Romeo and Juliet

Benda

Information

Romeo and Juliet
by Georg Benda (1722-1795)
A Singspiel in three acts
Libretto by Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter, after Shakespeare and Christian Felix Weisse
Sung in an English translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray
First performed on 25 September 1776 at the Hoftheater in the Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha

Cast

Juliet Joana Seara
Romeo Mark Chaundy
Laura, Juliet’s confidante Ilona Domnich
Capulet, Juliet’s father Adrian Powter
Lorenzo, Capulet family chaplain Ian Priestley
Francesco, Romeo’s friend Claire Benjamin
Capulet family mourners Alice de Ville
Caroline Kennedy
Thomas Kennedy
   
Conductor Matthew Halls
Director Jeremy Gray

This production is generously supported by
the Peter Moores Foundation

 

Synopsis

Deep rivalry and animosity exists between the Montagues and the Capulets, noble families of Verona. Attending incognito a masked ball at the palace of the Capulets, Romeo Montague falls in love with the young daughter of the household, Juliet. In secret they are married by Friar Laurence, the Capulet family confessor: naively they hope their marriage will bring the family feud to an end. Soon after the wedding a street brawl results in the murder of Romeo’s friend Mercutio, and Romeo in anger takes revenge and kills Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, who has already issued him with a written challenge. Romeo is banished to Mantua by the Duke.

 

Act 1

In her room as it approaches midnight, Juliet impatiently awaits Romeo, distraught that he may already have left for exile. Her friend and confidante Laura attempts to comfort her. Arguing about the motives of Juliet’s aunt Camilla, Juliet unkindly suggests that Laura also may not be trustworthy. Laura protests her utter honesty and faithfulness, and Juliet retracts.

Romeo arrives but reminds Juliet that he must leave for Mantua. Juliet trembles at the prospect and has premonitions of death. Romeo encourages her to have hope, but Juliet is inconsolable and suggests they should commit suicide whilst happy in a final embrace. Romeo calms her. The arrival of dawn forces them to part.

Act 2

Laura reflects on her friend’s healing sleep, but is disturbed by Juliet’s father, Capulet, who orders her to awaken his daughter. Suspicious that her disconsolate tears may not be caused by her cousin’s death, he fears that she could be in love with Romeo. He resolves to marry her to the Count Paris, but is also anxious to help her as a loving father. Her complete dismay at his proposal and her refusal to entertain such a marriage causes him to fly into a fury and he threatens to disown her.

Laura returns to help her friend, and warns her of a plot hatched by Camilla which could result in her incarceration and forced marriage. Friar Laurence arrives and suggests a solution to Juliet’s dilemma: a sleeping draught will make her appear dead and, once laid in the family vault, Romeo will be able to rescue her and take her away for ever. Left alone, Juliet has visions of the horrors of the tomb and of Tybalt’s vengeful ghost. Nevertheless, for Romeo’s sake, she drinks Laurence’s potion.

Act 3

Family mourners, including Laura and Capulet, weep bitterly as the body of Juliet is laid in the vault close to the corpse of Tybalt.

Romeo is greeted by his servant Francesco who has followed him on the road to Mantua to tell him of Juliet’s death. He resolves to enter the tomb to bid a final farewell to his bride, and then to kill himself. As he is about to stab himself, Juliet revives and they sing a rapturous duet of joy. They are overheard by Laurence, who warns them to stay hidden in the tomb. He persuades Capulet to swear that he would accept Romeo Montague as his son-in-law if only his daughter could be restored to life. Immediately the fiction is revealed to be truth. True to his word, Capulet embraces Romeo amidst general rejoicing.

Reviews

superb…
The Independent, 20 September 2007

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superb…

The Independent, 20 September 2007

Thank heavens for little opera companies: never having heard a note of Georg Benda, I was curious to know how his Romeo and Juliet would come across, with its famously happy ending. Benda (1722-1795) was a member of "the Bach family of Bohemia ", musicians at the courts of Frederick the Great. Mozart admired his operas so much that he carried the scores about with him. Romeo and Juliet is an Italian-style "opera seria" cast in the German "singspiel" mode; and consisting of spoken text interspersed with arias and set pieces, it just scrapes by as an opera.

This production had a sweetly homespun feel from the start, with the announcement that the singer playing Friar Lorenzo was delayed in traffic and would have to be replaced for the first half – but since this half only involved speech, it wouldn't be too grievous a loss. The first three scenes, between Juliet and, respectively, her confidante, husband Romeo (in this version things move fast), and father Capulet, were appropriately stormy. The translation was stilted-contemporary – "Either my eyesight fails, or you look so pale", Juliet tells Romeo – but the acting was convincingly full-blooded.

