Preview: Beatrice And Benedict At Seattle Opera

Beatrice and Benedict at Seattle Opera on Equality365

Beatrice and Benedict….Benedict hates Beatrice; Beatrice hates Benedict. It must be love.

And it has been so since 1598, when Shakespeare, feather quill in hand, first penned Much Ado About Nothing. The Bard inspired Berlioz’s operatic version, Beatrice and Benedict. It debuted in 1862.  

So, Benedict and Beatrice are at it again, much to Seattle Opera’s delight, in a mashup of Berlioz’s opera Beatrice and Benedict and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Berlioz’s music meets the Bard’s words in a combined effort of SO, Seattle Symphony Orchestra Maestro Ludovic Morlot, and ACT Theatre’s Artistic Director John Langs. Visually, the production blends the worlds of Shakespearean theater and comic opera.  

Under the umbrella of 2018’s Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare. Berlioz’s exuberant opera score is paired with English text lifted directly from the Bard himself.  Amanda Holden translated the French lyrics into English. 

The opera is sung in English with English subtitles, so the audience must listen closely. SO doesn’t post every subtitle.   

One of nineteenth-century France’s most original composers. Berlioz’s opera, Beatrice and Benedict, is both a first and a last. It’s the first time his music has been performed at SO, and the last opera Berlioz ever wrote.  

He created an undeniably stageworthy piece, building upon the solid dramatic foundation laid by England’s greatest playwright. Berlioz described the opera as, “a caprice written with the point of a needle.” 

Shelly Traverse (Hero), Craig Verm (Claudio), Daniel Sumegi (Don Pedro) and Marvin Grays (Leonato). (photo by Jacob Lucas)

Shelly Traverse (Hero), Craig Verm (Claudio), Daniel Sumegi (Don Pedro) and Marvin Grays (Leonato). (photo by Jacob Lucas)

A Shakespeare-based, operatic dark horse, Beatrice and Benedict deserves more consideration than it gets. It’s an appealing and insightful comedy that combines the signature brilliance and bombast of composer Hector Berlioz with the sly, comedic insights of Shakespeare. 

Yet somehow, the work scarcely registers on the operatic radar — maybe because Berlioz is known more for his brilliant orchestral works than for his operas. 

Berlioz was 23, in the early 1830’s, when he saw a series of Shakespeare’s plays performed by an English theater company in Paris. He was overwhelmed by the experience, and began thinking about a musical setting of Much Ado About Nothing. But nothing came of the idea for nearly 30 years. Its debut did not take place until 1862. 

The onset of an intestinal illness in the late 1850’s would plague Berlioz for the rest of his life. Berlioz biographer David Cairns wrote. “Listening to Beatrice and Benedict’s 1862 exuberant score, only momentarily touched by sadness, one would never guess that its composer was in pain when he wrote it and impatient for death.”  

Berlioz was obviously a romantic, albeit an obsessive one.  In September 1827, he attended a production by a traveling English theatre company, with the Irish-born actress Harriet Smithson playing Ophelia and Juliet in the Shakespeare plays Hamletand Romeo and Juliet. Berlioz immediately became infatuated with both actress and playwright. Prone to violent impulses, Berlioz began flooding Smithson’s hotel room with love letters which both confused and terrified her. He was besotted; she was not. Eventually they actually met and married, but it was a tempestuous relationship.  

After Harriet died, he married his long-time mistress, Marie Recio. She died in 1862. And he then fell in love with Amelie, a 24-year-old woman 35 years his junior.  She died at age 26. He reconnected with his first passion (he was12; she was 18), Estelle Fornier. Despite their attraction, it had been 40 years; she was now married and unwilling to have an affair.  

But the piece de resistance occurred when he met and became engaged to Camille Moke in 1830. It lasted until her mother sent Berlioz a letter calling off their engagement so her daughter could marry a rich, young merchant. Berlioz vowed revenge. He decided to kill Camille, her new fiancé and her mother. (This was not an opera; this was real life.) 

Creating an elaborate plan, he went so far as to purchase a dress, wig and hat with a veil to disguise himself as a woman in order to gain entry to their home. He even stole a pair of double-barreled pistols. He saved a single shot for himself. In case his pistol jammed, Berlioz purchased phials of strychnine and laudanum to use as poisons  

Despite his elaborate plan, Berlioz failed to complete it.  On his way to do the dirty deed, he accidentally left his disguise in the side pocket of a carriage. As in an opera, fate stepped in, and overfed the plan.   

In spite of his romantic escapades, Bierlioz earned the respect and friendship of other musical greats. Liszt became a close friend. So did violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini. They met when he commissioned Berlioz to compose a viola concerto, intending to premiere it as soloist. Instead it became the symphony for viola and orchestra. After reviewing the composition, Paganini rejected it. But after hearing it for the first time, Paganini knelt before Berlioz in front of the orchestra after and proclaimed him a genius—and heir to Beethoven.  

