Berlioz’s Béatrice & Bénédict
A survey of the major recordings by Ralph Moore

Berlioz aficionado as I am, I consider Béatrice et Bénédict to be a neglected gem; “A caprice written with the point of a needle,” was how Berlioz described this little opéra comique en deux actes. A late work, it is still not part of the standard operatic repertoire but its premiere in Baden-Baden was a success and it has been more frequently revived over the last two decades or so. Some critics are still vey sniffy about it, complaining not so much about the music – which is often typical of Berlioz’ best – but more about his evisceration of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing by removing the dark sub-plot whereby Claudio is deceived into believing Héro unfaithful, and the substitution for Shakespeare’s Dogberry of a new comic character, Somarone, the music master, an object of satire whom they do not find sufficiently amusing. However, when he is sufficiently animated by a good singer-actor, his Drinking Song, in which he drunkenly fails to improvise couplets, adds a suitably diverting, light-hearted touch.  I have also read some snide deprecation of Berlioz’ libretto but see no justification for that given that he was literate and well-read, and despite only loosely adapting Shakespeare’s plot, nonetheless frequently borrows from the original script specific words and jokes translated directly into French. Another addition is the spritely Sicilienne Entr’acte as a brief reference to the notional setting of the original play. The most deservedly celebrated number in the score is the Nocturne duet for soprano, Héro, and alto, Ursule, which closes Act I – one of Berlioz’s most serene and magical confections, and a touchstone for a great performance. All in all, in fact, I think Berlioz did a fine job in adapting its quicksilver wit and charm to music, just as he successfully rendered Roméo et Juliette as a “dramatic symphony”.

The work lasts well under two hours and the original score includes dialogue, which I suppose makes it harder to stage as a full evening’s entertainment, as it is relatively short and requires some comprehension of French – but these days, surtitles in performance or a libretto for armchair listening will surely suffice. Of the recordings here, only Nelson’s includes all the original dialogue whereas in his first recording Davis omitted it altogether, in his second employed an abridged text spoken by the singers and in his third again omitted it – and Barenboim uses narrative links. The problem with omitting dialogue or narration is that the plot makes little sense; for example, Benedict leaps without any explanation from abjuring the very idea of marriage and expressing a misogynistic loathing of women in general to being madly in love with Beatrice. We surely need some clue as to the narrative sequence; conversely, I hate the almost invariable mismatch between voices when actors rather than the singers deliver the dialogue and Davis’ second recording provides a compromise between those two extremes by pruning the text to proportions manageable by non-native singers.

Béatrice & Bénédict has received four studio recordings which I review below, plus the LSO Live performance, which means that, unsurprisingly, Berlioz champion Colin Davis heads three of those five, each time with the LSO. There are three English versions which are hard to obtain and a couple of others on DVD but I consider here only recordings sung in French and available on CD.

The Recordings:

Colin Davis – 1962 (studio, stereo); Decca
London Symphony Orchestra
Saint Anthony Singers
Béatrice – Josephine Veasey
Bénédict – John Mitchinson
Héro – April Cantelo
Ursule – Helen Watts
Claudio – John Cameron
Somarone – Eric Shilling
Don Pedro – John Shirley-Quirk

This is early in the Berlioz revival in which Davis played a leading role, and the enthusiasm and energy of the participants are palpable; rhythms are taut, accents marked, the choral singing committed and the orchestral playing tight and homogeneous. Decca’s sound is clean and crisp, and background hiss is minimal; the overture fairly leaps out at the listener, while the tambourine in the opening choral number is strikingly prominent and every instrumental strand of the music is likewise audible, even if there isn’t much depth or warmth to the sonic ambience.

The first solo voice we hear is that of soprano April Cantelo – the conductor’s first wife, whose 96th birthday approaches as I write. She is light, cool and accurate, if occasionally a tad shrill. Josephine Veasey’s warmer, vibrant mezzo-soprano is rather more to my taste; she is joined in the first duet by a secure, strong-voiced, authentically slightly nasal John Mitchinson, singing in mostly good French. It makes a change to have such a robust tenor in this role. A young Helen Watts sings beautifully; she and Cantelo sing the Nocturne divinely and there is some sensitive string tremolo and woodwind playing in its postlude. Veasey reminds us of what a fine Didon she became with her heartfelt rendering of “Il m’en souvient” and the ladies’ Act II trio “Je vais d’un cœur aimant” is sublime.