But from the moment Juliet opened her mouth, we might have been listening to a blend of Handel and early Mozart. This may have been because the accompanying band for the final leg of this company's tour was the superb London Mozart Players, but it was principally the musical language: the textures and the interplay between voices and woodwind and strings were all instantly recognisable.

Who cared if the spoken bits were platitudinous, when the arias were so beautiful? Joana Seara as Juliet, and Ilona Domnich as Laura, dealt brilliantly with their coloratura arias; Mark Chaundy's Romeo acted stiffly but his voice was sweet, while Adrian Powter's Capulet was the epitome of mellifluously outraged paternity.

One only realised it wasn't Mozart as the drama was ratcheted up – Benda was a good composer, not a great one – but the denouement was delightful, with Juliet springing out of her tomb, Capulet slapping Romeo on the back, and hugs all round. Well, why not?

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Michael Church

 

evident relish…
The Oxford Times, 31 August 2007

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evident relish…

The Oxford Times, 31 August 2007

We've dragged David off his combine, he didn't really want to come," a fellow member of the audience was explaining to her friend as they crossed the rolling lawns of Westonbirt House. David perhaps had a point: this was a glorious, warm, summer's evening, an evening almost unimaginable a month ago, when Bampton Classical Opera staged Georg Benda's Romeo and Juliet back home in Oxfordshire for the 30 patrons a night who somehow managed to make it through the floods.

Benda's work could be renamed R & J - the Sequel. As the curtain rises, Romeo and Juliet are already married. But their secret wedded bliss doesn't last long. Romeo must leave for Mantua , leaving Juliet with premonitions of death, and in no fit state to deal with her father, Capulet, who arrives to demand that she marry Count Paris. Strangely, Capulet does not seem to notice that she is nervously fingering her wedding ring as they quarrel.

This Romeo and Juliet, first performed in 1776, is a Singspiel featuring just six characters, and absolutely no crowds of warring Montagues and Capulets. Indeed there is little physical action of any kind, apart from a most effective funeral scene as Juliet is carried towards her grave. Even on a warm evening, the massive Victorian pile that is Westonbirt House provided a chilling backdrop to this scene.

As Juliet will shortly arise full of life from a drug-induced sleep, the irony hangs heavy. The clue that all is not lost comes from Benda's cheerfully lightweight score - dispatched with evident relish throughout by conductor Matthew Halls and the Bampton Orchestra. There was a delicious gurgling sound from the woodwind as Juliet downed the sleep-inducing magic potion.

The lack of action focuses attention on the voices. Joana Seara and Ilona Domnich both displayed a fine sense of line and style as Juliet and her confidante Laura, while adding as much characterisation as the writing allows. Meanwhile, Mark Chaundy (pictured with Ms Seara) was a suitably eager Romeo, and Adrian Powter's Capulet effortlessly jumped from fury to warmly shaking Romeo's hand as he finally blessed the marriage. "So Capulet was a good person after all?" a young audience member exclaimed indignantly afterwards, "I thought Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy!"

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Giles Woodforde

 

Love and death…
Manchester Evening News, 25 July 2007

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Love and death…

Manchester Evening News, 25 July 2007

Love and death were common themes in two visiting opera productions at the Buxton Festival – only in one of them there was a good deal less dying than you might expect.

There were two UK premiere performances, by Bampton Classical Opera, of an 18th century version of Romeo and Juliet – with a happy ending.

The ‘singspiel’, by the appropriately named Georg Benda, begins with star-crossed couple already married and Tybalt already dead... and ends with Juliet sitting up on her casket in the crypt and assuring Romeo she’s quite all right, after which they sing a duet, and her dad and various others gather round for a final chorus.

Not the usual concept, then, but an example of the way tastes change. Benda’s version needs only four soloists, and in this new English translation got a few laughs from the very incongruity of its spoken dialogue, which, though not Shakespeare, is in a formal, archaic style which still fails to overcome the banality of the altered plot-line.

Bampton made it a little harder for themselves by casting the two female roles with non-native English speakers. Joana Seara was pretty close to idiomatic in the dialogue, though, and sang and acted with great skill, entering into character as much as the piece permitted. Ilona Domnich sang skilfully as her confidante, Laura, but I found her dialogue quite hard to follow.

Mark Chaundy was an upright, somewhat unemotional Romeo, but Adrian Powter managed to inject some realism into the role of Juliet’s father as well as singing with distinction.

It is a tribute to Jeremy Gray’s direction and Matthew Halls’ conducting (with the Northern Chamber Orchestra in the pit) that the first-night audience, although at first politely applauding each vocal number as the show progressed, gradually ceased to do so – because they were becoming engaged, to a degree, with the piece as musical drama. Bampton have not got such promising material here as they had with Paisiello’s The Barber Of Seville (brought to Buxton by them in 2005), but in the circumstances they could hardly have hoped for a better reaction.

