Translating Shakespeare

Tenor Paul Appleby on how Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing became Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict

Translating Shakespeare
(Credit: Richard Hubert Smith)

It’s a good thing Berlioz retitled his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  Although Claudio and Hero do appear in the opera as the romantic-comedy side-kicks of the eponymous pair, Don John is nowhere to be found and no one calls Hero’s maidenhood into question—there is no ado!   In the opera, the only conflict that remains is the delicious one between Béatrice and Bénédict.  What darker considerations of malign sexual politics Berlioz sheds, he makes up for with his vibrant, funny, and sexy musical manifestation of the battle of sexes and wits between his hero and heroine. 

Despite my obvious tenor bias, I must say that the role of Bénédict is the major beneficiary of this shift of dramatic focus.  His numbers in the opera have the clearest analogues to scenes from the Shakespeare and as such benefit from the bard’s inspiration.  The Act I duet between Béatrice and Bénédict in the opera, for example, recreates the characters’ first exchange in the play.  'My dear Lady Disdain!' becomes 'Aimable Dédain' and although Berlioz’s libretto can’t match Shakespeare’s literary genius, he nonetheless brings the essence of the two sparring potential paramours to vivid life.  His music is quivering with their youthful exuberance, wit, and frustration while undergirding their barbs with the throbbing sexual tension that fuels the exchange.  Similarly, in the trio between Bénédict, Claudio and Don Pedro in which the tenor states his objection to the institution of marriage, Berlioz translates Shakespeare’s hilarious verbal somersaults into impossibly energetic musical form equal to Bénédict’s vigor in defending bachelorhood.  Berlioz may not be able to translate Benedick’s 'bugle in an invisible baldrick' perfectly in his French text, but the full scope of Bénédict’s unique and provocatively funny point of view is articulated in the score. 

Tenor Paul Appleby (Bénédict) and soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac (Béatrice) (Credit: Richard Hubert Smith)

In the Shakespeare, what ultimately brings the quarreling pair together is their love for their respective friends, Hero and Claudio.  They both prove their character defending the honour of Hero, and the experience reveals to them that there are more important things than who gets the best of whom in a verbal scrum. Although there is no crisis to provoke soul-searching honesty in the opera, Berlioz manages to raise the stakes of Béatrice’s emotional journey by means of her magnificent soliloquy, 'Dieu que viens-je entendre?'  This full-blown scena magically creates a profound emotional journey which is, if not as epic as Dido’s farewell in Les Troyens, just as moving.  Berlioz makes ingenious use of operatic form and orchestral invention to create a fully realized character and a satisfying moment of theater equal to that found in the source material.

Since in the opera there are no accusations against Héro’s purity, no character investigates it. But such a great buffo type as Inspector Dogberry couldn’t go to waste, so Berlioz invented a new, verbally confused version of this great comic character: the multi-lingual and dubiously skilled chef de choeur (choirmaster), Somarone. This adorable buffoon provides a clever excuse for loads of wonderful choral music in the opera (not to mention a few good music-industry inside jokes).

In the end, Béatrice et Bénédict tells only half of the story of Much Ado About Nothing, but what fraction of the story Berlioz does tell, he tells brilliantly through his ravishing score.  

American tenor Paul Appleby stars in Glyndebourne's production of Béatrice et Bénédict until 27 August. The production will be live-streamed on the Glyndebourne website on 9 August.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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