Support from Johns Cameron and Shirley-Quirk is strong but character bass-baritone Eric Shilling’s  Somarone  is something of a blot; he never had much voice, so the curtailment of his role is just as well – there is no comic commentary from him during the chorus’ rendition of his Epithalamium. The main problem here, however, is as I outline it in my introduction above: the lack of linkages or dialogue reduces this recording to an episodic and disjointed sequence of numbers without any dramatic continuity. Nonetheless it is mostly very well sung.

Colin Davis – 1977 (studio, stereo); Philips
London Symphony Orchestra
John Alldis Choir
Béatrice – Janet Baker
Bénédict – Robert Tear
Héro – Christiane Eda-Pierre
Ursule – Helen Watts
Claudio – Thomas Allen
Somarone – Jules Bastin
Don Pedro – Robert Lloyd
Leonato – Richard Van Allan

This recording was how I – and, I suspect, many others – came to know this music and it is in many ways the “reference recording”. The participation of Janet Baker alone was enough to make it indispensable and Davis’ conducting bestows a kind of magical aura upon the music which I find to be almost wholly absent in his live LSO outing. Other advantages include the superb John Alldis Choir and a first-rate supporting cast – with one exception: I was always aware that the presence of Robert Tear’s constricted tenor constitutes an obstacle to my enjoyment. Having said that, reacquaintance with his performance prove less trying than I had expected. His vocal acting is excellent and I can tolerate those squeezed high notes – but “Je vais l’aimer” audibly stretches him.

The overture is so spritely and there is a joie de vivre about the LSO’s playing which eludes them a generation later and the recorded sound is much crisper. The compromise of using an abridged French dialogue  is sensible and pragmatic, avoiding the disjuncture which simply presenting the musical numbers occasions. Only Christiane Eda-Pierre is a native speaker but the cast has been well coached. The pure but plaintive quality of her soprano suits the passive character of Héro well and she sounds much more at home than, for example, the stretched Susan Gritton for Davis live in 2000. She handles the coloratura with aplomb, having the requisite power and agility.

While it is true that Janet Baker sounds a tad mature to portray Béatrice, her delivery of the text is typically pointed and she is in fine voice with especially secure top notes, and her duets with Tear sparkle; their sarcasm and the disdain of each for the other emerge vividly. She brings real drama and pathos to her big Act II aria “Il m’en souvient”.

Robert Lloyd adds a touch of class to the role of Don Pedro and he speaks excellent French. Jules Bastin is genuinely amusing as the buffoon of a music master and I like his interjections; the only problem is that the expertise of the John Alldis Choir makes his lugubrious Epithalamium sound too good. It helps, too, that the choir is reasonably forward in the sound picture. The spoken French of the great Helen Watts – reprising the role of Ursula that she first gave Davis fifteen years previously – is distinctly Italianate but her mellifluous contribution to a Romantically atmospheric Nocturne more than redeems that minor flaw. The sense of ensemble is palpable; the trio “Je vais d’un cœur aimant” finds us in operatic heaven.

Davis’ direction is so perfect that I almost forget to remark upon it: transparent orchestral textures and plenty of rhythmic resilience, complemented by the ideally balanced analogue sound, typical of Philips’ engineering in that era.

Daniel Barenboim – 1979 (studio, stereo); Deutsche Grammophon
Orchestre de Paris
Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris
Béatrice – Yvonne Minton
Bénédict – Plácido Domingo
Héro – Ileana Cotrubas
Ursule – Nadine Denize
Claudio – Roger Soyer
Somarone – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Don Pedro – John Macurdy

I have been less than complimentary about some of Barenboim’s Berlioz recordings in the past but this one is a winner. It has a ridiculously starry cast – every one is a major singer; the only missing element is a pervasive sense of idiomatic, French authenticity among the principals  – only Nadine Denize and Roger Soyer are native speakers – but we do have a Parisian chorus and orchestra; the cooing flutes and pungent woodwind at the end of both Epithalamium and the Nocturne are especially enchanting. Barenboim’s approach is more overtly lush and sensuous than Davis’ tauter, more febrile manner and his orchestra makes such a rich sound – but that does not preclude their playing with the wit and delicacy Berlioz’ music demands.

