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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

From Britten to Berlioz: opera’s debt to Shakespeare 

Its proportions remain modest – 15 numbers amount to barely 90 minutes of music, and the darker side of the play has been cut; Berlioz notably eliminates the sinister character of Don John and the unpleasant subplot associated with him. The tone here is predominantly merry, and the focus firmly on delusions of love and the obstacles and games that surround them. Berlioz fashioned the libretto himself, and much of the dialogue directly translates Shakespeare, with a pedantic choirmaster Somarone substituted for the clodhopping night-watch constables Dogberry and Verges. 

All the opera’s headlong gaiety is bundled into the enchantingly exuberant overture, embracing the melodic expansiveness of Béatrice’s later aria, the scheming soldiers’ trio, the triumphant Wedding March and the final flourish of a duet reflective of the sparring and jesting of Béatrice and Bénédict’s relationship. 

Everything in the score sparkles or glows, coloured by some particularly beautiful writing for woodwind and the unusual sonorities of tambourine and guitar. Like Verdi’s Falstaff, this is an old man’s tribute to the headlong merriment of youth, and many of the numbers are imbued with a quicksilver energy that reflects this nostalgia.

But the great glory is undoubtedly the nocturne sung in rapturous duet by Béatrice and Hero – one of those sensuously fluent reveries that suggest so forcibly the melancholy romanticism at the heart of Berlioz’s personality. It surely ranks as one of the most sublime episodes in any French opera. 

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