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Robert Beale

 

Brilliantly engaging
Music and Vision

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Brilliantly engaging

Music and Vision

In the fourteen years of its existence, Bampton Classical Opera (this sparkling company celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2008) has virtually set the standards for original, slick and polished UK stagings of 18th century opera. But it has also uniquely (apart from Peter Holman's Parley of Instruments, specialists in an earlier musical era) effected a revival of ignored and undervalued rare repertoire, thus inadvertently setting a trend that is, in its own way, as significant an achievement as the 1970s and '80s period instrument revival.

Stephen Storace (England's finest around the 1790s) may not yet be a household name, nor his terrific treatment of Shakespeare's Plautine farce The Comedy of Errors, which contains choral finales on a par with his mentor Mozart (Storace's sister was Mozart's first Susanna). Giovanni Gazzaniga's Don Giovanni hasn't exactly ousted Mozart's in popular affections, or Paisiello's The Barber of Seville quite notched up a place beside Rossini. Yet Bampton has got people talking about these composers for whom nobody else in Britain does anything.

Salieri's Falstaff -- as good as Verdi's? Well yes, just possibly! And The Philosopher's Stone, Schikaneder's Magic Flute curtain-raiser, pioneered by Bampton (who mounted the British stage première), was snapped up by Garsington -- which has also (in baritone Mark Saberton) benefited from the fruitful dramatic and vocal nursery that is Bampton.

Thanks in part to the spiritedness of their translations (Bampton performs in English and in producers Gilly French and Jeremy Gray has its own in-house Jeremy Sams and Amanda Holden), and to the clarity of its diction, the outrageous flippancy of its stagings and the impudent wit of its polished young performers, Bampton stagings are sheer unadulterated delight...with no cheating on or shortcutting the Geist (or spirit) appropriate to each opera, Bampton (like Emanuel Schikaneder before them), seem on the edge of creating a new genre.

Bampton is a take-off point for young talent, and those who move on from the Oxfordshire- (and now Gloucestershire- and Derbyshire-) based company are never quite the same again. Thomas Guthrie, whose daring, brilliantly imaginative stagings of Purcell (in particular) have led him to a place as a director on the Royal Opera House's Young Artists programme, has his own trademark talents, but there is always a bit of Bampton buried among them. Bampton clings to you. Likewise its conductors, who have included the gloriously maverick David Owen Norris, the King's Consort's Matthew Halls and -- no less -- the new music director of English National Opera, Edward Gardner, have caught the bug of these wayward, never flashy productions. Bampton is like a disease you catch and never quite recover from.

Invariably Bampton springs surprises in its idyllic garden setting (when it can: the first Oxfordshire performance fell on the day of the July monsoon, when most of the drenched audience never made it through flooded roads. It was given in the adjacent St Mary's, Bampton, devoid of the marooned orchestra, but with Halls bravely score-reading the score, partly by candlelight but mainly thanks to a lamp powered by a running car battery, kindly fixed up by a sympathetic, roll-up-your-sleeved audience member).

This year it was Romeo and Juliet [seen 27 August 2007], better known as an opera by Gounod or Bellini, but in this case by Georg Anton Benda, a Czech (Jirí Antonín Benda, 1722-95), but affiliated -- as one had to be after the Battle of White Mountain (1620), when Bohemia was overrun by the Austrian Empire -- to his Viennese masters and the Austro-German tradition. Two centuries later even Dvorák had to speak German at school, and Czech opera of the 18th century was deep-rooted in the German tradition (think of Mozart's Don Giovanni première at Prague's German Opera house), as was that of the late 19th century, headed by Dvorák, Foerster and Fibich.

Benda sealed his German affinities with the eight years he passed, in his twenties (from 1742) in the orchestra of Frederick the Great in Berlin and Potsdam . Paris and Naples aside, training didn't come much better than that. Like Myslivecek and perhaps Vorisek, Benda was one of those Bohemian composers Mozart not only admired, but devoured and respected. In 1778 young Wolfgang saw Benda's Medea in Mannheim -- the Palatinate alternating capital (with Heidelberg ) and the German world's musical Mecca ( Berlin and Vienna apart) during Haydn's and Benda's day. He obtained a score, and acquired that of Benda's Ariadne too.

Mozart admired the drama of the accompanied spoken passages (both works were not so much Singspiels, like The Magic Flute, but Melodramas, with long solo scenas of chilling poignancy and intensity. 'I carry' (he told his father) 'Benda's scores around with me.' Indeed you can feel the Czech's enduring influence in the spoken passages of The Magic Flute, in Il Seraglio, and (Gray points out) in scores such as Zaide. Benda influenced others too, including Beethoven not just in his Prometheus years, but the period of first Leonora and later Fidelio as well.