As much as I would have preferred to have some dialogue, I appreciate that is not always advisable if one does not have all native speakers in the cast and the brief, French, narrative links are well delivered by the smoky-voiced Geneviève Page; the booklet provides that text included as part of the full trilingual libretto.

The singing is wonderful; my heart is melted by the sheer tonal lustre and emotional depth of Ileana Cotrubas’ account of her opening aria; nobody else sings it so beautifully but she is also admirably agile in the fioriture passages. She and Denize are ideal in the Nocturne, matching and perhaps even exceeding Eda-Pierre and Watts in that their voices are slightly better integrated. Yvonne Minton’s powerful, velvety mezzo caresses her phrases seductively; she is perhaps a touch sedate but by no means dull and her manner suits this Rolls Royce production. Once again, the Act II trio is a highlight; if anything this one is even sweeter, more vulnerable and seductive than that of its predecessors. The Gallic nasality of the young Domingo’s sappy tenor strikes me as surprisingly appropriate and his French is much better than I recall. I think this is one of the best things he has done; he inflects the words tellingly and his top notes are free and  effortless, too; he despatches “Ah! Je vais l’aimer” with insouciant ease and there is plenty of rhythmic spring in Barenboim’s accompaniment. Fischer-Dieskau contributes a neat little cameo as Somarone, singing with wit and avoiding bluster but he is denied the comic indulgences which Bastin enjoys for Davis.

The sound is a little resonant and soft-edged but this lends a sense of ambient hall space.

John Nelson – 1991 [studio, digital]; Erato/Warner Classics; Brilliant Classics
Opéra de Lyon Orchestra & Chorus
Béatrice – Susan Graham
Bénédict – Jean-Luc Viala
Héro – Sylvia McNair
Ursule – Catherine Robbin
Claudio – Gilles Cachemaille
Somarone – Gabriel Bacquier
Don Pedro – Vincent Le Texier
Leonato – Philippe Magnant

As I mention above, this is the only recording which includes all the spoken dialogue rather than abridging, omitting or paraphrasing it as narration, so be aware that while the original Erato box set has a full libretto, the bargain Warner and Brilliant “twofers” issued later offer only a synopsis, which could be a turn-off for some prospective punters. (The notes in the Warner issue provide a link for a “French libretto…together with a German translation”, which is hardly helpful for non-French-reading English listeners.)

There are advantages and disadvantages to this; obviously it permits a clearer, deeper portrayal of the action and the characters’ motivation but some might find the extended dialogue tedious or not be able to follow or understand it – or simply not want it – although listeners familiar with the Shakespeare play will appreciate the many echoes of it in Berlioz’ transcription. Another potential issue is the vocal mismatch between actors and singers; given that the majority of the cast here are French or, like Susan Graham, French repertoire specialists, I do not see the need to have employed no fewer than eight actors rather than have the singers deliver their own lines but to be fair the pairing is quite convincing, even though a couple of the lower men’s voices have a smoker’s rasp which does not sit well with the timbre of a basso cantante.

John Nelson is, like Davis and Barenboim, a Berlioz champion – although I have not much enjoyed his more recent excursions into that repertoire for reasons of casting deficiencies. The lean, nimble Overture points the way toward a performance very light on its feet but not as Romantically sumptuous as Barenboim or as liberated as Davis. The lively Lyon chorus is also too set back which despite their being French makes their words a bit indistinct.

The soloists are generally very pleasing, if not, perhaps, endowed with the distinctiveness of tone, inflection and characterisation which are features of some illustrious predecessors. Sylvia McNair is first remarkably pure and virginal of timbre in “Je vais le voir” – even if she does not touch me as deeply as Cotrubas – then sings the cabaletta “”Il me revient fidèle” with spirit, agility and elation. Similarly, Susan Graham has a lovely, youthful voice but is not as imposing a personality as Veasey, Minton or Baker, which is not ideal for so strong a character as Béatrice, as at first she hardly suggests the conflicts within her soul – but she rallies to make a touching job of the Act II solo ”Dieu! que viens-je d’entendre?’, sounding very similar to Yvonne Minton without her heft – but her soft, high notes are a dream and yet again, the Act II trio is something to treasure. I am less impressed by Jean-Luc Viala; he is spry and nonchalant in typically Gallic manner but his small, lightweight tenor is devoid of low notes and more apt for the portrayal of an effete bon viveur than the military man which is Benedict.

