At first glance Berlioz’ rarely performed Béatrice et Bénédict of 1862 may seem to provide an incomplete depiction of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Although the characters of Claudio and Héro appear, there is no sub-plot concerning her supposed infidelity, and by removing his public denunciation of her at their wedding the darker side to the story is entirely absent. If, however, the work could consequently be accused of being unbalanced, what it does achieve within a narrower range of themes is no less interesting or, at times, moving.
There is much obvious comedy as Béatrice and Bénédict trade insults, and the chorus rehearse songs for Claudio and Héro’s wedding. At the same time, however, there are many beautiful arias, duets and trios, in which typically the two main protagonists reveal their private desires and imagine how their opposite feels about them. We find ourselves tapping into the calm and serene aspects of the plot because they feel so very human. This is not an opera in which lovers choose death over renouncing each other or giving up their virtue, which can generate big emotions but do not present situations in which we are ever likely to find ourselves. Rather, Béatrice et Bénédict explores the thoughts and insecurities that many of us may have when we try to work out how someone else feels for us, and displays the joy that can result when things work out well.
The opera is fairly short and includes a reasonable amount of dialogue, but even this sometimes serves the function of bringing everything down to a more calming and intimate level. Nevertheless, although it is the serene moments that are the most moving, one should not underestimate the importance of the comedy. One particularly amusing scene sees the chorus rehearsing their Epithalame grotesque (a choral fugue about love) for Claudio and Héro’s wedding, with Lionel Lhote as the music master Somarone displaying perfect comic timing. Jokes are included such as one choir member arriving late and struggling to clamber into her place, while before the rehearsal begins the orchestra ‘tune up’ with Berlioz, it seems, having written everything they needed to play to give the impression that they are doing so. Within this a line from the Overture of Il barbiere di Siviglia is detectable, which may have signified the composer having some fun by butchering his rival Rossini’s music. Similarly, the prominent role for guitar in some of the other overt songs within the plot (such as a drinking song) may reflect the fact that Berlioz unusually used this instrument, and not a piano, to compose.
If the mixture of comedy and serenity, but the removal of any darker aspects, mean that the opera covers a lot within its relatively limited palette, the same could be said of Laurent Pelly’s new production for Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Monochrome colours pervade the sets and costumes throughout, but a series of directorial decisions and design features, courtesy of Barbara de Limburg, ensure there is still much variation. As soon as the curtain rises, in fact, we are exposed to both sides of the experience. We are confronted with three grey cylindrical forms that suggest we will witness a minimalist staging, but all of a sudden their ‘lids’ open and people pop up to sing a rousing chorus about victory in war. These and smaller cylinders are moved around throughout to provide the sets, and when several are stacked on top of each other we could be staring at the skyline of New York or Canary Wharf. This staging does not set the opera in one specific time and place, but while in some cases the absence of a clear setting can act as a barrier to making us feel for the protagonists, because it becomes harder to understand the context within which they act, here it helps us to hone in purely on their emotions.
Some of the music is extremely beautiful, and the Nocturne between Héro (Sophie Karthäuser) and Ursule (Katarina Bradić) that closes Act I epitomises everything that is good about the opera and staging. Both Karthäuser and Bradić display wondrous voices, but it is the communication they make with both the audience and each other that makes their performance special. During the piece a central box opens out to reveal a wedding dress, which in turn demonstrates the entire spectrum that the term ‘monochrome shades’ can cover. Here, it is not darkness or muted colours that prevail, but rather unadulterated light.
Antonello Manacorda, replacing Robin Ticciati who is recovering from surgery, conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra to good effect, while Paul Appleby and Stéphanie d’Oustrac excel in the title roles. Appleby reveals an exceptionally expansive tenor instrument, and if on opening night a few moments felt less comfortable, the difficulties may be smoothed out in subsequent performances. His gestures are also strong, being large enough to fill the whole stage, and yet impeccably smooth and expressive. D’Oustrac has a rich mezzo-soprano whose underlying vibrancy is offset by excellent precision and control. They also form a strong pairing in that when they exchange insults in their duet there is a sense in which neither can walk away, with both refusing to exit through doors that others hold open for them.
The opera’s ending feels a little disappointing as we witness the weddings of both Claudio and Héro and Béatrice and Bénédict amidst general rejoicing and a few antics that suggest the latter pair will soon be at each others’ throats once more. The difficulty is that after the initial sparks fly between the two, they remain apart for the vast majority of the opera so that the ending does not feel like a natural extension of what we have seen go before it. Rather it is the beauty of the quieter and more contemplative moments that leave the deepest impression, and in between the opera’s humorous shenanigans there any plenty of these to be found.
Béatrice et Bénédict will be broadcast live to selected cinemas in the UK and worldwide at 6.30pm on 9 August, while some cinemas will also show encore screenings over subsequent days. For details of participating venues visit the Glyndebourne Cinema and Online 2016 website.
Anne-Catherine Gillet plays Héro on 12, 15, 19, 22, 25 and 27 August.