OPERA NEWS - Béatrice et Bénédict
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In Review > International

Béatrice et Bénédict

Glyndebourne Festival

In Review Beatrice et Benedict hdl 1016
Appleby and D’Oustrac, Bénédict and Béatrice at Glyndebourne
© Richard Hubert Smith

BERLIOZ'S FINAL OPERA, Béatrice et Bénédict, has taken a long time to become an occasional visitor to the fringes of the standard repertory. Commissioned for and first performed in the German spa town of Baden-Baden in 1862, it received its belated French premiere in 1890 (twenty-one years after the composer’s death) and its first performance at the Opéra-Comique in Paris—the natural home for this light, slight piece with copious spoken dialogue—only in 1966, when the dialogue was set as recitative! The first production with spoken dialogue at that theater took place as recently as 2010.  

Berlioz based the libretto, which he wrote himself, on his beloved Shakespeare—undoubtedly one of the reasons Glyndebourne added the piece to its own repertoire in the Bard of Avon’s anniversary year. Its only previous Glyndebourne performances were twenty-three years ago, when the company was homeless while its Sussex opera-house base was being entirely rebuilt; in June 1993, they gave it three times at London’s Royal Festival Hall in concert and in French, with a spoken narration by satirist John Wells replacing the spoken dialogue. 

In Glyndebourne’s new production by Laurent Pelly, the spoken dialogue had been adapted by Agathe Mélinand to align it more closely to Shakespeare; but even with a largely Francophone cast it still felt problematic. Glyndebourne’s original-language policy has not always been strictly observed, and it might have been better to play the piece in English, as was successfully demonstrated by English National Opera in 1990 and by Welsh National Opera in 1994.

Pelly’s production (seen July 23) had other problems, too, though it was skillful enough in terms of stagecraft. Though the program synopsis referred to Berlioz’s (and Shakespeare’s) setting in Messina, Sicily, Pelly’s own costumes referred to France in the 1950s, for no obvious reason other than that they looked rather chic. 

Barbara de Limburg’s sets consisted of innumerable boxes, small, large and middle-sized, which the performers moved around in endless reconfigurations: members of the cast or chorus would occasionally peek out from within them when the lids were raised. The show’s predominant color, gray—only occasionally relieved by white or black—made for a dull visual frame for a piece with lively, colorful characters and an unusually bright and rich-toned score set in (of all places) Sicily.

Musically, things went a good deal better, though a sense of disconnect between Berlioz’s sparring lovers was resolved only in the second half of this brief opera (not much more than two hours of music in total, admittedly almost all of it first-rate), when the electricity started to spark between Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s Béatrice and Paul Appleby’s Bénédict. Both also picked up from a starting position where their high notes felt a touch tentative to one of ebullient confidence.

Sharing the vocal honors were Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser’s liquid-toned Héro and Serbian mezzo Katarina Bradic´’s contralto-like Ursule, both involved in the all-female ensembles that are highlights of a genuinely classy score. More problematic (though the fault of the composer/librettist rather than the artist) were Belgian baritone Lionel Lhote’s unsuccessful attempts to enliven the tedious scenes involving the non-Shakespearean music-master Somarone. 

Stepping in for Glyndebourne’s music director, Robin Ticciati, whose ongoing recovery from a herniated disc caused him to miss both of his 2016 season assignments (the other was the Meistersinger revival, taken over by Michael Güttler), conductor Antonello Manacorda had more luck than Somarone, keeping cast, chorus and the players of the London Philharmonic firmly on their collective feet.  —George Hall

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