After a disappointing reaction to his major work, Les Troyens, the conception and composition of Béatrice et Bénédict was a relaxation for Berlioz, commissioned by his friend Edouard Bénazet. The opera comes across as a series of individual scenes, patched together with spoken dialogue. This is one of the production’s main weaknesses and so many of the things that don’t work in the piece are largely not the company’s fault.
This revival of the 1994 production of Elijah Moshinsky is beautifully and appealingly set by designer Michael Yeargan, on the loggia of a palazzo overlooking the Sicilian countryside, bathed in an umber glow which subtly changes, as the day lengthens, to a blue night sky with twinkling lights in the valley below and a full moon rising to provide the perfect romantic atmosphere.
The orchestra, conducted by Michael Hofstetter, got off to an underpowered start with the overture, lacking something in the way of tempo, bite and sparkle; a shame, notwithstanding that they settled down as the opera progressed, since this is probably the most well-known piece and introduces a number of the melodies to come.
Musically the high points of the evening were arias sung by the three ladies; Hero’s beautiful opening aria ‘Je vais le voir’ sung by the soprano Laura Mitchell, the ravishing nocturne ‘Nuit paisible et sereine’, a magical duet between Hero and the contralto Anna Burford as Ursula at the end of Act I and lastly the trio ‘Je vais d’un coeur aimant’ exquisitely sung by Hero, Ursula and Beatrice.
Sarah Fulgoni’s Beatrice revealed a rich mezzo-soprano voice and provided moments of great beauty, particularly in her long solo in Act II when she comes to accept that she loves Benedict. However she was a Beatrice who, though intelligent and musical, simply failed to sound like the bright and quick-witted Beatrice that we expect, and there seemed too little chemistry between Fulgoni and Robin Tritschler as Benedict. Some gleeful twenty first century celebratory gestures when scoring a debating point also jarred with the feisty but decorous maiden out of a Winterhalter portrait.
Tritschler’s lyric tenor rose to Benedict’s solos and he is a capable actor, projecting bravado and insecurity. But, as with the overture, the essential spark was not there; his relationship with Beatrice seemed to have little passion.
As the pedantic and sometimes inebriated choirmaster Somarone, a role bolted on to the plot by Berlioz, Donald Maxwell got the laughs. In a masterly demonstration of how to take control of the stage whether speaking or singing, and generally stealing the show, he managed to ad-lib topical references which delighted the audience – to the choir of The Military Wives, based up the road at the Plymouth Citadel, and to the beneficially anaesthetising effect of Marsala wine both in anticipation of Act II of La Traviata performing the following night and the entirety of the current performance of Parsifal at Cardiff, which had been reviewed in the press that day.
Berlioz’s brilliantly orchestrated music did actually carry the whole thing along but disappointingly the direction, both in the pit and on the stage, whilst workmanlike, never rose to the spectacular.