Meet the Characters
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. 

The Story 

As the opera begins Don Pedro and his soldiers return victorious from battle and visit the estate of Leonato, his daughter Hero, and her cousin Beatrice. Hero loves Claudio, one of Don Pedro’s soldiers; Beatrice hates all men, but especially Benedict, Claudio’s misogynistic best friend and another of Don Pedro’s soldiers.  

A wedding is soon arranged between Claudio and Hero. When Claudio suggests that Benedict, too, should get married, Benedict says he would rather die. Don Pedro and Claudio conspire to make Benedict fall in love; arranging a situation in which Benedict eavesdrops on them, talking about how sad it is that Beatrice loves Benedict. Hero and her friend Ursula, meanwhile, play the same trick on Beatrice.  

Meanwhile, a gullible Claudio is tricked into rejecting sweet and gentle Hero at the altar on the erroneous belief that she has been unfaithful.  So Benedict and Beatrice join forces to set things right between Claudio and Hero.  Benedict declares their love affair to be “a miracle!” He’s coordinated a marriage ceremony with the Friar, and happily tells Beatrice that he’ll wed her, though he still teases her that it’s only out of pity. They argue their way to the altar. But true love outs between both couples. At least for the moment. 

As preparation for the opera, you should check out Kenneth Branagh’s delightful 1993 film version of Much Ado About Nothing. Branagh portrays an amazing, hilarious Benedict, and has great chemistry with Emma Thompson’s Beatrice, who is witty and beautiful. Fun fact: they were still married when they made this film. 

Meet the Singers of Seattle Opera’s Beatrice and Benedict

Daniela Mack (Beatrice, soprano), Seattle Opera Debut, Feb. 24, 28, Mar. 7, & 10
Hanna Hipp (Beatrice, soprano), Feb. 25, Mar. 3, & 9
Alek Shrader (Benedict, tenor), Feb. 24, 28, Mar. 7, & 10
Andrew Owens (Benedict, tenor), Feb. 25, Mar. 3, & 9
Laura Tatulescu (Hero, soprano), Feb. 24, 25, 28, Mar. 3, 7, 9, & 10
Avery Amereau (Ursule. contralto), Seattle Opera Debut, Feb. 24, 25, 28, Mar. 3, 7, 9, & 10
Kevin Burdette (Somarone, bass), Feb. 24, 25, 28, Mar. 3, 7, 9, & 10
Craig Verm, (Claudio. baritone), Feb. 24, 25, 28, Mar. 3, 7, 9, & 10
Daniel Sumegi (Don Pedro, bass), Feb. 24, 25, 28, Mar. 3, 7, 9, & 10
Christine Marie Brown (Margaret), Seattle Opera Debut, Feb. 24, 25, 28, Mar. 3, 7, 9, & 10 

Meet the Production Team
Conductor: Ludovic Morlot 
Director: John Langs
Costumes: Deborah Trout
Chorus master: John Keene
Choreographer: Helene Heaship
Scenic Design: Matthew Smucker
Lighting Design: Connie Yun 

SO’s Beatrice and Benedict runs through March 10th at McCaw Hall; in English with English subtitles; Performance Time: Approximately 2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission; Tickets $25-$308, available at 206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org discounts available for groups, students, seniors, military, teens, ages 21-39 orchestra seat tickets start at $90, and second tier tickets start at $59. Tickets are available at 206-389-7676 orseattleopera.org; tickets may also be purchased at the box office, 1020 John Street, M-F 9am-3pm; 206.676.5588 or groups@seattleopera.org.  

About Hector Berlioz 

LouisHector Berlioz was born at 5pm on December 11, 1803 at No. 83 rue nationale, the family home in the French commune of La Côte-Saint-André in the département of Isère, near Grenoble. Three days later, he was baptized in the chapel of the Church of Saint-André. His father, Louis Berlioz, a respected provincial physician and scholar who is widely credited for first experimenting with and recording the use of acupuncture in Europe,  was responsible for much of the young Berlioz’s education. Louis was an agnostic, with a liberal outlook; his mother, Marie-Antoinette, was a devout Roman Catholic.  He had five siblings in all, three of whom did not survive to adulthood. The other two, Nanci and Adele, remained close to Berlioz throughout his life.  

Berlioz was not a child prodigy, unlike some other famous composers of the time; he began studying music at age 12, writing small compositions and arrangements. As a result of his father’s discouragement, he never learned to play the piano, a peculiarity he later described as both beneficial and detrimental. He became proficient at guitar, flageolet and flute. He learned harmony from textbooks alone—he was not formally trained. The majority of his early compositions were romances and chamber pieces.

