Béatrice et Bénédict – New York Philharmonic (9 April)

Berlioz
Béatrice et Bénédict

New York Philharmonic
Sir Colin Davis

Vocalists

Béatrice – Susanne Mentzer
Bénédict – Gordon Gietz
Héro – Susan Gritton
Ursule – Nancy Maultsby
Claudio – Keith Phares
Don Pedro – Alfred Walker
Somarone – Carlos Condé

New York Choral Artists [Joseph Flummerfelt, Director]

Actors

Béatrice – Harriet Harris
Bénédict – David Hyde Pierce
Léonato – Philip Bosco
Héro – Linda Powell
Ursule – Kristine Nielsen
Claudio – Joel de la Fuente
Don Pedro – Tom Hewett
Messenger/Priest – Brian Hutchison


Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 9 April, 2003
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

With the New York Philharmonic’s recent performances of the Berlioz Requiem, the Met’s new staging of Les Troyens, and the three all-Berlioz programs presented at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall by the LSO and Sir Colin Davis in March, New Yorkers have had considerable exposure to Berlioz lately. On April 9, Sir Colin was back in town to take a leading role in the Philharmonic’s continuing Berlioz Bicentennial Celebration, leading the orchestra in its first concert performance of the sparkling but rarely performed comic opera, Béatrice et Bénédict.

Berlioz’s last major work, Béatrice et Bénédict, is based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Premiered in 1862, this short, two-act opera omits the more villainous elements of Shakespeare’s plot and focuses almost entirely on the war of wits between Beatrice and Benedick, using the standard issue love story of Hero and Claudio as a foil. Berlioz put together the libretto for the work, coupling dramatic material of his own invention alongside French translations of selected scenes from Shakespeare’s comedy. The resulting work, which the composer described as “a caprice written with the point of a needle,” is a masterpiece of tenderness and comic verve.

This concert performance by the New York Philharmonic used parallel groups of singers and actors, with the singers performing only the musical numbers in French, and the actors speaking an abbreviated English-language version of the composer’s spoken dialogue prepared by Sir Colin Davis. At first, I found the bilingualism and the doubling of characters jarring, but as the performance went on, the remarkable music and the delightful story were so totally involving that those elements were no longer bothersome.

Sir Colin Davis led the Philharmonic in a lithe and vivid performance of great sensitivity. His relish at leading the orchestra in this brilliant and magical work was evident throughout. Tempos were beautifully judged from start to finish. The vocalists and actors were superb. The Westminster Symphonic Choir as the chorus of Sicilian people was fresh and robust. Particularly outstanding among the principal singers was mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, whose slightly dark and expressive voice was perfect for the role of Béatrice. Soprano Susan Gritton as Héro was exceptionally strong throughout. The Act II trio by Mentzer, Gritton, and Nancy Maultsby (as Ursule) was brilliant and provided some of the most memorable singing in the performance. Tenor Gordon Gietz was a fresh-voiced and likeable Bénédict, projecting youthful vitality and strength. Baritone Keith Phares was a solid, clear-voiced Claudio, and bass-baritone Alfred Walker more than qualified in the role of Don Pedro.Among the actors, David Hyde Pierce was the most impressive, displaying excellent comedic timing in the role of Bénédict. Harriet Harris turned in a delightful performance as the feisty Béatrice.

Altogether this was a delightful and satisfying performance, combining the wit and charm of Shakespeare with the musical brilliance of Berlioz at its warmest.

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