Friday 25 November 2011

Béatrice et Bénédict, Royal Academy Opera, 23 November 2011

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

Somarone – Nicholas Crawley
Léonato – James Wolstenholme
Messenger, Archbishop – Johnny Herford
Béatrice – Rachel Kelly
Héro – Jennifer France
Don Pedro – Frederick Long
Bénédict – Stuart Jackson
Claudio – Ross Ramgobin
Ursule – Fiona Mackay

John Copley (director)
Tim Reed (set designs)
Prue Handely (costumes)
Geraint Pughe (lighting)
John Castle (Shakespeare dialogue coach)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Royal Academy Opera Chorus
Sir Colin Davis (conductor).

Héro (Jennifer France)
Images: Hana Zushi
A new production of a Berlioz opera conducted by Sir Colin Davis: who would not jump at the chance? I had begun to fear that I might never be vouchsafed the theatrical opportunity, though LSO concert performances of Les Troyens and Benvenuto Cellini remain highlights of my opera-going life. How wonderful, then, to be offered the opportunity to see Béatrice et Bénédict at the Royal Academy, an institution to which, in the words of Jane Glover, Director of Opera, ‘Sir Colin … has given so much … over the years.’ Long may one of ‘the greatest living legends in the world of opera’ continue to do so, for he inspired his young musicians, both singers and instrumentalists, to heights such as one could hardly have dared anticipate. The playing of the Royal Academy Sinfonia was characterful, beautifully articulated, and above all responsive to the tricky twists and turns of Berlioz’s inimitable, fantastical imagination. As it should, the Overture properly set the scene: nervous energy palpable at a level that would not have shamed the LSO, with melting contrast from a daringly slow, quite ravishing played, second group, prefiguring the delights of the Nocturne, ‘Nuit paisible et sereine!’ which ushers the first act to sleep. The thread might have snapped in less experienced hands, but Davis knew precisely what he was doing, and held us – and, it would seem, his musicians – spellbound throughout. Onstage instrumental playing impressed too, not least the evocative guitar-playing of Benjamin Bruant.

Somarone (Nicholas Crawley)
I wonder a little quite what one would make of the opera, did one not know Shakespeare’s play; in many respects, Béatrice et Bénédict comes across, like Roméo et Juliette and La Damnation de Faust, even Tristia, more as reflections upon an original than a fully-fledged drama in its own right. I cannot help, moreover, but think that some of the numbers are a little longer than they need be. At any rate, the work’s pleasures are quite different from the splendours of Benvenuto Cellini and Les Troyens. Nevertheless, John Copley’s direction makes a strong and enjoyable case. This was not, for better or worse, a Regietheater reimagining, but a warm-hearted, sympathetic staging that complemented Sir Colin’s contribution in the pit, delighting the audience with its warmly Mediterranean designs and its fine sense of comic timing. It seemed to me a perfectly reasonable compromise in a conservatoire context to have the dialogue in English, mostly that of Shakespeare; the singers certainly delivered it well, no doubt a measure of John Castle’s contribution as dialogue coach.

Léonato (James Wolstenholme), Bénédict (Stuart Jackson),
and Claudio (Ross Ramgobin)

Notwithstanding the estimable qualities of the conductor and director, Royal Academy Opera is a draw in itself. This is the third production I have seen there within a year, the others having been Così fan tutte and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Kommilitonen! Though Béatrice et Bénédict proved the finest performance of all, both Così and Kommilitonen! had also proved highly impressive. Moreover, the contrast with Opera North’s unhappy Queen of Spades the preceding evening was stark. Not a single member of the cast disappointed; indeed, each in his or her own way enthralled. Nicholas Crawley offered a sharply-etched, genuinely amusing, characterisation of Somarone, the music master (Berlioz’s own creation), as beautifully sung as it was finely acted. Frederick Long impressed again, this time in the role of Don Pedro; he is fast emerging a versatile, highly-accomplished artist. Stuart Jackson and Rachel Kelly negotiated with aplomb the strenuous demands placed upon them in the title roles, whilst the stars of Jennifer France’s Héro and Ross Ramgobin’s Claudio shone brightly indeed, their lines both ardent yet elegantly shaped in fine Gallic fashion. The sixteen-strong chorus was outstanding: once again, this was a performance that would put to shame many of those one would encounter in the grandest of houses.

Final scene (some of the singers are from a different cast)

It is a sad reflection on France’s treatment of one of her greatest composers that the 1862 premiere of this very ‘French’ work took place in Baden-Baden, but then, even as late as 1990, an act of restitution to open the Opéra Bastille, an allegedly ‘complete’ performance of Les Troyens, would omit its ballet music. The land of Berlioz’s beloved Shakespeare, has often turned out, above all though not solely through the offices of Sir Colin Davis, to be friendlier territory. Let us hope that this new staging will have furnished many on stage and in the audience with newfound or confirmed enthusiasm for the cause. When one considers some of the works that bafflingly continue to hold our operatic stages, Berlioz deserves to be heard far more frequently.

Recommended recording: