Spotlight on: BEATRICE & BENEDICT

Beatrice & Benedict

At Seattle Opera February 2018

Music & Original Libretto by Hector Berlioz
English translation of French lyrics by Amanda Holden
English dialogue by William Shakespeare

The Story

Long Story Short

Man-hating woman and woman-hating man are tricked into falling in love with each other; meanwhile, another trick almost ruins a promising relationship.

© Philip Newton

Who’s Who?

Beatrice, a lovely young woman, hates men (and Benedict most of all).

Benedict, a handsome young soldier, hates women (and Beatrice most of all).

Claudio, Benedict’s best friend, loves Hero.

Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, wants to marry Claudio.

Ursula and Margaret, Hero’s ladies-in-waiting.

Friar Frances, an unusually devious officiator at weddings.

Leonato, father to Hero and uncle to Beatrice, is the governor of Sicily.

Don Pedro is an army general, commander to both Benedict and Claudio.

Don John, Don Pedro’s melancholy brother, is a malevolent villain.

Borachio, Don John’s henchman and Margaret’s sweetheart.

Somarone, a musician that works for Leonato, town constable, and music-master.

What's Going On?

En route back from a glorious military victory, Don Pedro and his men (including Benedict, Claudio, Don John, and Borachio) visit the magnificent home of Leonato (where dwell his niece Beatrice, her cousin Hero, and her maid Ursula). No sooner has Benedict entered than he and Beatrice start insulting each other, because “There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedict and her. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.”

While those two are sparring, Claudio and Hero, simpler souls who are deeply attracted to each other, arrange to be married. Don John and Borachio hatch a plot to disrupt their wedding: Don John will bring Claudio to observe, from a distance, Borachio making love with Margaret; Claudio will mistake Margaret for Hero and call off their wedding.


Beatrice & Benedict Costume Designs © Deborah Trout

Meanwhile, Don Pedro arranges a pair of eavesdropping scenes in the hopes of kindling love, not killing it: Benedict will overhear three of the men discussing how sad it is that Beatrice desperately loves Benedict, a confirmed bachelor, while Beatrice witnesses two of the women talking about Benedict’s hopeless, unrequited love for the shrewish Beatrice.

All plots succeed. Beatrice and Benedict get over themselves, and fall in love. Meanwhile, Claudio publicly humiliates Hero on their wedding day.

Beatrice is furious with Claudio: “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace.” She demands Benedict prove his love for her by killing Claudio. Benedict agrees to do so; but before it comes to that, the music-master Somarone unravels Don John’s plot. Claudio does penance for his failure to trust Hero, and the two couples are united.

Listen For

Shakespeare

Beatrice and Benedict is an opéra-comique, almost a musical comedy in French, with musical numbers alternating with dialogue scenes. The dialogues were scenes from Shakespeare, translated into French. We are presenting the show in English, so Seattle audiences can enjoy the genius of one of our own language’s greatest writers directly from the singers’ mouths.

The Spirit of French Romanticism

Idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and forever true to himself, Berlioz championed the artist as individual in the often impersonal factory that was the world of nineteenth-century French music. He was a master of the orchestra who never composed to the preset forms of “absolute music.” Instead, he wrote music to tell whatever story had seized hold of his mind and heart. Here, in his most successful opera, he expands Shakespeare’s popular comedy with music that is whimsical, effortless, and instantly compelling.

Music as Poetry

Much Ado About Nothing isn’t particularly lyrical, as Shakespeare plays go. This play is more about sparkling wit and complex human emotion than beautiful verse. Berlioz’s music adds depth and richness to the world of the story, from the opening music of martial triumph, to the traditional Sicilian dances, to the tongue-in-cheek music for weddings and funerals. This opera’s wonderful love music ranges from the unstable effervescence of the title characters to the velvety moonlit smoothness of the gorgeous nocturne.

Where, When, & Why was this opera written?

Shakespeare had become England’s national playwright by the end of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, Bardolatry spread to the continent; Romantic artists like Giuseppe Verdi, in Italy, or Richard Wagner, in Germany, became obsessed with Shakespeare. When Hector Berlioz was a young man, a theater company from London performed Shakespeare in Paris. Berlioz fell madly in love with Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress who played Juliet and Ophelia. He wrote his famous Symphonie Fantastique inspired by this passion, and eventually married (and later left) her.

Shortly after discovering Shakespeare, Berlioz traveled much in Italy. That’s when he first had the idea of making an opera out of Much Ado About Nothing, with its Sicilian setting. He finally composed the opera decades later, to inaugurate a new opera house in the affluent German spa town of Baden-Baden, a fashionable vacation spot where he was given access to luxurious musical resources. Berlioz described Beatrice and Benedict, his fourth opera, as “a caprice written with the point of a needle.”

William Shakespere
Hector Berlioz

Berlioz Goes to the Opera

If you regularly attend symphony concerts, you’ve probably encountered the music of Hector Berlioz, one of nineteenth-century France’s most original composers. Berlioz wrote lots of vocal music, and several operas, but this production of Beatrice and Benedict marks the first time his music will be performed at Seattle Opera. We have yet to give his Benvenuto Cellini, Damnation of Faust, or Les Troyens, almost a French answer to Wagner’s Ring.

Part of the explanation has to do with the vast scale of these enormous French grand operas. (We’ve also never given Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Halévy’s La Juive, Thomas’s Hamlet, or any works by Giacomo Meyerbeer.) But there’s another consideration with Berlioz: his genius was more lyric and sonic than it was dramatic. The works listed above, though sometimes given at big opera companies, work just as well as concerts. Technically, The Damnation of Faust isn’t even an opera; Berlioz called it a “dramatic legend.” But in Beatrice and Benedict he created an undeniably stageworthy piece, building upon the solid dramatic foundation laid by England’s greatest playwright.

Where'd They Get the Story?

Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (1993).

From Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. In this title, the final word (pronounced “Noting” in the 1590s) obliquely refers to eavesdropping. (It also has an anatomical meaning.) Characters in this story constantly jump to the wrong conclusion based on information they weren’t “supposed” to have: spying, witnessing, and overhearing. This obsession with “Noting” powers both comic and serious plots. But Berlioz only wrote music for the comic plot. In his original version of Beatrice and Benedict, there’s no dark underbelly to the story: no Don John, no Ursula and Borachio, no conflict between Benedict and Claudio. Seattle Opera is re-incorporating these scenes from the play in order to honor Shakespeare’s genius.

Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare

Seattle Opera, ACT Theatre, and Seattle Symphony are teaming up to offer this charming piece under the umbrella of 2018’s Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare.

Our production (directed by ACT Theatre Artistic Director John Langs) will feature words by Shakespeare and music by Berlioz (conducted by Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot). Visually, the production will blend the worlds of Shakespearean theater and comic opera.

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