged by conspirators for her benefit) that Bénédict loves her, that she summons the courage to reexperience a terrifying dream she had the night after he went off again to war. One thing I like in this performance is the "spinning top" quality conductor John Pritchard captures at the start of the orchestral introduction. More can be made of what seems to me a depiction of the whirling state of Béatrice's mind at this point, but I give Pritchard credit for getting this much -- most conductors don't.

Béatrice et Bénédict: Act II, "Dieu! Que viens-je d'entendre? . . . Il m'en souvient" ("God! What have I just heard? . . . It all comes back to me")
BÉATRICE: God! What have I just heard? What have I just heard?
I feel a secret fire
spreading through my breast.
Bénédict! Can it be so?
Bénédict might love me?

It all comes back to me, it all comes back to me.
The day of the departure of the army.
I couldn't explain to myself
the strange feeling of alarmed sadness
that came to overtake my heart.
He's leaving, I said, he's leaving, I remain.
Is it glory, is it death
that fate reserves
for this mocker whom I hate?
With the blackest terrors
the following night was filled.
The Moors triumphed; I heard their shouts.
With floods of Christian blood the earth was reddened.
In my dream I saw Bénédict gasping,
expiring without help under a heap of bodies;
I tossed and turned on my feverish bed;
cries of fear escaped my mouth.
Finally awakening, I laughed at my agitation.
I laughed at Bénédict. I laughed at myself,
at my foolish concerns.
Alas! alas! that laughter was bathed in tears.

It all comes back to me, etc.

I love him then? I love him then?
Yes, Bénédict, I love you, I love you.
I no longer belong to myself. I'm no longer myself.
Be my conqueror,
tame my heart!
Come, come, already this savage heart
flies toward slavery.
Yes, Benedict, I love you, etc.

Farewell, my frivolous gaiety!
Farewell, my freedom!
Farewell, disdain; farewell, jests!
Farewell, biting mockery!
Béatrice in her turn
falls victim to love!

Frederica von Stade (ms), Béatrice; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir John Pritchard, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded January 1976


Now that we can musically identify first Béatrice and then Héro in it --

Béatrice et Bénédict: Overture

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Alexander Gibson, cond. RPO/Intersound, recorded 1996


I imagine it's obvious by now why I've lumped Berlioz' Roméo and Béatrice together. That's what we'll be listening for tomorrow.


The current list is here.

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At 5:20 PM, Anonymous robert dagg murphy said...

Ken: What glorious singing and playing. I am only slightly aware of the music of Berlioz and actually had not previously heard any of his operas. This is truly high quality music. Lots of new material to explore thanks for the introduction. You have greatly enhanced my Saturdays and Sundays. Thank You.


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