In must have been quite a night in Paris, September 11, 1827, when a touring company from England presented Shakespeare’s Othello, with Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. By all accounts, Smithson gave a stunning performance. The audience included the leading writers, artists and composers of the day, among them 24-year old Hector Berlioz. The young composer was smitten with Smithson, both as an actress and as a woman. Berlioz fantasized about her for years to come and finally married her in 1833. She was the woman of his dreams, at least until they began living together. The marriage didn’t last. But that production of Othello also sparked in Berlioz a life-long devotion to the plays of Shakespeare, which inspired his composition of various shorter pieces such as Tristia Op. 18 and the King Lear Overture, as well as two major works, the “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette, and the comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict, based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Berlioz himself conducted the first performance of this opera in 1862.
Berlioz also wrote the libretto for Béatrice et Bénédict. Only moderately successful, it cuts out most of the play except for the main storyline involving the couple Béatrice and Bénédict, who delight in insulting and otherwise abusing each other, only to admit in the end that they really love each other madly. As director Laurent Pelly has noted, “there is little real action in this opera…the main interest in Béatrice et Bénédict, as in all opera, lies above all in the music. First and foremost, I stage the music.” Pelly is a very resourceful director — his 2007 staging of Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment starring Natalie Dessay was absolutely magical — and on this new Opus-Arte release, he gives us a highly original and entertaining rendering of this rarely-performed opera by Berlioz.
The set, conceived by Pelly and executed by Barbara de Limburg, consists almost entirely of boxes — about a dozen of them — moved around, piled on top of each other, opened to reveal unexpected objects inside and so on. The idea is that the two leading characters refuse to live in a box; that is, to do what is expected of them. Lots of dramatic possibilities here and even the movement of the boxes by costumed stagehands is done with carefully planned choreography.
There are two set pieces, one in each act, that allow Pelly to fully exploit the comic possibilities of the story. The scene with the chorus and Lionel Lhote as the ridiculous conductor Somarone is hilarious, as is the wedding banquet in Act II, featuring an absurdly elongated table with Lhote as a bumbling ringmaster.
But it is the music that makes a Béatrice et Bénédict revival worthwhile, and in this Glyndebourne production, it is rendered with finesse and style. Stéphanie d’Oustrac as Béatrice is a gifted actress and sings beautifully, especially in her Act II aria based on the slow section of the Overture. Sophie Karthäuser as Héro is a little rough in the beginning but joins with Katarina Bradić for a sublime duet at the end of Act I.
I first got to know this opera from the 1962 recording conducted by Colin Davis (1927-2013) (L’Oiseaux-lyre SOL 256-7). Davis was a Berlioz specialist and went on to make two more recordings of the piece. However, I suspect that Davis had doubts about the opera’s viability on stage. Although he conducted a lot of opera during his long career — he headed Sadler’s Wells Opera and later the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden — to my knowledge, he only conducted a staged production of Béatrice et Bénédict very late in his career, at the Royal Academy of Music in 2011. Laurent Pelly might have changed his mind. Pelly’s Glyndebourne production makes a very persuasive case for the opera’s viability on stage.
Hector Berlioz: Beatrice et Benedict is available from amazon.ca.