It is the great scenas that are at the heart of Benda's Romeo and Juliet, and which render it, in places, a very considerable drama. There are half a dozen, which embrace a striking rage of shifting moods and doubts, yet which also confirm this opera's affinities with the essential unities and dramatic simplicity passed on by Gluck to Salieri and Mozart. Conversely, it is not a very long opera, and, to be fair, in some ways an unsatisfactory one dramatically -- unbalanced, lacking a profound libretto (the unintended comedy that surfaced here, for Capulet, for instance, rested in its ineptness) and rather too influenced by the fads, exported from London, of David Garrick and actor-managers of that period. Happy ending predictable: at the end of the opera's tomb scene these lovers recover, are blessed by chastened (enlightened?) parents and, à la Dryden, happily married.

Curiously, the poignancy with which Juliet (the sensationally good young Portuguese-born soprano Joana Seara) cradles a white cushion, like a swaddled baby, in Act I of Jeremy Gray's serviceable production is all to do with the fact that we know (or thought we knew) that she and Romeo will never spawn one. In fact in this oddly Balfeian ending, we get the impression that a lusty, fond Romeo (tenor Mark Chaundy) will sire more than the statutory two and a half offspring upon her. The Montulets will soon be swelling in numbers.

Rather weakly moved on the very good set by Nigel Hook, which converted bedroom to family vault with skilful ease and provided a picture-frame like feel oddly akin to David McVicar's, Chaundy's Romeo cuts a rather feeble figure at the outset. But his biggest outpouring comes in a superbly varied and passionate aria Benda allocates him in the last Act (the well-managed tomb scene, led in by a sensational mourning chorus of Verdian intensity, terrifically acted and directed), in which soloists and orchestra under the King's Consort and Amsterdam Baroque's Matthew Halls -- not too practised in bringing out real liveliness in this charming but acoustically not unproblematic outdoor setting -- both excelled.

Even Capulet (Adrian Powter) gets a basso scena or two, part-comic in its sheer histrionics, in part extremely touching. There is no nurse, but a soubrette, a friend (Laura) who is a bit of a moralising pain, plus a mysterious aunt Camilla, from nowhere in Shakespeare, who seems to be the eminence not just grise but gruesome. Ilona Domnich sang Laura's set pieces with a very nice vocal character and fluency.

Jeremy Gray suggested in his very pertinent talk beforehand that the opera should really be Juliet and Romeo (a bit along the lines of Berlioz's Capulets and Montagues). Gray also hinted at some Benda influence on Berlioz -- and my goodness, you could hear it in the music: Cleopatra, Dido, Romeo and Juliet -- you name it. The two or three biggest scenas are for Juliet, all meaty ones. And what heaven they were, in Joana Seara's delicate and tender hands. This gorgeous young soprano has everything one could desire vocally. It's a more refined voice than, say Bottone's famously raunchy, sensual soprano -- more a Natalie Dessay than a bare-it-all Jessye Norman -- though both have brought fabulous coloratura gifts to make Bampton better and brighter than ever. The delicacy of each move of Juliet, each half-line uttered, was touching in the extreme: a mark, too, of the subtlety of Benda's dramatic vocal layout, with a feeling for word-setting that explains Mozart's profound admiration for him. As a result, the glories of this completely neglected music beamed out -- as so often with Bampton's boldly-imagined and resiliently-researched choice of repertoire.

There was indeed, as Gray told us there would be, a feel of not just the pathetic, abandoned Ariadne but the steely, unflinching Medea about this Juliet. Which is exactly what Shakespeare intended for this gutsy, older-than-her-young years girl, who seems in the original to epitomise the very end of a medieval era and parentally-imprisoned ethos in her eagerness to sealed the wedded knot, at not quite age fourteen. A thing of the past? No, a girl very much of our own era, and a tale of modern-day liberation. Brilliantly engaging: Benda emerged triumphant, Bohemia shone like a beacon, and Bampton blossomed yet again.

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Roderic Dunnett

 

a real gem
Musical Pointers

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a real gem

Musical Pointers

For some years Bampton Classical Opera Company have been prospecting in the vaults of neglected opera and this time they have unearthed a real gem. 

Georg Anton Benda (1722– 1795) who is hardly a familiar name even in operatic circles, came from a large Bohemian family of musicians and produced more than a dozen singspiel operas in the course of his career.  He enjoyed considerable success and the most popular of his operas continued to be performed regularly in Europe for the best part of a century, but Bampton’s production is believed to be the UK premiere of this one.

