Hector Berlioz's love of Shakespeare yielded a resplendent variety of works. Among these is his opera, Béatrice et Bénédict (based on Much Ado About Nothing), being given this month by the New York Philharmonic under Principal Guest Conductor‹and Berlioz exponent‹Sir Colin Davis as part of the Orchestra's two-season celebration of the bicentennial of the composer's birth.
Shakespeare has possibly inspired more music than any other writer, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries. Not surprisingly, Romeo and Juliet stimulated popular treatments across the board: Gounod's opera (although not Bellini's, which was based on other sources), Prokofiev's ballet, Tchaikovsky's fantasy overture, Bernstein's West Side Story, and even Stephen Foster's chamber duet, "Wilt thou be gone, love," adapted from the bedroom scene in Act III. A Midsummer Night's Dream elicited the 17-year-old Mendelssohn's gossamer overture, to which he returned when writing incidental music for a Berlin revival of the play in 1842. A century later, Benjamin Britten turned the comedy into one of his most satisfying operas.
Othello served Rossini and Verdi in the opera house, and prompted an overture by Dvorák and incidental music by Shostakovich. Sir John Falstaff is the comedic linch-pin of Verdi's final opera and of Otto Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor, although he is given somewhat more romantic treatment in Vaughan Williams's opera Sir John in Love and Elgar's masterful symphonic study, Falstaff. Verdi's first Shakespearean essay was Macbeth, a play whose dark implications brought forth symphonic and piano music by Schumann, Smetana, Richard Strauss, and Sir Michael Tippett. Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote a splendid Macbeth overture in 1888, and, in 1862, long before his partnership with Sir W. S. Gilbert, he established his name in London with a concert suite for The Tempest, subsequently writing incidental music for The Merchant of Venice and King Henry VIII. And don't forget Tchaikovsky's fantasy overtures on Hamlet and The Tempest, Ambroise Thomas's opera Hamlet, Wagner's riotous and tuneful Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love, based on Measure for Measure, 1836) and Beethoven's Sonata, Op. 31, No. 2, based on Ariel and the storm, not to mention song settings by Schubert, Brahms, Strauss, and Wolf. Of course, this is all just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet none of these Shakespearean treatments is quite as innovative and audacious as those of Berlioz. "Other French opera composers of the day were bourgeois chaps who stuck nicely to the rules," says Sir Colin Davis. "Berlioz did things that none of the others dared to do." Indeed, he first embraced Shakespeare's oeuvre when it was virtually unknown in France. His passion was aroused by seeing Hamlet in Paris in 1827. The production's Ophelia, Irish actress Harriet Smithson, became Berlioz's obsession, and his wife five years later. In an amorous fever he wrote the Symphonie fantastique before turning to The Tempest, on which he composed an extraordinary fantasy for orchestra and chorus. This he subsequently expanded into Lélio, ou la retour à la vie, a sequel to the Symphonie fantastique, producing both of them at the same concert in 1832, with Smithson as guest of honor.
Meanwhile, Berlioz's study of Shakespeare had prompted the monumental Le Roi Lear Overture in 1831. He broke new ground in 1839 with the expansive choral symphony Roméo et Juliette, to which he was able to devote an entire year, thanks to a gift of 20,000 francs from the violinist Nicolò Paganini. That work will be offered by the Philharmonic early next season (October 2-4) under the baton of Music Director Lorin Maazel.
Berlioz had been considering an opera based on Much Ado since 1833, but it was an invitation to write the inaugural work for the new opera house at Baden-Baden in Germany that finally resulted in Béatrice et Bénédict. Premiered in 1862, it was, in the composer's words, "a caprice written with the point of a needle," and although infrequently performed, this delicate Berlioz comedy delights listeners whenever it is given the chance to do so. As Berlioz himself wrote, "The lightning-flash of Shakespeare's genius revealed to me the whole heaven of art . . . the meaning of real grandeur, real beauty, and real dramatic truth."
Barrymore Laurence Scherer is a critic for The Wall Street Journal and author of Bravo! A Guide to Opera for the Perplexed (Dutton, 1997).