Beatrice and Benedict, Welsh National Opera
We should be grateful the Welsh National Opera (WNO) have a policy of bundling some of the more unusual operas with perennial favourites. When they last came to Bristol they brought us the big hitters Don Giovanni and The Barber of Seville but also Janacek’s Katya Kabanova.
I’d never seen it before, and frankly wasn’t expecting much, but I loved it beyond measure. On this tour Beatrice and Benedict appears for just one performance squeezed in between by La Traviata and The Marriage of Figaro. It’s not such an unalloyed joy, but it is a brave piece of scheduling that still deserves applause.
If Sicily is truly as beautiful a place as Beatrice and Benedict makes it appear, then the entire production should have been paid for by the island’s tourist board. A golden sun shines down on the richly coloured sets and lavish costumes throughout Berlioz’s rarely performed two-act opera. This place looks good enough to eat – or maybe drink, because in this love story the local wine gets nearly as many mentions as the opera’s famously quarrelsome couple.
Beatrice and Benedict is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, but doesn’t do much to improve the original’s flimsy plot about a man and a woman who constantly trade insults (and who, for the sake of the plot, have each sworn never to marry) being finally tricked into falling in love.
Both roles are impeccably sung. Sara Fulgoni is Beatrice and the always impressive Robin Tritschler – last seen in Bristol as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni – makes a splendidly arrogant Benedict, always ready for a fight. Both seem to genuinely enjoy the verbal sparring in this elongated mating ritual and both act convincingly surprised when they realise what he rest of us have known from the start – that their wedding was always inevitable.
The biggest joy of Shakespeare’s version – as in The Taming of The Shrew – comes from the sparkling wit and insulting repartee the couple swap and Berlioz is clearly doing his best to match the master’s skill. But it’s a tough act to follow, so we shouldn’t be too surprised or disappointed when he sometimes fails.
The most unusual aspect of Beatrice and Benedict is that it includes quite long spoken passages, so that at times it seems more like a musical than an opera proper. That shouldn’t be a problem; we know musicals work well. But the transitions from singing to speaking do sometimes feel uncomfortable here.
Berlioz’s music for Beatrice and Benedict is, though, a very pleasant and consistent surprise. Conductor Michael Hofstetter leads his orchestra through an appropriately tempestuous overture and teases every nuance from a glorious duet that closes Act One – a nocturne reflecting on love performed by Hero (Laura Mitchell) and Ursula (Anna Burford).
Any actor (or opera singer) will tell you that to have a hit show you need a great opener to Act Two. Beatrice and Benedict has this nailed in spades with a spectacular comedy number. The entire cast come Congo-ing out of the wings, clearly the worse for drink but still bathed in that warm Mediterranean sunshine. The revels are led by Somarone, a drunken music teacher (Donald Maxwell) who tells us how he could have dedicated his life to great music if only the local wine hadn’t distracted him. As a result he is now a profoundly comic drunk.
According to Ian Douglas, the WNO’s Company Manager, Maxwell has made the role of Somarone so much his own over the years that he now changes his performance night by night and improvises parts of his dialogue. Last night he made some wonderfully barbed comments about La Traviata while he was staggering around the stage in a drunken pirouette searching for a fresh bottle of splosh.
It was an hilarious conclusion to an unusual – curious, even – night at the opera.