Julie und Romeo, as it is entitled on some copies of the score, was written for the court of Duke Frederick in the Thuringian town of Gotha.  There was a culturally sophisticated audience but the theatre’s musical resources were on a modest scale.  A drastic curtailment of the plot was called for, discarding the grand ball scene, the dramatic confrontation between the rival families and the duel. With no first class male singer available, even the famous balcony scene was axed! 

The opera begins after the lovers are married, with Juliet sharing her fears with her confidante, Laura. These two characters dominate the first two acts – indeed Juliet is on stage for the entire opera.    Benda did have two excellent sopranos at his command, his pupil Sophia Preysing (Juliet) and his young daughter Juster, who clearly boasted a fine coloratura (Laura), and Bampton were equally fortunate with their casting.     Joana Seara combined radiant looks with dramatic intensity as Juliet, and Ilona Domnich had all the agility required for Laura’s high notes, though her accented speech proved something of an impediment in getting her words across in the tricky acoustics of St John’s.

Mark Chaundy, though relatively unchallenged by the singing demands of Romeo,  looked every inch the part and delivered his spoken lines with greater clarity than anyone else.  The roles of Capulet and (Friar) Lorenzo are much reduced from Shakespeare’s originals, and fortunately the latter is merely a speaking role until Act 3, as Ian Priestley’s arrival was delayed by a late-running flight. 

Act 3 opens with a choral set piece. With Juliet lying unconscious on her tomb, a small body of mourners processed through the church and united in an impressive and moving funeral chant (which might easily have been the model for Britten’s Albert Herring threnody that I have heard so much of recently). 

As always, the acoustics of St John’s favoured the orchestra, and Matthew Halls with the London Mozart Players took full advantage in a score that, despite the serious subject, is full of Bohemian joi de vivre.    Nigel Hook’s touring set and Pauline Smith’s costumes conveyed an air of pre-Raphaelite sumptuousness, and I was pleased to see an excellent turn out for this rarity. 

Oh, and I should mention that this is the “and they all lived happily after” version of the story with Juliet reviving just before Romeo swallows his poison, Capulet reconciled to the match, allowing the curtain to come down amidst general rejoicing.

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Serena Fenwick

 

Articles

‘A magnificent, ravishing work which penetrates the heart’
Jeremy Gray

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‘A magnificent, ravishing work which penetrates the heart’

Jeremy Gray sheds light on an early setting of Romeo and Juliet

Frederick the Great (1712-86), King of Prussia, flautist, symphonist and formidable if meddling patron of the arts, once declared that he would rather listen to his horse sing than to a German soprano. Besotted with Italian opera (albeit written by Germans, notably Johann Adolf Hasse and Carl Heinrich Graun), Frederick controlled and interfered in the operatic life of his court and kingdom with increasing autocracy. In the uncertain aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756-63), however, there grew up an informed demand for a national school of German drama and opera, notwithstanding the king’s continuing strictures against his own language as ‘demi-barbare’. Whilst the term ‘Singspiel’ had been earlier applied to fully sung Italianate opera, it evolved a more specific meaning in Germany in the later part of the century, derived in part from the success enjoyed by English ballad operas which interspersed vernacular text with incidental music and songs. Less elevated and rustic subjects, often allied to robust comedy, helped to open up a new and more democratic genre, performable by less highly-trained singers and eagerly adopted by new travelling troupes of singer-actors. Collaborations of itinerant actor-managers, librettists and composers led to the rapid growth of this new form of German Singspiel, finding support in the many smaller Enlightenment courts such as Weimar and Gotha.

Georg Anton Benda, born Jiří Antonín (baptised 30 June 1722, died 6 November 1795), was the son of Jan Jiří, linen weaver and village musician, and one of the most important members of a dynasty of musicians (Groves lists twelve) which has been called ‘the Bach family of Bohemia’.  Thanks to Frederick the Great’s high favour of his older violinist brother Franz, the whole family emigrated to Prussia in 1742.Jiří Antonín joined Franz and his younger brother Joseph as violinists in the court orchestra. In 1750 he was appointed Kapellmeister to Duke Frederick III of Saxe-Gotha, and it was in the Thuringian town of Gotha that he was to spend much of his remaining career. His Italian opera Xindo riconnosciuto, performed for the birthday of the Duchess Luise Dorothea in 1765, broke a period of clerical opposition to the genre, and for the lauded composer led to a valuable six-month sabbatical to Italy. Benda was thus able to broaden his experience and to study new operas by Galuppi, Gluck, Hasse, Paisiello, Piccinni and Traetta. Frederick III’s death in 1772 led to the abrupt conclusion of Benda’s chapel duties in Gotha, but the arrival of the Swiss impresario Abel Seyler’s eminent theatrical troupe in June 1774, following the burning of the court theatre at Weimar, opened up new compositional possibilities, despite the fact that a rival composer, Anton Schweitzer, accompanied the actors as their musical director.

