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Thursday, January 29, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 33.0° F  Overcast
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William Farlow says goodbye to University Opera with Berlioz's take on a beloved Shakepeare comedy
Much adieu
Béatrice et Bénédict: Beautiful music, sparkling wit.
Credit:Max Wendt

After 16 seasons directing the University Opera, William Farlow will retire with a farewell production of Hector Berlioz's comic opera masterpiece Béatrice et Bénédict (April 11, 13 and 15 at UW Music Hall). Though Farlow will no longer oversee productions at the UW, he will continue to serve as artistic adviser for Madison's Fresco Opera Theatre.

Berlioz is simplistically identified with bombast, but his works are full of delicacy and sensitivity as well, with everything bound together by wit and craftsmanship. Nothing in his output demonstrates that fact better than his last opera, Béatrice et Bénédict (1862).

Two narrative threads ran through Berlioz's life (1803-1869). One was his feeling for drama, combined with his desire to find success in the world of opera. This was a tangled thread, for success eluded him. His first opera, Benvenuto Cellini (1836) — a visionary expansion of the French light form of opéra comique, which includes spoken dialogue — was a disastrous failure onstage. Much later, his most ambitious theatrical venture, Les Troyens (1856-58), was plagued with production problems that wore him down. But in his later years, he was persuaded to try again.

The other thread was Berlioz's fascination with literature, as was the case with so many of the early Romantic composers. Virgil, Goethe and Byron were among his gods, but no one more so than William Shakespeare. Throughout his career, Berlioz drew on favorite plays by the Bard as inspiration for several orchestral works, notably his magnificent "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette, which fuses operatic and symphonic elements. But it was only with Béatrice et Bénédict that Berlioz, who by this time wrote his own librettos, fully addressed a Shakespeare play.

Berlioz considered treating Much Ado About Nothing as early as 1833, nearly 30 years before composing Béatrice et Bénédict. Present-day audiences familiar with the original Shakespeare comedy will be jolted when they see how Berlioz adapted it to his own purposes. The composer pruned away many things: the evil Don John, the plot to discredit Hero, and all the shenanigans of Dogberry and Verges. He reduced the threatened romance of Claudio and Hero to minor status in order to focus on the saga of Beatrice and Benedict. The latter two characters overcome their sharp-tongued hostility to recognize their deep feelings for each other.

Berlioz invented a character of his own, too, the pompous musician Somarone. Not just a low-comedy character, Somarone is Berlioz's way of taking vengeance on longtime enemies. He is a caricature of the pedantry of academics and the meanness of Berlioz's Parisian critics.

This is, again, an opéra comique, with spoken dialogue. In the UW Opera production, dialogue will be in English and musical numbers in the original French. The score is the thing, though. Béatrice et Bénédict's brilliant overture has long been a popular concert item. The full opera's 15 musical numbers — arias, ensembles, choruses — are full of beauty and sparkling wit, guaranteed to delight.

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