Berlioz had been interested in setting Shakespeare's comedy since his return from Italy in 1833, but only composed the score of Béatrice et Bénédict following the completion of Les Troyens in 1858. It was first performed at the opening of the Theater Baden-Baden on 9 August 1862. Berlioz conducted the first two performances of a German version in Weimar in 1863, where, as he wrote in his memoirs, he was "overwhelmed by all sorts of kind attention."
It is the first notable version of Shakespeare's play in operatic form, and was followed by works by, among others, Árpád Doppler, Paul Puget, Charles Villiers Stanford, and Reynaldo Hahn.
Berlioz biographer David Cairns has written: "Listening to the score's exuberant gaiety, only momentarily touched by sadness, one would never guess that its composer was in pain when he wrote it and impatient for death".
Time: The 16th century.
Place: Messina, Sicily.
Don Pedro, prince of Aragon, is visiting Messina after a successful military victory over the Moors, which is celebrated by all of Sicily. He is joined by two friends and fellow soldiers, Claudio and Bénédict. They are greeted by Léonato, governor of Messina, together with his daughter, Héro, and niece, Béatrice.
Héro awaits the return of her fiancé, Claudio, unwounded and rewarded for his valour. Béatrice inquires about and scorns Bénédict. They trade insults, as they have in previous meetings, and tease each other. Bénédict swears to his friends that he will never marry. Later, Claudio and Pedro scheme to trick Bénédict into marrying Béatrice. Knowing that he is listening, Léonato assures Pedro that Béatrice loves Bénédict. Upon hearing this, Bénédict resolves that Béatrice's love must not go unrequited, and so he decides to pursue her. Meanwhile, elsewhere, Héro and her attendant, Ursule, manage to play a similar trick on Béatrice who now believes that Bénédict is secretly in love with her.
To celebrate the pending wedding of Claudio and Héro, Léonato hosts a masquerade party. A local music teacher, Somarone, leads the group in song and everybody enjoys themselves except Béatrice who realizes that she has fallen in love with Bénédict. With Héro and Ursule she sings of the happiness of a bride about to be wed. As she turns to leave she is met by Bénédict, prompting an exchange in which they both attempt to conceal their love for each other. A notary solemnizes the marriage of Claudio and Héro, and, as arranged by Léonato, produces a second contract, asking for another couple to come forward. Bénédict summons the courage to declare his love to Beatrice; the two sign the wedding contract, and the work ends with the words "today a truce is signed, we'll be enemies again tomorrow".