Wine and Opera part 10: Béatrice et Bénédict25th March, 2014 by Rupert Millar
“Du vin! Du vin!”
Time for some more Berlioz and when he wasn’t dragging his protagonists to Hell, he was adapting Shakespeare in this charming comic work.
Written in the 1860s for the opening of the new opera house in Baden-Baden it was one of his last major works (he died in 1869) and is very closely based on the bard’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Like Otello, Shakespeare aficionados will know the story. Set on Sicily, the story concerns the mutually antagonistic Béatrice and Bénédict, the former the niece of Léonato, the governor of Messina, and the latter an officer in the army.
With the pair having a teasing, rather flirtatious relationship but Bénédict proclaiming he will never marry, their respective friends play a practical joke on each of them.
Each set of friends tells them that the other is in love with them, which leads to them to question their feelings and then Bénédict actually falls in love with Béatrice and she with him (slightly to her annoyance), the pair then trying to conceal their growing passion every time they meet (this being a comedy after all).
This of course won’t do and by the end they’re happily wed, promising to be, “enemies again tomorrow”.
The most explicit wine reference comes at the beginning of Act II when the wedding of Béatrice and Bénédict’s mutual friends Héro and Claudio is being prepared.
The pompous music teacher, Somarone, leads the chorus in a rousing homage to Sicilian wine.
Somarone: “Le vin de Syracuse
Une grande chaleur
De notre île
Vive ce fameux vin
Chorus: “Vive ce fameux vin
Somarone: “Mais la plus noble flamme…”
Somarone: “Douce à l’âme
Comme au cœur
C’est la liqueur vermeille
De la treille
Des coteaux de Marsala
Chorus: “Il a raison, et sa rare éloquence
S’unit à la science
Du vrai buveur.Honneur à l’improvisateur!”
Sadly, Béatrice et Bénédict is all too infrequently performed today which is a shame because it’s a lovely opera, a little musically conservative perhaps but with arias and duets no less the lovely for it.
One slight criticism is that perhaps, nearing the end of his life and with a deadline to meet, Berlioz rather rushed Béatrice et Bénédict. Quite possibly but as his biographer David Cairns wrote: “Listening to the score’s exuberant gaiety, only momentarily touched by sadness, one would never guess that its composer was in pain when he wrote it and impatient for death.”
Equally frustratingly, Somarone’s brindisi could not be found so instead you shall just have to enjoy this Nocturne (a song sung by moonlight or evoking the night), “Nuit paisible et sereine” – “Oh peaceful and serene night” - from a 1992 recording with Sylvia McNair as Héro and Christine Robbin as her maid Ursule.
Ursule begins the duet with the line: “Vous soupirez, madame?” – “You are sighing, my lady?” as Héro yearns and gazes wistfully at the full moon, as lovers are want to do, as she thinks of her betrothed, Claudio.
Next time: Tales of Hoffmann
Previously: Vengeful gypsies in Verdi’s Il Trovatore