Review: Béatrice et Bénédict (Glyndebourne)
A rare outing for the comic opera from the pen of Berlioz by way of Shakespeare
The French have a word for it: ‘loufoque'. It means ‘crazy' in a ‘hey, am I goofy or what?' kind of way. And even though opera director Laurent Pelly is capable of producing gems like Glyndebourne's Ravel double bill (beautifully revived last year), when the creative spark fails to fire, as in the Royal Opera's Robert le Diable, he goes loufoque.
You can sense the struggle to entertain that's propelled Pelly through this strange new production of Berlioz's Shakespeare opera. His problem is that the composer's stripped-back adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing gives him nothing much with which to make ado. So in order to fashion a show out of the flimsy 90-minute opera he sets two shticks going. One is a set entirely made of boxes, the other a monochrome visual palette that's as many shades of grey as you like. (Choose a number.) Both are random aesthetic choices that neither reflect nor connect with any aspect of the action.
Some of his sight gags work; others are leaden. Most of the former are limited to the second act, elements of which are notably more inventive than the first with its tediously staged choirmaster interlude and constant need to box clever with Barbara de Limburg's set. Berlioz may be at fault for the broken-backed drama, but Pelly could have done more to bolster the relationship between his sparring title characters instead of having fun with background business.
'Enmity turns to amnesty, then amity, then love'
Despite the inadequate setup, Paul Appleby and Stéphanie d'Oustrac grab what meagre threads they have and weave them into something appealing as their enmity turns to amnesty, then amity, then love. These two Glyndebourne favourites characterise their dialogue, both spoke and sung, with deft physicality and impeccable vocal technique.
Appleby, who was singing Jonathan in Saul last year on nights when d'Oustrac wasn't giving her Carmen, is a revelation: his clear, confident and attractive timbre is one that will take the young American tenor far. D'Oustrac is more of a known quantity, but the stylish mezzo never disappoints and sings her native language with idiomatic deliciousness.
Sophie Karthäuser (Héro) and Katarina Bradić (Ursule) revel in some of the opera's most exquisite music, both in their famous first-act duet, the ‘Duo nocturne' (you may know it from the televised RSC celebrations earlier this year) and in the sublime second-act trio they share with d'Oustrac, "Je vais, d'un coeur aimant". It's music that stirs the heart more than it serves the plot, but when it's this well sung who cares?
Antonello Manacorda has replaced the convalescent Robin Ticciati for Glyndebourne's new production and he conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra with a rousing Gallic spirit, notwithstanding some ensemble lapses that will doubtless be ironed out as the run progresses. A word, too, for Jeremy Bines's ever-extraordinary Glyndebourne Chorus. In addition to negotiating the loufoque scenery and singing slabs of Berlioz in his con brio mode, they also have to be funny in a Pelly kind of way. And now and again it works.
Béatrice et Bénédict runs in repertory at Glyndebourne until 27 August.