With opera suddenly but decisively established as the flavour of Gotha, Benda embarked on a brief but remarkable phase of dramatic composition, beginning in 1775 with a lively one-act comic work in the manner of Johann Adam Hiller, the great pioneer of the German Singspiel: Der Jahrmarkt. This was quickly followed by the two extraordinary works which were to establish his reputation and which won many significant admirers. The idea of the melodrama – in which the text is declaimed rather than sung, and is accompanied or punctuated by orchestral passages – came from Schweitzer’s Pygmalion (based on a work by the French philosopher-composer Rousseau) of 1772, and demonstrated a concern to create a form of music which was appropriate to the specific qualities of the German language. Writing for two powerful actresses, Charlotte Brandes and Sophie Seyler (her style has been described as ‘bone-chilling’), Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea both explored powerful narratives centred on a female protagonist. The lack of a lyrical vocal line and continuous music forced him to develop a terse and highly expressive orchestral language in which colour, harmony and rhythm were harnessed into brief but often interrelated episodes to underscore the emotional intensity of the text. These two works were frequently performed and established Benda’s wider reputation, spawning many imitators. Most significant of all was the warm admiration of Mozart who saw Medea in Mannheim in 1778 and deemed it to be ‘really excellent’ and told his father that he carried Benda’s scores about with him. Mozart’s own direct response came firstly in his unfinished Zaide and the music to Thamos, König in Ägypten, and later in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte.

In 1776 Benda returned to sung German drama, first with the one-act operetta Walder and then with the three-act ‘ernsthafte Oper’ Romeo und Julie. His librettist was the poet Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter (1746-97), with whom he had already collaborated on Der Jahrmarkt and Medea. In describing both as ernsthaft (‘serious’), Gotter and Benda intended to demonstrate their allegiance to the tradition of Italian opera seria combined with the structure and spoken dialogue of German Singspiel and drama. They were first performed in the delightful new theatre which the enlightened and culturally ambitious Duke Ernst II had built from 1774 in the ballroom of the Gotha ducal palace, the Schloss Friedenstein. Thus was founded the first German Hoftheater or theatre completely under the control of an aristocratic court. Seyler himself left in September 1775, attracted by the prospect of better earnings in Dresden, and some of his troupe left with him. Nevertheless, the few years until 1779 were to be a cultural golden age at Gotha: happily the theatre still survives today as the Ekhof Theater (after Conrad Ekhof, Ernst’s court theatrical director), with much of its original stage machinery, and painted in its colours of 1775.

Frederick the Great may have attacked imitations of ‘les abominables piéces de Schakespear traduits en notre langue’, but Ekhof and Seyler were determined to shape fashion by presenting translations of plays which had enjoyed success in London at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and so Gotha audiences were introduced to recent works by Garrick, Goldsmith and Sheridan amongst others. Romeo und Julie fitted well into this dramatic context and indeed its alternative designation as ein Schauspiel mit Gesang (a play with songs) indicates its literary basis. Its success at and following its première on 25 September 1776 led to performances of Schröder’s translation of Hamlet at Gotha in 1778. Gotter himself was eventually to adapt The Tempest, as Die Geisterinsel, in 1790, a libretto intended for Mozart but ultimately, after Mozart’s death, set by three different composers.

Gotter’s Romeo und Julie is a prose version, not a translation, from Shakespeare, and is much influenced by the 1767 tragedy Romeo und Julie, ein bürgerliches Trauerspiel by Christian Felix Weisse. The reduction of the populous Shakespearian cast to four main singers was calculated so that it lay within the resources of the somewhat depleted Seyler company (the finest singers, Josepha and Friedrich Hellmuth, had already departed with the impresario). Gotter followed Weisse in wishing to conform to the classical unities and avoiding the ‘many trivial, superfluous things not necessary to the plot’ in Shakespeare. This necessitated a drastic compression of the story, with the elimination of crowd and comic scenes. The dynastic feud retreats into the background. Benvolio, Mercutio, Tybalt and Lady Capulet are all axed, although Gotter adds puzzling references to a dark and formidable character, Juliet’s scheming aunt Camilla. Similarly Count Paris is never met with and is renamed Lodrona, following a pre-Shakespearian tradition. (Our translation reverts however, for familiarity’s sake, to the name Paris.) Only two – perhaps related – scene settings are required. The first two Acts take place in Juliet’s room with ‘three doors of which one leads off to the garden’. Act 3 occurs in what could be an extension of that same garden – ‘a grove of cypresses, tapus trees and Babylonian willows, with, to the rear, the vaults of the Capulets, open and illuminated’, a poignant romantic image which seems to anticipate the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (who was however only two when the opera was written). Less credibly, the five days’ action implied by Shakespeare had to be condensed into one in order to obey the unities: thus Friar Lorenzo’s potion causes Juliet to appear dead for a mere twelve hours, in contrast to Shakespeare’s ‘two and forty’ (from which she would awaken ‘as from a pleasant sleep’). We are told in the opening scene that ‘it is barely midnight’; when Juliet eagerly receives the sleeping-draught from the hands of Lorenzo the following morning she need therefore bid him only a short farewell – ‘bis Mitternacht, guter Vater!’ One can barely credit the (conveniently offstage) haste which the grieving Capulet household must have suffered in order to discover and bury Juliet within the space of an afternoon. And the banished Romeo could not have got very far along the dusty road from Verona to Mantua after his day-break flight, before his servant Francesco (Shakespeare’s Balthasar) must have caught up with him and implored his return.

