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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 2, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 09
Beatrice and Benedict at Seattle Opera: Not quite Berlioz, not quite Shakespeare
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Beatrice and Benedict at Seattle Opera: Not quite Berlioz, not quite Shakespeare

by Alice Bloch - 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 25 (Sunday Matinee cast)
(Also 3/3 & 3/9)


When Seattle Opera announced the 2017-18 season, many of us opera-lovers were thrilled to see Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict on the calendar. Not only had that opera never been performed in Seattle, but astonishingly, no opera by Berlioz had ever been performed here.

Berlioz's other operas, which include Les Troyens and Benvenuto Cellini, are famously difficult and expensive to mount, because they require exceptionally skilled singers, a huge orchestra and chorus, a ballet company, and an audience willing to sit through a performance of five hours or more. But Beatrice and Benedict is a short two-act opera, with an orchestra of 50 instead of 350 musicians, and is based on Shakespeare's popular comedy Much Ado About Nothing - so why hadn't it ever been performed here? I don't know, but after attending the Sunday matinee performance of opening weekend, I do know that in some respects, Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict still hasn't been performed here.

This production is a collaboration among Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony, and ACT Theatre. John Langs, Artistic Director of ACT, is the stage director and has brought along members of his core acting company for the non-singing roles; and Ludovic Morlot, in his Seattle Opera debut, conducts his own Seattle Symphony musicians.

Because the production is part of a 'Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare' festival, the opera is sung in English rather than French, and chunks of Much Ado About Nothing are added in, even though Berlioz didn't include those chunks in his opera. The stretches of spoken dialogue require amplification, so the singers and actors wear microphones, which are turned on for speaking and off for singing. Unfortunately, the transitions between amplified speech and unamplified singing seemed awkward and obvious, sometimes startling audience members with surges or drops in volume.

Inserting a troubling subplot from the play into this otherwise sunny comic opera was an interesting experiment that didn't quite work. Act 1 lacked much of Shakespeare's witty banter between Beatrice and Benedict, and the back-and-forth between speech and song had a lifeless quality. In Act 2, the combination of Shakespeare and Berlioz was more graceful, but the subplot (in which the villainous Don John executes a scheme to dishonor Beatrice's beloved cousin Hero and humiliate her on the day of her wedding) required the addition of two arias and a chorus from other works by Berlioz, with Shakespearean lyrics supplied by Seattle Opera dramaturg Jonathan Dean. To make room for the extra dialogue and the musical numbers from other works, some of the original music from Beatrice and Benedict had to be cut. And the English words didn't quite fit Berlioz's music, which needs to be sung in French to flow harmoniously. These are the problems that lead me to assert that Berlioz's opera still hasn't been performed in Seattle.

However, the production is pleasing in many ways. Maestro Morlot clearly has a deep understanding of Berlioz's music, and the orchestra and chorus under his direction sounded splendid and created the mood of each scene: sprightly, romantic, or forlorn.

My favorite funny musical moment involved the bassoons (played by Paul Rafanelli and Stefanie Przybylska) delivering a dirge-like melody while Benedict described the living death that he imagined marriage to be.

Mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp and tenor Andrew Owens sang beautifully and acted convincingly in the title roles. As the other pair of lovers, soprano Shelly Traverse (Hero) and baritone Craig Verm (Claudio) were also terrific. Most impressively, Traverse, who normally sings in the Seattle Opera Chorus, took on the role of Hero for the entire run with very little lead time after Laura Tatulescu fell ill. In the smaller role of Hero's friend Ursula, contralto Avery Amereau stunned the audience with her rich, supple vocal tone, particularly in her lovely trio with Hipp and Traverse.

Baritone Kevin Burdette made hay of the jack-of-all-trades character Somarone, who served as police constable, chorus master, and wedding escort. Whenever he entered, hilarity ensued. During a particularly delightful sequence, he made a hash of conducting the chorus, all the while correcting Morlot's conducting, first in English, then in French.

Visual aspects of the production were all superb. The bright, colorful costumes designed by Deborah Trout were among the prettiest I've ever seen onstage. Lighting designer Connie Yun did an excellent job of creating atmosphere, and scenery designer Matthew Smucker cleverly adapted a set designed by Robert Dahlstrom ten years ago and already used for two other Seattle Opera productions. Langs used the set's Escher-like nests of stairs and landings to good dramatic effect.

In spite of these enchantments, the production was unsatisfying. I wished that Seattle Opera and ACT had teamed up to offer concurrent productions of Beatrice and Benedict and Much Ado About Nothing, instead of combining the two into a hodge-podge that did neither Berlioz nor Shakespeare justice.

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