Last night after driving to Arlington Heights and back for an audition (translation: a full two hours of driving for four minutes of singing), I kept myself awake until 10 by watching an episode of Shakespeare Uncovered in which Derek Jacobi discussed Richard II, about which I knew nothing. I was totally drawn in–now I kind of want to read the play. Or better, SEE the play.
Anyway, it reminded me that I wanted to post about one of my favorite operas of all time, one of those slightly obscure pieces by a famous composer whose other works are perhaps objectively better: Béatrice et Bénédict, by Hector Berlioz.
In which the otherwise insipid romantic soprano character gets a full seven-and-a-half minutes alone onstage to sing a seriously kick-butt aria…which I am currently preparing for several different competitions in the next month and a half. Score!
Of course, the reason Héro is so insipid and boring in this version is that Berlioz cut everything that wasn’t directly related to the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick–which actually is totally okay with me. I fast-forward through those bits anyway.
Unfortunately this means we don’t get that amazing scene where Emma Thompson is like, “KILL CLAUDIO,” because there’s no reason for anybody to want to kill Claudio in Béatrice et Bénédict. In the play, and in the Kenneth Branagh movie (among others), Hero is in love with Claudio, who then rejects her because he believes she has been unfaithful (to say nothing of promiscuous!). BUT, as the audience already knows, this is but an illusion, as the vengeful Don John, for some reason that I’ve never been clear on, got one of his minions to schedule an assignation with Margaret and then to call her “Hero” while Claudio was in earshot (which of course Don John arranged, being evil.)
…at least he’s good-looking.
But really, even though removing all of this extra plot stuff (and Don John, to say nothing of Margaret and several other pivotal characters) makes my job a little less interesting, I can’t object, because to me, Béatrice et Bénédict sparkles.
I first saw it the summer before my freshman year of college, at a summer program I did in Portland, Oregon. (Actually, that was also the first time I encountered L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, another of my favorite operas ever, so despite spending most of three weeks wandering Portland, reading E.M. Forster and watching artsy movies by myself, I feel like I got something important out of that program, to say nothing of a couple of good solid friendships.) They did Berlioz one better, actually, by cutting the gratuitous old man who leads the chorus in song and dance–because who cares, when you have to get through that to get to this:
“What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?”
They also did the dialogue in English, which is probably a good idea when most of the cast doesn’t speak French. It’s really fun, though, to read the dialogue that’s been translated into French when you’re familiar with the play. Non! Le monde doit être peuplé!
When I got home from Portland, I bought a recording of the opera on iTunes, and that’s still my go-to recording…even though the tenor, whoever he is, has a leeeeeetle trouble with his French vowels.
Which is too bad, because he’s got the best aria in the piece.
…for I shall be HORRIBLY IN LOVE WITH HEEEEEER!
What I love best about Béatrice et Bénédict is how bits of the Shakespearean dialogue turn up in the music, not just in the spoken sections. There’s a marvelous trio for Bénédict, Claudio and Don Pedro called “Me marier? Dieu me pardonne!” in which Berlioz integrates Benedick’s speech from the play that goes “That a woman gave me life, I thank her.” And Béatrice gets a great big virtuoso aria corresponding to her speech that begins “What fire is in my ears!”
And at the beginning of the play, Benedick says that if he ever decides to get married, they may hang a sign around his neck that says “Here lies Benedick, the married man!” Berlioz puts those words into the mouths of the chorus at the end: Ici l’on voit Bénédict, l’homme marié!
I just love it. I’ve been trying to get all of my tenor friends to sing “Ah, je vais l’aimer,” and I worked on Héro’s aria yesterday with a coach who said he’s been pushing “Dieu, que viens-je d’entendre” on every mezzo he meets, but nobody is interested. Maybe it’s just a little too obscure, or maybe Berlioz’s vocal writing isn’t quite as good as most opera composers’. But that’s okay by me–the fewer people who sing this stuff, the more chances for me to look like an original. Wheeee!