Béatrice et Bénédict, Glyndebourne, GFO, August 2016Posted on 6 August 2016
In his last opera Berlioz extracts a single thread from Much Ado About Nothing by his beloved Shakespeare. Composed to a libretto he fashioned from the play the score’s wit and inventiveness delight the ear, but it is more a series of tableaux than a fully formed whole, and the question is how to stage it.
Laurent Pelly has tackled the problem with characteristic aplomb, creating a highly stylised production grey in both costumes and make-up. Grey too is the array of moveable boxes that could serve as a metaphor hiding the attraction between the eponymous sparring partners, as well as unwrapped wedding presents for them and for Beatrice’s cousin Héro and her betrothed Claudio.
Movement is stylised, as is the odd recitative, and deliberate asymmetries are created in the assembly of the chorus and in the arrangement of chairs on the long table before the wedding chorus director makes a clownish spectacle, while the chorus move the table beneath him. Some may find this caricature slightly over the top, but the extreme stylisation finds its reason in the lack of a sustaining drama without the theatrical subplots included in Shakespeare’s play.
Musically Antonello Manacorda in the orchestra pit created charm and romance in the overture, thankfully unencumbered by any stage spectacle, and his evident enthusiasm helped the cast deliver some finely sung performances. Sophie Karthäuser made a lovely Héro with splendid embellishments in her beautifully sung anticipation song, and the duets with Katarina Bradić as her attendant Ursule were sheer delight, notably their gentle nocturne at the end of Act I and clever persuasion of Béatrice in Act II. As Héro’s father Léonato, actor Georges Bigot was an engaging presence, as was Frédéric Caton as Don Pedro in his military uniform.
As Bénédict tenor Paul Appleby sang with passion and robust determination in seeking to avoid marriage and any hint of attraction of Béatrice, so brilliantly portrayed by Stéphanie d’Oustrac. She was the star of the show, her exquisitely expressed facial and body language a clear source of attraction to Bénédict, complementing a beautifully pure mezzo voice that drew spontaneous applause in her delicious Act II soliloquy about the strange feelings gripping her heart and sending her emotions racing. She along with the excellent chorus and lively sensitive conducting of Antonello Manacorda gave dramatic body to what can otherwise be a somewhat static comic opera, albeit accomplished by superb musical economy.
Performances continue on various dates until August 27 — for details click here.