Hyperion Records

Béatrice et Bénédict
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Berlioz had often thought of composing an opera on Much Ado about Nothing. When eventually he decided to do so – for the opening season of the new theatre in the German spa town of Baden-Baden – he deliberately limited his ambitions: the libretto – based closely on the text of the play but written by the composer – removes Don John and his sinister intrigue against Hero altogether and sets only a part of Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy, confining the action almost entirely (in Berlioz’s words) to ‘persuading Beatrice and Benedick that they love each other’. Though still only in his late 50s, Berlioz was in nearly constant pain (from what his doctors called ‘intestinal neuralgia’ but what was probably Crohn’s Disease) and with no illusions about his career in his native France.

The prodigality of ideas and unstoppable energy found in Berlioz’s earlier Italian comedy, Benvenuto Cellini, give way here to an extreme economy and a demonstration of the expressive possibilities in the basic means of music, notably the scale. Writing the work was, he said, ‘a relaxation from The Trojans’, the epic five-act opera he had recently completed, which he knew was his magnum opus but for which there was no prospect of a production. It was symbolic of the state of his career that what would be his last major work was written not for Paris but for a German provincial town.

Yet the music of the work – ‘a caprice written with the point of a needle’, Berlioz called it – has no trace of bitterness and, on the contrary, has wit and grace and lightness of touch. It accepts life as it is. The opera is a divertissement, not a grand statement. It celebrates love not – as in The Trojans – as a devouring, all-consuming passion but as ‘a flame, a will o’ the wisp, coming from no one knows where, gleaming then vanishing from sight, for the distraction of our souls’. Mad, perhaps; but ‘madness is better than stupidity’ – words that all come from the final number of the opera, where Benedick and Beatrice play at hiding their recognition of twin natures.

The ‘Overture’, which was composed last, and which bears the date ‘25 February 1862’ and ‘The End’ (in English), sums up the work. Racy, headlong yet poised, exuberant, ironic, brilliant but touched with warmth of heart, it breathes a single atmosphere while drawing on half a dozen different numbers from the opera: the wide melodic spans of Beatrice’s aria, the magical pianissimo conclusion of the ‘Nocturne’, the triumphant but rather empty tuttis of the conventional Hero’s aria, the long descending and ascending melody of the ‘Wedding March’, the men’s trio’s conspiratorial humour, above all the motif of the final ‘Scherzo-Duettino’, whose nimble triplet rhythm and angular dotted phrase work their way in everywhere and spread their gleeful mirth across the whole texture of the orchestra.

from notes by David Cairns © 2012

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