Designed for Benda’s seventeen-year-old pupil, Sophia Preysing, the role of Juliet is central, and she is present on stage throughout. As the brief story unfolds we witness three consecutive scenes exploring her stormy relationships with her friend Laura, her husband Romeo (their secret marriage by Friar Lorenzo has already taken place) and with her father Capulet. In each, the insoluble dilemma of Juliet’s situation leads to passionate outbursts of petulant anger and frustration, and in the opening Act she even dares to urge Romeo to an impetuous and bloody double suicide. Her intense heroism renders her stronger than the passive, tender character described in Weisse, so that she becomes a tragic cousin of Benda’s Ariadne and Medea: one manuscript indeed entitles the opera Julie und Romeo. Hers is the most deeply-felt music, and her opening monologue shows the lessons Benda had learned through his melodramas of writing freely constructed music which flows with the text, the words highlighted by modulations of colour, tonality and rhythm. This opening scena allows accompanied recitative to grow out of the Sturm und Drang overture, alternating music of delicate fragility with robust and violent outbursts, which portray her volatile and intensely emotional character. Here Gotter’s text contrasts the stillness of the night in which even the nightingale has fallen silent with the trembling and terrifying fear which Juliet feels as she waits for her lover to arrive. A comparable monologue at the end of Act 2 provides a grand symmetry as Juliet, in a passage close to Shakespeare (IV, 3), prepares to drink Lorenzo’s ‘distilling liquor’, and in her fervent imagination again awaits the arrival of Romeo, whilst visualising the horrors of awakening in the tomb and the visitation of Tybalt’s ghost. This scene was so much praised that Goethe’s friend Karl Friedrich Zelter, as late as 1797, concluded that ‘it seems a single, capital outpouring of a great tragic poetic fantasy, which will be passed on to posterity as surely as there were poets and artists in the days of Pericles’.

The robustly earthy humour of Juliet’s nurse in Shakespeare offended the German translators. In both Weisse and Gotter she is personalised and receives the name Laura, recalling Petrarch’s beloved inamorata and so surprisingly suggesting her own potential for idealised romance (in Shakespeare II, 4 Mercutio cynically refers to Petrarch’s sonnets and calls Laura a kitchen-wench in comparison to Romeo’s new love). In the opera she becomes Juliet’s girl-friend and confidante, with little significance as an active protagonist of the drama: patient when Juliet is impetuous, generously loving even when insulted, she provokes and questions, counsels and informs. Especially lovely is her andante/allegro aria at the start of Act 2 (‘Ah sleep, a calming comfort in all trouble, has dried away her tears’): its obbligato solo violin is typical of Benda’s expressive colour. Benda wrote the role for his 19-year old daughter, Justel, who clearly had an agile coloratura, and her virtuosic and youthful music creates an appealing foil for the more lyrical and serious Juliet.

Since the Gotha company no longer maintained outstanding men performers, the male roles are less demanding. Romeo was sung by the tenor Johan Ernst Dauer, who was later to create Pedrillo for Mozart’s Die Entführung, but who was to be criticised as an uninspired and wooden performer. Gotter’s script does not allow him much depth; his two duets with Juliet are attractive and indicate an ardent passion but are a little formulaic, and his tomb-scene farewell is pretty rather than profound. Capulet struts and blusters through his brief aria of angry rejection, and somewhat indulgently expresses his remorse in the final act. Lorenzo is reduced to a speaking role, but at least emerges as a wily manipulator of fate and conscience.

