Opéra in two acts by Hector Berlioz to his own libretto after
William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing
|Héro [Hero], Beatrice's cousin||soprano|
|Claudio, Hero's lover||baritone|
|Léonato [Leonato], governor of Messina||spoken|
|Don Pedro, military commander||bass|
|Somarone, maestro di cappella||bass|
|Ursula, Hero's attendant||mezzo-soprano|
Synopsis by D. Kern Holoman, following the version published in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera.
The celebrated overture, though not a potpourri in the usual sense, characterizes the substance of the opera by alluding to quite a number of passages to follow.
Sicily: the town of Messina. The first act takes place in the garden of Leonato, the governor. The townspeople rejoice that the invading Moors have fled from Don Pedro and his force. Soon the victors will be home, and Hero will be reunited with her intended, Claudio. Less pleased is Beatrice, her cousin, to contemplate the return of Benedick, with whom she has long enjoyed "a kind of merry war." Those so far assembled dance a sicilienne based on Berlioz's flrst published song, Le Dépit de la bergère (c. 1819)--an acknowledgment, perhaps, that he expected Béatrice et Bénédict to be his last work. Hero's aria is one of ecstasy at the thought of seeing Claudio again. Don Pedro and his retinue arrive; at once Beatrice and Benedick, in their duet, begin to taunt each other. The wedding of Hero and Claudio will take place that evening--an example, it is noted, that should tempt Benedick. In his trio with Claudio and Don Pedro, Benedick insists he would much prefer the cloistered life to marriage: if ever he consents to that yoke, they can put a sign on his roof, "Here you see Benedick, the married man." Following his exit, his companions determine to trick Beatrice and Benedick into acknowledging their love.
Somarone, the maestro di cappella, whose gifts of composition are questionable, arrives with his choristers and oboists to rehearse the nuptial song, an absurd double fugue; a reprise with comic oboe ornamentation is offered before Don Pedro. Benedick, hidden behind a hedge, overhears an arranged conversation to the effect that Beatrice is indeed in love with him; suddenly he begins to consider some of the advantages of marriage. Hero and Ursula, having arranged a similar ruse as regards Beatrice, come to the garden to escape the festive commotion within. During their famous Duo-Nocturne, "Nuit paisible et sereine!," Hero's access of melancholy is calmed by the play of moonlight and shadows, the breeze's caress, the murmur of nightingale and crickets, the aroma of spring blossoms. The effect is much the same as in "Nuit d'ivresse" from Les Troyens.
The entr'acte is a reprise of the sicilienne. Act 2 takes place in a great hall in the governor's palace, with the wedding banquet in an adjoining room offstage. The guests, drinking heavily, prevail on Somarone to improvise a song on the merits of the local wines, accompanied by a rustic band and the pounding of wine-glasses on the tables; with effort, on stage, he finishes a second verse. Beatrice, in her aria, acknowledges that she, too, has fallen victim to love. Hero and Ursula, recognizing the change, join her in a trio of promised joys and happiness; Beatrice is lost in thought as an offstage chorus summons the bride. In a chance encounter Beatrice and Benedick, each safe in the knowledge that the other has been uncontrollably smitten, continue mercilessly to bait each other. The bridal procession enters. After the bride and groom have signed their contract, the scribe produces a second, asking who else wishes to be married. Beatrice and Benedick take each other out of pity, and banners bearing the words "Ici on voit Bénédict, 1'homme marié" are duly proffered. A truce has been signed; the warring will recur on the morrow.
Béatrice et Bértédict represented for Berlioz a lighthearted turn away from the rigors of Les Troyens. Whereas the Virgilian tragedy summarizes the epic tendencies of his imagination, Béatrice et Bénédict affirms both his mordant wit and his overall good humor. He was pleased to return to Italian subject matter and to music of triple meters, street dances, tambourines and guitars. Somarone is Berlioz's invention; his line "The piece which you are about to have the honor to perform is a masterpiece! Let us begin!" is said to have been uttered by Spontini at a rehearsal of Olympie in Berlin. Elsewhere the text often follows Shakespeare closely.