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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Opera Review: All Mirth, And No Matter

Opera Boston mounts Béatrice et Bénédict.
Lady Disdain: Julie Boulianne (Béatrice) spurns Sean Pannikar (Bénédict.)
Photo by Clive Grainger © 2011. Courtesy Opera Boston.
Opera Boston continues to delve into adventurous repertory with Hector Berlioz' rarely heard Shakespeare opera Beatrice et Bénédict. Distilled from the pages of Much Ado About Nothing, the opera focuses on the romantic sparring of its two title characters. Tuesday night's performance, reviewed here, was the last of the run at the Majestic Theater. 

Tenor Sean Pannikar and mezzo Julie Boulianne made their company debuts in the title roles. Mr. Pannikar has a clear, pleasing tenor that compresses slightly when he rises above the stave. Forced to switch between sung French and spoken English for the duration of the opera, Mr. Pannikar's performance took flight the Shakespeare text yielded to Berlioz' music.

Ms. Boulianne faced similar problems, delivering the spoken dialogue with awkward flourishes. Her fine-pointed, dusky mezzo was suited to Béatrice's pert nature, but her mannerisms made this a difficult heroine to love. She improved in the second act, singing the gorgeous trio and bringing real warmth to her reconciliation and eventual marriage.

Although Béatrice is the opera's titular heroine, her cousin Hero (soprano Heather Buck) gets some of the best music to sing. The Nocturne, sung by Hero and her handmaiden Ursule, (Kelley O'Connor) wove a spell of Berliozian magic. In a manner reminiscent of the Dance of the Sylphs in La Damnation de Faust, it brought Act one to a subtle, gorgeous close.

One of Berlioz' better additions to the play is Somarone, a music master played here by baritone Andrew Funk. A conductor/composer (like Berlioz himself), this fellow's preening, fawning behavior allowed the composer to have little fun at the expense of his profession. Mr. Funk played the part for laughs, particularly the Wagnerian bit about using a particular baton to create darkness and light from his orchestra. As his performers left in disgust, one thought of Haydn's Farewell Symphony. Finally, he led the Act II Improvisation (a bawdy drinking-song) with gusto.

This is Berlioz' fourth and final opera, and his second entry in the genre of opéra-comique. In this style, spoken dialogue is used instead of recitative, interpolated between the arias and ensembles. Since French speech is usually delivered at a rapid clip, it can be challenging for an American audience to follow, even with surtitles.

The solution chosen here was to use an English translation, culled mostly from Shakespeare's text by director David Kneuss. Mr. Kneuss' treatment of the text was difficult for the actors. The characters delved in and out of Shakespeare's idiom, in a struggle to meet the needs of the libretto. The production moved the action to a 20th-century setting, in sets suggesting a Tuscan villa was a low-budget nod to Kenneth Branagh's movie version of the play.

All of the singers seemed uncomfortable delivering the dialogue, with even the lesser members of the cast falling prey to over-exaggeration. In the pit, music director Gil Rose did his best to compensate. Although the famous overture was curiously muted, the later pages of the opera sparkled, and the final double-marriage scene ended the evening on an upbeat note.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.