Most commentators deem the funereal opening of Act 3 to be the most impressive music in the opera. Here Benda may have been influenced through the interest of the Gotha cultural establishment in the theatrical life of London. In September 1750 there had occurred what became renowned as the ‘battle of the Romeos’ when David Garrick at Drury Lane and John Rich at Covent Garden simultaneously mounted productions of Shakespeare’s play: the contrasts and relative merits of every aspect and actor were eagerly picked over by the public and critics. John Rich cannily milked the sentiment of the funeral scene by introducing the novelty of a ‘Solemn Dirge’ (‘Ah, hapless Maid doom’d to the gaping Jaws of a cold, comfortless and dreary Tomb) by Thomas Arne, the brother of his Juliet, Susanna Cibber, to which Garrick responded a mere two days later with a hastily composed equivalent by William Boyce (‘Rise, rise, heartbreaking sighs’). Thereafter such melancholic dirges became de rigueur, and Benda must have been aware of such expectations when he included a sublime C minor choral quartet at the opening of his third act, as Juliet’s body is carried into the tomb: his austere and effectively tragic music recalls Gluck’s Orfeo which opens with a comparable scene in the same key. Followed immediately by two duets in which choral mourners partner first Capulet and then Laura, and with a reprise of the quartet, the whole scene made a powerful and frequently remarked-upon impression – Johann Friedrich Reichardt, influential critic and poet, declared that Benda ‘harvested the highest praise: tears from an overflowing fullness of heart’.

Nevertheless too many tears could create discomfort for enlightenment audiences – recall the happy ending Calzabigi provided for Orpheus and Euridice in Gluck’s opera. Weisse’s prose version followed Garrick in inserting a long and poignant scene when Juliet awakes in the tomb to witness Romeo’s death as the poison slowly takes effect – her consequent suicide, we are told, ‘aroused not tears but shocks of horror’. The Gotter-Benda version was perhaps the first time a domestic tragedy had been given a complete musical setting, and there were clearly some voices raised against such an experiment, which Gotter felt obliged to answer in the preface to his published libretto in 1778: ‘let Benda’s music be the document in my defence against those who consider it a desecration to transplant the subject of the tragic muse to the operatic stage.’ Gotter, stung by comments that he had diluted Shakespeare ‘to ninety-five per cent water’, was anxious to claim his allegiance to the original, but in fact there could be no denying the extraordinary deviation he made in his final scene. Critics may have joined Zelter in condemning the ending as ‘completely revolting, even abominable’ but such bad publicity merely helped to swell audiences anxious to make up their own minds. In reshaping this scene, Gotter put the blame – surely unfairly – on the limitations of musical language, but he also felt that convincing tragedy was beyond the skills of the Gotha performers: ‘Partly the musical economy seemed to me not to allow the retention of the all-too-tragic catastrophe, partly the consideration of the capabilities of the singers impelled me to this’. And so, as Romeo comes to the end of his intended Liebestod, Juliet awakes – just in time to distract him from consuming his vial of poison. An ecstatic duet follows – ‘rapturous terror, sweet hesitation’: all works out as Lorenzo had planned, and he is able to extract repentance from Capulet and the promise of reconciliation with his enemy Montague, before the happy couple emerge from the tomb. The lovers endure the trials of the grave as Tamino and Pamina were to survive fire and water, and darkness is dispelled by light.

Whether Benda’s opera of 1776 was definitely the first operatic setting of this play is not entirely conclusive, since Johann Gottfried Schwanenberger also wrote one apparently in the same year, to an Italian libretto by JR Sanseverino – there is a possibility this was actually written and performed three years earlier in Berlin. But the success and fame of the Gotter-Benda Singspiel was seminal in creating a Shakespeare revival in late eighteenth-century Germany: it was taken up by nearly all the major German companies, and was performed until well into the nineteenth century, a rare triumph in an age devoted to musical novelty. Further operatic versions of the story followed with three French settings by S von Rumling (1784), Nicolas-Marie Dalayrac (1792), and Daniel Steibelt (1793), and Italian versions by Luigi Marescalchi (1789), Niccolò Zingarelli (very popular, and much admired by Napoleon) in 1796 and by Pietro Guglielmi (‘imperturbably platitudinous’, according to Winton Dean), premièred in London in 1810. This late eighteenth-century interest in Shakespearian themes let to operatic arrangements of other plays – witness Stephen Storace’s Gli equivoci / Comedy of Errors of 1786 and Salieri’s Falstaff of 1799 (both previously performed by Bampton Classical Opera), as well as several settings of The Tempest. For Romeo and Juliet there was a brief pause in the early part of the new century, until Bellini, Verdi, Nicolai and Gounod, among several others, followed the burgeoning Shakespearian industry in drama, literature and art. We may bemoan the fact that Tchaikovsky never wrote his operatic Romeo and Juliet – but perhaps we may await that in heaven, along with Mozart’s Tempest, Beethoven’s Macbeth and Mendelssohn’s Hamlet, and maybe even Benda’s own lost incidental music to Macbeth.

Jeremy Gray
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