Hector Berlioz: Beatrice et Benedict (1862)

Opera comique en deux actes (performed as a single act in two tableaux). Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes.


Now for something lighter. This is Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing with all of the Ado deleted and the entire plot concentrated on the Beatrice and Benedict love-hate relationship subplot. The best way to understand this opera is as a celebration of music, it really isn’t about the story at all.


SCENE 1: A park near the Governor’s Mansion, Messina.

0: The overture ** takes melodies from later in the opera, but arranges them in such a way that the piece never becomes a simple hash-out parade of tunes.

9, 14, 17, 21: The opening chorus * works, it is neither amazing nor dull. It is interrupted by a long patch of spoken dialogue in which , a dance, and then the chorus comes to an end more effectively than it began (a Scilienne) ** as the soldiers return home from the war against the Moors and is followed by a long orchestral interlude going into an aria for Hero ** which has a very lingering clarinet line. She eventually gets more up-beat ** with some coloratura thrown in for good measure (although how she is able to make the crippled Claudio walk is a bit beyond me). The governor declares that Sicily is liberated.

26: The first duet Beatrice-Benedict ** in which their love-hate relationship is on display and they end up having to be separated like two naughty children.

33: A slightly-homoerotic trio ** for Benedict, Claudio, and Don Pedro as a regiment of men take off Benedict’s clothes and he has no choice other than to bathe and express his views on marriage as the other two men comment. It’s fine, but I’m really not sure if I ‘get’ where the melody is here.

41: And now we have the one number in the opera that is basically just filler as Somarone rehearses his Epithalame Grotesque * (a choral fugue about love) which is apparently being rehearsed for the upcoming wedding of Hero and Claudio. As far as fugues go it is fine and it seems to borrow a bit from Mozart.

48, 52: Claudio and Don Pedro talk to Leonato about how Beatrice supposedly loves Benedict. The dialogue gets interrupted by two musical numbers, the first being a rondo ** for Benedict as  he falls for the other men’s scheme to make the couple admit their love for each other and stop fighting. He tries to flirt but she is having none of it. The next interruption is a gorgeous duet for Hero and her contralto minder Ursula *** which is probably the peak of the entire opera and a dialogue between brings the act to a close. (This is the best number in the opera).

64: Because this is a glorified operetta n. 11 has been transposed to this point in the narrative, ahead of two other numbers and an entr’acte which will probably come up later. And so we have a trio for the three women as Hero and Ursula make sure that Beatrice is totally in love with Benedict *** and talk about how awesome marriage is. (This placement might make some sense if it is explained that this number was added to the original score, it was not written at the time of the opera’s premiere).

73: The Sicillienne returns in the form of an entr’acte * as the scene changes to–

SCENE 2: A room in home of the governor.

74, 78: The chorus greets Hero to a guitar serenade, not bad *, and Somarone provides a very spirited drinking chorus to guitar, brass, and tambourine **. Apparently the governor has the ability to marry his own daughter to a man, BUT!!!! Okay, what the—! Somarone declares that Claudio is married, to another woman! Didn’t see that one coming! So the wedding is off!

85: Benedict declares his love for Beatrice because Hero is totally out of her freaking mind tearing apart wedding stuff and Beatrice gets a lovely aria *** (oh, and never mind that a Sicilian honour killing takes place right in the middle of it). Hero, who has recovered rather quickly, hands her wedding veil to her cousin so at least someone can be happy.

97: Another wedding chorus **. Okay, apparently Claudio isn’t dead, and now everyone is angry with Somarone for lying or something because he wanted Hero. Hero decides ultimately not to marry Claudio because conflict and leaves. Beatrice and Benedict decide they don’t love each other, then that they do love each other, so they get married.

103: The finale *** is frankly bizarre and a bit silly at the same time. Benedict throws the bouquet and then they do married things after the wedding. Keeping it PG guys.


As a drama or a comedy, this is horrible. No amount of beefcake, drag, or strangeness can save it. The very fact that the Hero-Claudio subplot can so violently change in act 2 (when in fact it barely registers even as a situation in the original libretto) in order to add some semblance of conflict into an otherwise uncomplicated and even silly comic narrative, is testament to the fact that almost nothing actually happens in the original libretto.  As an artistic means to a musical end, however, it greatly succeeds. This opera is about celebrating music, the plot is ancillary to this goal similarly to how Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America is really about “other”-ing in historical documents and not really about the Spanish conquest of Meso-America. A-.

2 responses to “Hector Berlioz: Beatrice et Benedict (1862)”

  1. It’s an exquisite score. It is, as you recognise, all about the music! It has everything the Wagnerian movement sneered at – multi-section arias (complete with coloratura runs) and ensembles, with regularly developed themes. There are “improvised” drinking choruses accompanied by guitars and trumpets, choruses sung from the wings, and an almost eighteenth century Marche nuptiale.

    And it has perhaps the most beautiful duet in all opera.

    Berlioz celebrates FORM (like Rossini, whom he despised). Berlioz really represents the healthy alternative to Wagner: not turning his back on the past, or hijacking it to support his theories, but a colossus standing on the shoulders of giants! (“A colossal nightingale, a lark the size of an eagle”.)

    Only two stars for the overture and Héro’s aria?

    Robert Letellier’s written a really good piece on Meyerbeer this week: https://www.forumopera.com/actu/robert-letellier-il-faut-redecouvrir-la-modernite-de-meyerbeer


    1. Hero as a character really didn’t impress me. In fact the first 50 minute or so of the opera didn’t really to be honest. Then I got hit in the face with the Hero-Ursula duet, and that changed! The best characterizations (if you can use that term here) are the title characters. You can tell that Berlioz is trying to break Hero in as the “soprano lead” but it didn’t work for me. Maybe it did for you?

      Theory only matters if you get other people to follow it. You can start an entire religion, but if you gain no followers, do any of your ideas actually matter?


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