BERLIOZ Béatrice et Bénédict
A generous cocktail of melodies and a conjuror’s hat of pointedly apt dramaturgical settings make up Berlioz’s late (1862) setting of Much Ado About Nothing. On its own this score would be enough to make one weep for the ill fortune that kept him away so much from composing. His own twin descriptions of the work – ‘a relaxation after Les Troyens’ and ‘a caprice written with the point of a needle’ – are indicative of possible interpretative routes.
For Glyndebourne in summer 2016 director/costume designer Laurent Pelly, following up a sequence of generally admired French work for the house, takes very much the first route. This new Berlioz show is the dramatic equivalent of ‘easy listening’, each act a bonne bouche to fit either side of the festival’s iconic long interval. The costumes are grey-and-white 1940s, the set large grey boxes (into which our marriage-resistant heroes B and B don’t fit until the end; get it?), aside from the wedding reception – whose visual doodle is an orgy of precisely choreographed setting and removing of chairs and table. Little enough physically and nothing psychologically actually happens on stage apart from negotiating the boxes/furniture to find picturesque positions from which to sing. It will please especially those who believe that such Konzept frei stagings enable better concentration on the music.
Let’s not be mealy-mouthed, though: such sweetness and neatness, a classical ballet of movement and placing, requires the hardest work and drill from cast and production team. And that is fully achieved here. The disappointment however is that, although Berlioz himself removed the more threatening or more grotesque strands from his version of the play (no Don John, no plot to frame Héro, no Dogberry and Verges), there are significant corners which would benefit from a less light production approach. These include Bénédict’s objections to matrimony (well compared in David Cairns’s booklet note to Berlioz’s relations with second wife Marie Recio) and Héro’s last-minute fears about her marriage to Claudio (a role much reduced by Berlioz). Such darker colours are well noticed by Colin Davis in his (no fewer than) three official recordings of the opera, especially in the LSO Live version (12/00).
They do not figure prominently in Antonello Manacorda’s well-rehearsed reading here, nor does the advanced tonal fluidity already remarked by conductors such as Pierre Boulez (New York PO – Sony Classical, 9/73) in his committed version of the Overture. But Manacorda is a natural-sounding guide to the stage events shown here. His cast sound and work together naturally. Stéphanie D’Oustrac (an expressive face to enjoy in close-up) and Paul Appleby (carefully less histrionic in duet) spar well. The Ursule of Katarina Bradic´ is quite a find, more comfortable with notes and character than Sophie Karthäuser’s Héro, accurate but less ethereal than ideal. The men do well, although Lionel Lhote’s effortful Somarone the music-master, falling everywhere on a sliding table in Act 2, will not be to everyone’s comic taste – but that may be Berlioz’s fault in falling (for once) for the cliché that audiences have always seemed to find onstage musical jokes especially hysterical.
The only official DVD to date of such an important opera, well recorded and filmed in a slick modern production, deserves a place in the catalogue and on your shelves, reservations notwithstanding.