Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Berlioz and Beatrice Come to Seattle

By Jessica Murphy Moo

Welcome to Seattle’s world re-premiere of Beatrice and Benedict.

World re-premiere? you ask. Is that a thing?

Well, not exactly. I just made it up. But in the case of this production the usual categories don’t really fit, so allow me to explain.

To Adapt or Not to Adapt…

On the one hand Berlioz was a purist who didn’t want anyone messing with the intentions of the masters. In his Memoirs he gives a few examples of how he reacted when hearing music altered from the way his idol, Gluck, had intended it.

In the middle of a performance of IphigĂ©nie en Tauride, for example, he shouted from the audience, “There are no cymbals there. Who has dared to correct Gluck?” and “Why aren’t the trombones playing? This is intolerable.”

Then he sat with much contentment (and one would presume, self satisfaction) through a later performance, with the same conductor, where the cymbals were quiet in the right place and the trombones sounded.

At one concert, Berlioz shouted his critique in a similar fashion and essentially started a riot. The curtain came down, people started throwing chairs, then jumped into the pit and damaged instruments.

So that’s one approach.

Berlioz also revered Shakespeare. But when he transformed Much Ado About Nothing into Beatrice and Benedict, the composer seemed OK with making cuts, changing the story, and adding some language of his own.

Some of these changes were practical, to be sure. There is no iambic pentameter in the French language, and as Aidan Lang says, only Dave Brubeck seems to work effectively with a five-beat meter. And a libretto can contain only a fraction of the word count of a play.

But Berlioz also deleted whole characters from Much Ado about Nothing. He cut Shakespeare's dark subplot, including the climactic wedding scene in which Claudio accuses Hero of betraying him.

“The nature of Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict,” says John Langs, Artistic Director of ACT Theatre and stage director of this production, “is a light, frothy exploration of the resistance we feel to giving over to the feelings of love. For the people who may have been burned before, who may live ‘above’ falling in love—until step by step you find you can’t stop thinking about someone.”

The opera premiered in Germany, with Berlioz conducting. Then at its second outing, a few months later, also in Germany, Berlioz also conducting, the opera was performed in a German translation.

A German translation of a French translation of an adapted English play.

Revising and adapting a piece he was in the midst of performing appears to be something Berlioz did quite often. “Berlioz was conducting a lot,” says Seattle Symphony Music Director and this evening’s maestro Ludovic Morlot. “He had a lot in common with Mahler and Beethoven. He wouldn’t hesitate to rewrite or double something in the theater to strengthen the piece. Berlioz knew that by making these changes the opera would have a better chance of success.”

Which then raises the question: How would the opera have the best chance of success in Seattle?

All Seattle’s a Stage…

When the city announced plans for the 2018 Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare festival, nearly two dozen art organizations jumped on board. Aidan Lang, who played the role of Leonato in university, thought Berlioz’s opera would be a great addition to the 2017/18 season. Seattle Opera has never presented Berlioz before. He also saw this as a great opportunity to work with some of our sister arts organizations, particularly with John Langs, who has a lot of experience directing Shakespeare, and Ludovic Morlot, who has in many ways brought French music to Seattle and particularly Berlioz this season.

They got together and realized that the work might benefit from some of that adaptation that Berlioz did at the outset.

“Berlioz loved theater,” says Aidan Lang, “but he wasn’t sophisticated theatrically. Essentially, he needed a dramaturg.”

This assessment is more or less corroborated by Berlioz in his Memoirs. After the world premiere, he writes: “The critics who had come from Paris to hear the work praised the music enthusiastically, [Beatrice’s] aria and [the Nocturne] duet [between Hero and Ursula] in particular,” writes Berlioz. “One or two of them, however, decided that there was a good deal of scrub and dead wood in the rest of the score, and that the spoken dialogue was dull. This dialogue is taken almost word for word from Shakespeare.”

The way I read this last line is that Berlioz is thinking the critics must be wrong, because Shakespeare never could be.

Morlot admits it took him a little time to come around to the idea of adapting Beatrice and Benedict. Berlioz has earned a special place in his heart. The composer grew up only miles away from Morlot’s hometown, and they share a birthday. Morlot thinks of Berlioz as France’s Beethoven. “He is one of the composers who was writing music that mattered to him more than to the audience. He was pushing boundaries. I love the individuality of his voice,” Morlot says. The more he thought about Berlioz, the more he thought that the adaptations were in step with Berlioz’s own practices.

“Then I became interested,” Morlot says.

If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On…

Dramatically, John Langs thought it made sense to add back in the crisis moment for Hero and Claudio, where Claudio believes he has seen Hero betray him and he publicly humiliates her on their wedding day. This moment raises the dramatic stakes, and pushes Benedict to choose between his friend Claudio and his love Beatrice. Benedict chooses Beatrice.

If Claudio is back in with these dramatic moments, he’d need something to sing. John Langs and Ludovic Morlot decided he needed a “vertical moment.” In Shakespeare, that might be a monologue. In opera, he gets a rage aria.

Morlot turned to Berlioz’s earlier music to see if anything might work. He chose excerpts from La damnation de Faust, Benvenuto Cellini, and L'enfance du Christ. Then John Langs mined Shakespeare’s play for suitable imagery and language for those dramatic moments.

So with the Shakespeare back in, additional Berlioz musical excerpts in, and Berlioz’s French dialogue out, we have what John Langs calls both “a grand adventure,” and “a new form.”

Or…Seattle’s world re-premiere. We hope you enjoy it!


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