While yet at age 12, as recalled in his Mémoires, he experienced his first passion for a woman, an 18-year-old next-door neighbor named Estelle Fornier.. Berlioz appears to have been innately Romantic, this characteristic manifesting itself in his love affairs, adoration of great romantic literature, as well as Shakespeare and Beethoven, and his weeping at passages by Virgil (also by age 12, he had learned to read Virgil in Latin and translate it into French under his father’s tutelage). 

In March 1821, Berlioz left high school in Grenoble, and in late September, at age 18, he was sent to Paris to study medicine, a field for which he had no interest and, later, outright disgust after viewing a human corpse being dissected. ﷟HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hector_Berlioz” He began to take advantage of the institutions to which he now had access in the city, including his first visit to the Paris Opéra, where he saw Iphigénie en Tauride by Christoph Willibald Gluck, a composer whom he came to admire above all, alongside Beethoven.  

Despite his parents’ disapproval, in 1824 he formally abandoned his medical studies to pursue a career in music. He composed the Messe solennelle. This work was rehearsed and revised after the rehearsal but not performed until the following year. Berlioz later claimed to have burnt the score, but it was re-discovered in 1991. Later that year or in 1825, he began to compose the opera Les francs-juges, which was completed the following year but went unperformed. The work survives only in fragments; the overture has been much recorded and is sometimes played in concert. 

Between 1830 and 1847, Berlioz wrote many of his most popular and enduring works. The foremost of these are the Symphonie fantastique (1830), Harold en Italie (1834), the Grande messe des morts (Requiem) (1837) and Roméo et Juliette (1839). 

Around this time, Berlioz decided to conduct most of his own concerts, tired as he was of conductors who did not understand his music. This decision launched what was to become a lucrative and creatively fruitful career in conducting music both by himself and by other leading composers. 

After the 1830s, Berlioz found it increasingly difficult to achieve recognition for his music in France. As a result, he began to travel to other countries more often. Between 1842 and 1863 he traveled to Germany, England, Austria, Russia and elsewhere, where he conducted operas and orchestral music – both his own and others’. During his lifetime, Berlioz was as famous a conductor as he was as a composer. He was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1839. 

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, Benedict and Beatrice, he expands Shakespeare’s popular comedy with music that is whimsical, effortless, and instantly compelling. 

Berlioz specified huge orchestral forces for some of his works, and conducted several concerts with more than 1,000 musicians. He also composed around 50 compositions for voice, accompanied by piano or orchestra. His influence was critical for the further development of Romanticism, especially in composers like Richard Wagner, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, and Gustav Mahler.  

On March 8, 1869, Berlioz died at his Paris home, surrounded by friends. He was buried in Montmartre Cemetery with his two wives, who were exhumed and re-buried next to him.  

Berlioz’s style is one of the most idiosyncratic of the 19th century. The characteristics of his music do not always take immediate effect and a familiarity is regarded as essential to its understanding. Berlioz’s claim to be an inspired and natural melodist is irrefutable. Few of his melodies fall into regular phrase lengths, and when they do, they sound uncharacteristic. But perhaps what is “characteristic” of Berlioz’s style is the way in which it cannot necessarily be tamped down. Sometimes his melodies expand to great length, or fill an entire movement in one long arch.  

The unconventional music of Berlioz irritated the established concert and opera scene. Berlioz often had to arrange for his own performances as well as pay for them himself. This took a heavy toll on him financially and emotionally. The nature of his large works – sometimes involving hundreds of performers – made financial success difficult.  

While Berlioz is best known as a composer, he was also a prolific writer, and supported himself for many years by writing musical criticism, utilizing a bold, vigorous style, at times imperious and sarcastic.  

His journalistic abilities became essential for him to make a living and he survived as a witty critic, emphasizing the importance of drama and expressiveness in musical entertainment. It was perhaps this expense which prevented Berlioz from composing more opera than he did. His talent in the genre is obvious, but opera is the most expensive of all classical forms, and Berlioz in particular struggled to arrange stagings of his operas, due in part to the unwillingness of conservative Paris opera companies to perform his work 

During his centenary in 1903, while receiving attention from all leading musical reference books, he was still not generally accepted as being one of the great composers. It wasn’t until 2003, the bicentenary of Berlioz’s birth that his   achievements and status were much more widely recognized, and his music is now viewed as both serious and original, rather than an eccentric novelty.  

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About Starla Smith

Starla Smith is a career journalist, writing features for such publications as The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Daily News, The Des Moines Register, Vibe and a prize-winning Gannett Newspaper. She helped launch Theater Week Magazine and eventually became its publisher. As a regular contributor to Playbill, her interviews and photos were featured in Playbill and Playbill-on-line. Smith was featured in the New York Times "Style" section for her "Word Portraits," specialized tributes, speeches, and presentation profiles. And she covered theater and features for City Search, Digital City, and the Tena Duberry WOW! Radio show. She previously served as astrology guru for Out Magazine, and she hastens to assure her readers that "Starla" is indeed her real name.

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