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Reviews

Sara Fulgoni as Beatrice [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of Welsh National Opera]
28 Feb 2012

Beatrice and Benedict at the Wales Millennium Centre

Welsh National Opera presented a rather undercooked account of Berlioz’s tricky opera, in a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s classic production

Hector Berlioz: Beatrice and Benedict

Beatrice: Sara Fulgoni; Benedict: Robin Tritschler; Don Pedro: Piotr Lempa; Leonato: Michael Clifton-Thompson; Hero: Laura Mitchell; Claudio: Gary Griffiths; Ursula: Anna Burford; Somarone: Donald Maxwell; Messenger: Stephen Wells. Housekeeper: Helen Greenaway. Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera. Conductor: Michael Hofstetter. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Revival Director: Robin Tebbutt. Designer: Michael Yeargan. Costume Designer: Dona Granata. Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison. Lighting realised by: Paul Woodfield. Welsh National Opera, Wales Millenium Centre, 26th February 2012.

Above: Sara Fulgoni as Beatrice

Photos by Johan Persson courtesy of Welsh National Opera

 

Throughout his career Berlioz had a rather distinctive way with the form of a piece, so it is perhaps inevitable that an opéra comique written by him would not be straightforward. Beatrice and Benedict is his final dramatic work, a piece that is small scale partly because Berlioz’s health would not allow him to write anything bigger and partly because that was what was suitable for a summer entertainment at the spa of Baden-Baden. Stagings of the piece are relatively rare so it was with great pleasure that I anticipated WNO’s performance of the opera, doubly so as it was to be a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1994 production, beautifully designed by Michael Yeargan (sets) and Dona Granata (costumes).

BB_WNO_13.gifRobin Tritschler as Benedict

The work was performed in English with spoken dialogue adapted from Shakespeare’s play by Elijah Moshinsky and revival director Robin Tebbutt. Now the British, as a rule, are not very good at opéra comique, something awful seems to happen when the works cross the channel — Offenbach turns into G & S and anything more serious gets just plain embarrassing. Recent performances of the opera in London have tended to be concerts, in which the dialogue was either spoken by actors or replaced by a spoken narration, neither solution very satisfactory. With Beatrice and Benedict the problem is worse because people insist on trying to turn the piece back into a musical version of Much Ado About Nothing rather than sticking with a French opéra comique. In Cardiff we had dialogue cut to the bone, but spoken in a language which veered awkwardly between direct quotation from Shakespeare and more modern idiom.

I had heard wonderful reports of the original 1994 production Elijah Moshinsky production, but somehow the magic does not seems to have survived. The set looked lovely, ravishing in fact, with Paul Woodfield now in charge of Howard Harrison’s original lighting plot. But the set was designed for the far smaller stage of the New Theatre in Cardiff. And its rigidly architectural form meant that not only did the set look narrow, but sight lines were not ideal; it is a shame that somehow it could not have been opened up somewhat. The setting was 19th century Sicily, with the ladies in big crinoline dresses and an architectural loggia doing admirable service for all scenes in the opera.

Musically we got off to a good start with a sparkling account of the overture under Michael Hofstetter. The spoken dialogue got off to a bad start with Michael Clifton-Thompson’s Leonato having to deliver his lines with his back to the audience.

BB_WNO_10.gifGary Griffiths as Claudio and Piotr Lempa as Don Pedro

Sarah Fulgoni’s Beatrice looked lovely and she spoke her dialogue quite aptly. But there was something of a mis-match between her nice, well-modulated speaking voice and the incredibly richly upholstered tones of her mezzo-soprano voice. Here was a Beatrice who, though intelligent and musical, simply failed to sound like the sharp-witted Beatrice that we expect. There were moments of great beauty, particularly in Beatrice’s long solo in Act 2 when she comes to accept that she loves Benedict, but the as a whole the character failed to take off. Perhaps, this is partly because there was simply too little spark between Fulgoni and Robin Tritschler’s Benedict.

If Fulgoni’s voice seemed overly rich for her role, Tritschler’s lyric tenor seemed in danger of being too light for Benedict. Under pressure his voice seemed to turn a trifle too reedy and you wondered whether this was ideal repertoire for him. He encompassed Benedict’s solos melodiously and was and entirely willing and capable actor. But the essential spark was not there, his relationship with Beatrice just didn’t crackle with energy the way it should.

Both Fulgoni and Tritschler were entirely capable, but unfortunately Donald Maxwell as Somarone gave us an object lesson in how to take control of the stage whether speaking or singing. Somarone the learned music master can be a rather tedious character and Maxwell did rather over do things by including topical references into his speeches. But as a demonstration of how to capture the attention of an audience, he could not be faulted.

BB_WNO_12.gifLaura Mitchell as Hero

Laura Mitchell and Gary Griffiths played Hero and Claudio. Unfortunately in the opera Claudio is reduced to a cipher and as there is no one to impede their love, Hero has only to be delightfully in love. This Mitchell did beautifully, looking and sounding ravishing. She and Anna Burford as Ursula brought Act 1 to a ravishing close with their duet; one of the moments when music, drama and visuals came together in a moment of perfection which gave a hint at the pleasure the production must have given when new.

The role of Don Pedro is musically very small, but the character is quite a player in the spoken dialogue; Piotr Lempa, the only non-native English speaker in the cast, coped brilliantly nevertheless.

Under Michael Hofstetter the orchestra gave a sympathetic account of Berlioz’s score. Hofstetter’s biography in the programme book described him as a baroque specialist though he seems to have been venturing into wider water recently, with productions including Tristan und Isolde, and conducted Beatrice and Benedict at Houston Grand Opera in 2008.

This was one of the evenings in the theatre which does not quite catch fire, though nothing really goes wrong either. As Beatrice and Benedict is revived so rarely, I did so want it to be so much more; that said there were many incidental beauties along the way.

Robert Hugill

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

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