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Manchester music reviews

Welsh National Opera - Beatrice et Benedict

Beatrice et Benedict by WNO

Reviewed by Denis Joe February 2012

(English translation based on Geoffrey Dunn, OUP 1965)


Based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice et Benedict is not appreciated as well as the rest of the Berlioz output. And whilst the composer rated it as a divertissement - and it is seen very much as that today –  I think it is a masterful piece. Commissioned for the opening of a new opera house in Baden-Baden, in 1862, Beatrice et Benedict was to become Berlioz’s last major work.


Berlioz worshipped Shakespeare’s work and only used a part of Much Ado About Nothing adding the role of the composer, Somarone, the duet, a beautiful nocturne that closes the first act, sung by Ursule and Héro (Vous soupirez, madame!), the trio of Héro, Beatrice and Ursula (Je vais d’un cœur aimant) and Beatrice’s heart-stopping aria (Dieu! que viens-je d’entendre?).


The overture, unlike that of his opera Benvenuto Cellini , is composed from material of the opera. However the manner in which it is composed and the way that Berlioz weaved the tunes into it, makes it a piece that could well find success in the concert hall. There is a typical Berlioz feel to it and it does not drag out comic elements of the opera. When one considers that this was the composer’s first major work after the epic Les Troyens there seems to be a sense of relief to the introduction of Beatrice et Benedict.


When the curtain rises, as with La Traviata, a group of people are celebrating on the stage. This time they are outdoors and celebrating a Sicilian victory in battle. Héro awaits the return of her loved one, Claudio, who she is to marry. Claudio and his fellow officer, Don Pedro, chide their colleague, Benedict that he too should marry, but Benedict assures them that he will remain a bachelor. So Don Pedro contrives to be a matchmaker for Benedict and Beatrice, who professes to despise him, using Ursule and Héro to work on Beatrice. Both parties create a situation when they talk about either Beatrice or Benedict being in love with the other, whilst they are in earshot.


Beatrice et Benedict by WNOThis is a typically convoluted beginning for an opera buffa and though Berlioz bemoaned his time in Italy, there is no doubt that the Italians taught him a lot. The role of Don Pedro as the provocateur, brings to mind the Venetian opera librettist and poet, Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto for Mozart’s opera, Così fan tutte, in which Don Alfonso contrives to test the fickleness of the fiancées of the two male leads. Comic opera, as with all aspects of comedy, succeeds by how well it can question given morals of the day. In opera buffa deception is usually a device that is used to lead to the truth. In Così fan tutte, the two lead males disguise themselves as Albanians and attempt to woo the female fiancées. Through the deception the truth is realised that the women are faithful. In Berlioz’s comic opera the truth is whether Benedict is really a convinced bachelor and whether Beatrice really does despise him.


It would seem to me that this device of deception in order to reach the truth must have been acceptable to the audiences of Mozart’s and Berlioz’s day. Today’s audience treats such matters, whilst on stage, as part of the course, but if the newspaper scandal that led to the Levison inquiry is any measure of morality, then today’s society frowns on such behaviour when it is done in real life, irrespective of intent.


I think that the distinction between opera buffa and opéra comique - whose great exponent was Berlioz’s peer, Jacques Offenbach – is that the former finds its comedy within society, so this leads to questioning and ridiculing the authority of ideas or social institutions, whilst the latter finds its humour in situations. It would be right to see Beatrice et Benedict as unique in French musical composition as the model for it (the foundation being the point reached in this first act, that sets in motion the rest of the story) is Italian opera buffa. However there is one exception to the format of buffa and that is that Beatrice et Benedict has spoken dialogue between the airs and musical pieces. Opera buffa use recitatives, usually with keyboard support. Opéra comique uses spoken dialogue, but the fact that much of the spoken dialogue in this opera is taken from Shakespeare, then the effect of the words might well be weakened with musical support.


The introduction of the character of Somarone was a stroke of genius for Berlioz. Here we see the decisive authority, the composer, being shown in a humorous light. Played to the ultimate of self-deprecation, by the excellent Donald Maxwell, wearing a wig very much in the hairstyle of the Berlioz, Somarone rehearses his anthem for the wedding of Claudio and Héro. The chorus are a shambles and sing out of tune (some might think Berlioz foresaw  Schönberg’s music and was a 50 years ahead of his time). Wagner was to use a similar device in his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, having Beckmesser sing the Prize song out-of-tune.


Pedro, Benedict, Leonato and Claudio in Beatrice et Benedict.If any member of the cast deserves special mention it has to be Maxwell. Not only are his acting and singing skills called upon for this role but also his comic timing. As Somarone he delivers some of the most hilarious moments in opera: joking how as a tenor he could make more money as an insurance salesman or his digs at the music of Phillip Glass in the opening of Act 2.


The second act deals with events leading up to the weddings, because, after some arguing Beatrice and Benedict sign a marriage contract after Claudio and Héro are wed. The curtain falls as Beatrice and Benedict agree a truce – until tomorrow.


It is not often that one experience a Berlioz opera outside of London and all credit to WNO for reviving this 1994 production. As with the best opera buffa, this one is full of hilarity and tenderness. Laura Mitchell’s (as Héro) and Anne Burford (as Ursula)delivered a most beautiful rendition of the nocturne, that must rank as some of the most exquisite music Berlioz ever composed. And if that wasn’t enough there is the equally stunning aria sung by Sara Fulgoni (as Beatrice). Unlike the Italian composers, Berlioz did not deem it necessary to compose any major aria for the tenor, but Robin Tritschler is still a major presence on the stage and is also adept when performing comic roles.


Everything about this production of Beatrice et Benedict is a pure delight. For those not familiar with the music of Berlioz it is a great introduction. Although this is a more lighter composition than his other works, it is a Berlioz composition nonetheless.



This Spring season tour :

Birmingham Hippodrome             8-10 March
Venue Cymru, Llandudno            15-17 March
Milton Keynes Theatre                  22-24 March
The Mayflower, Southampton   29-31 March
Theatre Royal, Plymouth              3-7 April
The Bristol Hippodrome                                10-14 April
Swansea Grand Theatre                               19-21 April

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