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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Béatrice et Bénédict
An opera-comique in two acts after Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing
Béatrice - Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Bénédict - Paul Appleby
Héro - Sophie Karthäuser
Ursule - Katarina Bradić
Somarone - Lionel Lhote
Claudio - Philippe Sly
Don Pedro - Frédérick Caton
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Antonello Manacorda
rec. live, Glyndebourne, Lewes, 9 August 2016
Region free; 16:9; Audio Formats: LPCM2.0; dts-HD Master Audio OPUS ARTEBlu-ray OABD7219D [129 mins]
Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict is a specific realisation of Shakespeare’s Much AdoAbout Nothing. It concentrates only on the sparring love/hate relationship between the two protagonists: the shrewish Béatrice and the cynical, proudly independent Bénédict. There is no Don John, nothing sinister, and no Dogberry and the watch.
This Glyndebourne production is novel and imaginative. It reflects the black and white photographs of the time in which it is set—the costumes suggestive of the period immediately after Second World War. The colours are black and white, and the multitude of greys between. The set is a city made up of multitudinous boxes of all sizes, again all monochrome; the colours of the production are rather in Berlioz’s exquisite music. The boxes represent the conventional lives of the people and they (the chorus) are often seen in those safe, yet arguably constricting, boxes that signify authority and convention, especially for Héro and Claudio. Outside those boxes, representing rebellion, are Béatrice and Bénédict.
Berlioz took Shakespeare’s text and weaved his own libretto around it. Much of his writing, considered archaic, has been updated for modern audiences. Many Act 1 viperish exchanges between Béatrice and Bénédict are spoken rather than sung.
Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s Béatrice is superb: a wild virago spitting defiance and venom at Bénédict who gives as good as he gets. As she is tricked into renouncing hate for love, she—hesitatingly and not completely convinced—demurs and discovers a feeling within herself that is deeper and more understanding than that of Bénédict, who has likewise been swayed into love by the same sort of trickery. D’Oustrac is a fine actress with a commanding yet subtly nuanced mezzo timbre. She is partnered very effectively by Paul Appleby as her Bénédict, waspish and street-wise and witheringly contemptuous, until he too succumbs to softer, if bewildered, feelings.
Impressive, too, is Sophie Karthàuser’s Héro. She expresses, in the opening scene, her girlish enthusiasm and hero-worship at the expectation of her Claudio’s triumphant return from the wars and the imminent announcement of their wedding. Later she is joined by her attendant Ursule (Katarina Bradić) in the ravishing closing of Act 1 duet in which they rhapsodise about the beauty of the evening and the bliss of love. Later in Act 2 there is another gorgeous trio for these two—and Béatrice, as they extol the joys of impending marriage.
Mention must also be made of Lionel Lhote’s very amusing portrayal of Somarone, the inept conductor of the on-stage chorus. The chorus is first seen rehearsing his oddly-contrived, ham-fisted wedding song, then, in Act 2, the hilarious drinking song with some very amusing slapstick elements.
The booklet in English, French and German carries an erudite essay by the author of Berlioz,Servitude and Greatness, David Cairns, on Berlioz and Shakespeare, with special emphasis on Much Ado About Nothing and this opera. There is, too, a conversation with Laurent Pelly, the director of this production. Missing, though, is a listing of all the numbers of the opera; an inconvenient omission if one wants to immediately access specific parts of the production. But, on the plus side, the eleven-minute, on-screen feature offers interesting insights into the opera and this production by members of the cast and the supporting creative design, lighting and costume talents.
This is a very worthwhile production of a comic opera that is seldom performed and little known except for its overture.