Regarding the supporting cast, Gilles Cachemaille and Vincent Le Texier both went on to important careers but I find neither exceptional – in fact, they are merely adequate, with slightly “throaty” bass-baritones. As Somarone,  Gabriel Bacquier, a veteran over 70 at the time of this recording and a renowned comedian, is the sole singer permitted to enact his own lines and delivers them with relish. He sings strongly and with all the character I find slightly deficient in this otherwise admirable account. Like Bastin, he is permitted comic direction of his Epithalamium and both he and the chorus clearly enjoy “Le vin de Syracuse”, which is distanced with considerable reverberation to give a sense of space. In my recent survey, I was not impressed by Catherine Robbin’s contribution to Gardiner’s Roméo et Juliette but she is unobjectionable here as Ursula – except Nelson spoils her big moment by pulling the tempi about in the strophes of the Nocturne, first dragging then rushing his fences, making its pulse erratic.

I admire this recording – so much about it is appealing – but it does not displace either Davis Mark II or Barenboim in my affections, even if I recognise its many virtues and want to listen to it from time to time, too.

Colin Davis – 2000 (live composite; digital); LSO Live
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Béatrice – Enkelejda Shkosa
Bénédict – Kenneth Tarver
Héro – Susan Gritton
Ursule – Sara Mingardo
Claudio – Laurent Naouri
Somarone – David Wilson-Johnson
Don Pedro – Dean Robinson

Davis’ solution in this live concert to the problem of the protracted French dialogue in the original was to have actors read the relevant Shakespeare lines, but here, in the recording, we get just the music, with minor cuts, leaving us short-changed.

Enkelejda Shkosa has a warm, even, attractive mezzo-soprano of no special character; she sings good French and gives considerable pleasure without provoking any special engagement on the part of the listener.

Susan Gritton takes a while to warm up; she is not in very good voice for her first big test, “Je vais le voir”, sounding tense and shrill and she aspirates her melisma at the end of that aria, but she is generally a light, charming Héro, well-partnered by the rich-voiced Sara Mingardo in their duets; however, their famous Nocturne lacks somewhat of the repose and magic I hear in the version by Eda-Pierre and Watts for Davis or Cotrubas and Denize for Barenboim. Having said that, the trio with Shkosa, “Je vais, d’un coeur aimant” is ravishing.

The live recording emphasises the small-scale of Kenneth Tarver’s neat tenor; I think in the past, before I heard him live, I was somewhat deceived by the machinations of the recording process into believing that his voice was larger than it is and it lacks a range of colour; other tenors make more of the text.

David Wilson-Johnson is likewise an able but not especially vivid or generously-voiced singer; I am surprised to find that I find the Somarone of the supposedly serious-minded Fischer-Dieskau more amusing and better sung – while by comparison, both Jules Bastin for Davis in his earlier recording and Gabriel Bacquier for Nelson are a riot.

Davis of course directs idiomatically and brings out orchestral lines and rhythms in alert fashion, despite the somewhat muddy, indistinct, recorded sound typical of the Barbican, but he is not as energised as in his two earlier versions. This recording is generally rather deficient in character and charisma and in no sense supersedes Davis’ two previous accounts.

While the earliest and most recent recordings here, both conducted by Colin Davis, omit all dialogue, each of the other three offers a different option regarding what to do with it; as a result, these five recordings jointly cover four listening options: no dialogue, abridged dialogue, the complete dialogue or narrative links. The Berlioz devotee like me will be happy to own all of them with the possible exception of Davis’ last one, which offers nothing new or superior.

Despite my distaste for Tear’s tenor, I am inclined to recommend above all Davis’ second recording from 1977 but I do love Barenboim’s all-star account, too and find it hard to choose between them, while for some purists or completists the choice will be for Nelson, and I want it particularly for the complete dialogue, so I find myself advocating no fewer than three of the five recordings here – which is hardly helpful. I can only suggest that you sample them all on YouTube and make your own choice.

Ralph Moore