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Did Berlioz betray Shakespeare?

On the subject of "Beatrice and Benedict" — By Emmanuel Reibel and Pauline Andrieu (Illustration)

Berlioz has never ceased to crystallise the passions of his critics and to arouse their incomprehension. Besides the accusations of eccentricity or incompetence that have been levelled at him, the author of Beatrice and Benedict stands accused of having betrayed Shakespeare. Numerous articles contribute to the case against him, like that by Jean-Michel Brèque published in 2003 in the journal L’Avant-Scène Opéra: “Shakespeare travesti, ou les manquements d’un fidèle à son Dieu” [Shakespeare travestied, or a believer’s shortcomings towards his God].


Travestied? It suffices to read Much Ado about Nothing to be struck by the distance between the theatrical model and Berlioz’s operatic adaptation of it. Admittedly, the constraints of opera always require simplifications of the plot and greater focus on situations allowing the vocal heightening of drama and passion, but Béatrice et Bénédict treats Shakespeare’s comedy in a well and truly cavalier fashion. The mainspring of Berlioz’s scenario, the sentimental intrigue between Beatrice and Benedict, two young people who pretend to loathe each other and vie with each other for irony in their condemnation of marriage, is only present in Shakespeare as a subplot. This results in the eclipsing of Claudio and Hero, Shakespeare’s principal lovers, and of all the melodramatic elements that jeopardised their union and threaten to plunge the story into tragedy. Berlioz relegated whatever remained of the action to spoken dialogue whilst the musical numbers – ultimately the most important things – are more like independent poetic tableaux. The famous nocturne, the duo that closes the first act, interweaves two female voices in a hymn in praise of happiness and the night: completely extraneous to the action, this musical highlight is as remote from the Shakespearean universe as it is from the conventions pertaining to the final act of a comic opera, which would normally bring together all the protagonists and heighten the dramatic tension.

Betrayal? Of all the Romantics who adulated Shakespeare, Berlioz was one of the most fanatical. “Shakespeare, falling into my lap unexpectedly, hit me like a thunderbolt”, he wrote in his Mémoires. The man who identified himself with Romeo and Hamlet united himself quite literally to Juliet and Ophelia in marrying the English actress Harriet Smithson. His letters are punctuated with passionate declarations (“Shakespeare! Our Father, which art in Heaven, if there is a heaven!); in the musical monologue Lélio, his fictional double exclaims: “Shakespeare brought about a revolution within me that has shaken my entire being!”

Berlioz was therefore too obsessed by his God to have been unfaithful to him. It is just that, for him, Shakespearean theatre was not a temple to be honoured in a patrimonial sense, that is, sanctified or put on a pedestal. Berlioz was an iconoclast in the most etymologically precise sense of the term in that he cast down the statue from its pedestal: Shakespeare was not to be idolised but was to remain a living model. For Berlioz, as for Victor Hugo, the Shakespearean model is one of artistic freedom par excellence; literary freedom to mix dramatic genres, to mistreat the alexandrine, to defy the sacrosanct rules of unity; musical freedom to shake up harmonic conventions, to emancipate the orchestra, to replace the current theatrical usages with the insolent freedom of the theatre he dreamed of.

From this point of view, Béatrice and Bénédict marks the end of a career in the course of which Berlioz never took up a literary text without looking at it through the prism of his own creative imagination. He had already had the audacity to send his Faust on a journey to Hungary, with no concern as to what Goethe might have thought of such an act of high treason, but quite simply because he “wanted to include a piece of instrumental music with a Hungarian theme”! Similarly, he “pillaged Virgil and Shakespeare” to write The Trojans in 1861, daring to produce an iconoclastic hybrid of the Latin epic and the Elizabethan drama, a “pillage” that hoisted him up to the ranks of the sublime brigands so idealised by Romanticism.

Now, in writing Beatrice and Benedict, Berlioz committed a similar act of piracy: “I only took one aspect of the play,” he admitted very candidly. “All the rest is of my own invention.” This invention led him, as it happened, to weave in with the Shakespearean thread an autonomous strand of musical grotesquery (in the character of Somarone) and a thread, just as foreign to Shakespeare, of intimate lyricism (in the female characters). Thus, Berlioz did not so much seek to produce a musical narration of a veritable theatrical plot as to place Shakespeare’s theatre at the service of his own musical imagination: a break with all the customs of the time and with the expectations of some of today’s audiences. Such a liberty, as insolent as it was experimental, was without doubt the highest tribute that Berlioz could have paid to Shakespeare.

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