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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 2, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 09
Seattle Opera's Beatrice and Benedict a wonderful hybrid of theatre and opera that succeeds brilliantly
Arts & Entertainment
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Seattle Opera's Beatrice and Benedict a wonderful hybrid of theatre and opera that succeeds brilliantly

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN Contributing Writer

SEATTLE OPERA
BEATRICE AND BENEDICT
BY HECTOR BERLIOZ
ADDITIONAL SCENES FROM
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
February 24 (Opening Night cast)
(Also 2/28, 3/7 & 3/10)


One of the things I've enjoyed about Seattle Opera over the years is how willing they are to try new things, either by collaborating with other opera companies to commission entirely new works, such as Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catán and Amelia by Daron Hagen, or by supporting the new commissions of larger companies by bringing up-to-the-minute operas to Seattle such as next season's The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates. General Manager Aidan Lang (and Speight Jenkins before him) know that without new work an opera house is nothing more than a music museum for a dead tradition. Though not all experiments and up-datings are completely successful, it's the duty of opera companies to keep this marvelous art form current.

One of my favorite experiments of this kind was Seattle Opera's production of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, about a clown in a traveling circus who murders his faithless wife. It's a one-act opera normally performed with Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (an opera duo known to aficionados by the nickname Cav/Pag) to create a full evening of dramatic Italian opera. Some readers may remember the outcry when Speight Jenkins and his creative team had the brilliant idea of dropping Cav and expanding Pag into two acts by inserting an actual Cirque du Soleil-style circus right into the middle of it. Opera traditionalists felt short-changed to not see Cav, but I thought the resulting Pag was great - I can still see the tightrope walkers tippy-toeing across the stage on a slack rope while a strongman balanced his two children on uplifted, bulging arms. Stilt walkers, jugglers, and tumblers performed in the aisles. For my money it was a logical and daring interpolation that added the excitement of a real circus as well as a deeper level of irony to the drama of a desperate clown. It made a lot more sense than sticking two unrelated stories together just to eke out an evening at the opera.

I suspect General Manager Aiden Lang and his creative team might get some complaints about their similar amplification of Berlioz's one-act opera Beatrice and Benedict - stretched into a full evening by weaving big chunks of Shakespeare's originating play Much Ado About Nothing in and out of the opera and (gasp!) using microphones in an opera house! Granted, the mikes are only turned on when singers and actors are speaking then turned off when the singers are singing, but for opera purists like the two older ladies sitting in front of me on opening night, microphones in an opera house are like can-can dancers in church. They sniffed about it all intermission - barbarians at the gates, and all that.

But I thought it was a great idea to have the Bard's own words alternating with Berlioz's opera, especially since the composer had reduced the play to the 'merry war' between the two main characters, leaving out the serious parts about Beatrice's cousin, Hero, as the victim of a destructive lie by the wicked Don John. By reintroducing the serious subplot using Shakespeare's own text the Seattle Opera creative team upgraded the quality of the narrative to the Bard's own level. They created a play-within-an-opera, similar to Shakespeare's own favorite device of a play-within-a-play that he used in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, and Love's Labours Lost. Audiences are perfectly capable of following the doubleness of genres in order to gain insight into characters who express themselves in two different ways - speaking, hollering, and laughing with the directness of stage drama and then bursting into song to express the emotional subtext of their dilemmas. This kind of experiment works well when an opera company has a devoted audience that gives artists a chance to try new things - an audience that won't head for the hills (or the movies) because they're asked to have a new artistic experience.

Seattle Opera went about this project in the best way possible, by teaming up with Seattle's ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) to provide the speaking parts, and by having opera singers who are clever and convincing actors. My opera buddy and I came away with the sense that we had seen the sung version of Much Ado About Nothing - a tragicomedy that deserves to be a full-length opera. And it wasn't only Shakespeare who contributed extra material. Hector Berlioz amplified his own opera (with the assistance of conductor Ludovic Morlot and dramaturg Jonathan Dean) by having two arias from his other operas and one chorus from his oratorio - the gorgeous 'Shepherd's Farewell' - re-worded and revised for service in Beatrice and Benedict.

The opening night cast was young, energetic, handsome and beautiful, as a story about love, conflict and triumph requires. Only a young cast could navigate Matthew Smucker's three-story set that called on performers to dash up and down steps while speaking or singing. Lush costumes by Deborah Trout had the sunny, floral quality we associate with Italy, while the soldiers who came marching into town wore dashing hats and jackets over denim jeans - a playful statement that the war on stage was cupid's eternal conflict of love - these young men were not cannon fodder for the old man's perpetual war. Daniela Mack was particularly effective as Beatrice - a sarcastic, beautiful, proto-feminist who knows when to give in (reluctantly) to the stratagems of love. Her Benedict, Alek Schrader, had all the endearing charm of a reluctant lover ready to change sides from scorn to adoration at the least concession. Special kudos go to Shelly Travese, a Seattle native who stepped into the role of Hero on short notice and had her 'opera legend' moment by excelling in a demanding part for the duration of the run. May this be her springboard to international stardom!

All in all, Beatrice and Benedict is a thoughtfully produced, wonderfully entertaining hybrid of theater and opera that dares to try something new - and succeeds brilliantly. Artistry and experimentation driven by the integrity of the work rather than by shock, weirdness, or 'the new' is always welcome, and opens doors to new ways of thinking about old works. This is the job of contemporary opera companies if they're not to become museums of old-style music. Well done, Seattle Opera!

Don't miss Beatrice and Benedict, part of Seattle's city-wide Shakespeare Festival, performed at McCaw Hall through March 10. For more information visit https://www.seattleopera.org/ or call 206-389-7676.

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