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Berlioz Meets Bard In 'Beatrice And Benedict'

Hector Berlioz composed his operatic version of Shakespeare's <em>Much Ado About Nothing</em> early in the 1860s.
Getty Images/Hulton Archive
Hector Berlioz composed his operatic version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing early in the 1860s.

It's hardly a surprise that some of the greatest operas of all time are based on plays by Shakespeare. What is surprising is that there are so few of those operas.

Actually, composers have cranked out hundreds of Shakespeare operas, but only a few of them truly cut the mustard. That is, barely a handful of those operas are widely considered worthy of Shakespeare's legacy, and of a regular place in the opera house. Most opera fans would count three of Giuseppe Verdi's operas among them: Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff. Others might include Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, or Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. And that's pretty close to the end of the list.

Still, there may just be a Shakespeare-based, operatic dark horse that deserves more consideration than it gets. It's an appealing and insightful comedy, called Beatrice and Benedict, that combines the signature brilliance and bombast of composer Hector Berlioz with the sly, comedic insights of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

Yet somehow, the work scarcely registers on many people's operatic radar — maybe because Berlioz is known more for his brilliant orchestral works than for his operas. So it's ironic that it was the composer's instrumental music that gave him the opportunity to write the opera in the first place.

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.

Then, in the 1850s, Berlioz began presenting summertime concerts in the German spa town of Baden-Baden. The composer was hired by a casino owner to entertain his patrons, and the concerts were a great success. A few years later, the casino owner decided to commission a full-scale opera from Berlioz. The result was Beatrice and Benedict, which was premiered at a Baden-Baden theater in 1862.

On this week's World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Beatrice and Benedict from the Champs-Elysees Theatre in Paris. The stars are mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and tenor Charles Workman in the title roles, and the performance is led by one of the world's foremost interpreters of Berlioz's music, Sir Colin Davis.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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