Beatrice and Benedict – Opéra-comique in two Acts to a libretto by the composer based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing [sung in a chamber arrangement by Jonathan Lyness to an English translation by Amanda Holden]
Beatrice – Monica McGhee
Benedict – Huw Ynyr
Hero – Lorena Paz Nieto
Claudio – John Ieuan Jones
Leonata – Stephanie Windsor-Lewis
Don Pedro – Matthew Stiff
Elenid Owen (violin), Peryn Clement-Evans (clarinet), Nicola Pearce (cello), Jonathan Lyness (piano)
Richard Studer – Director & Designer
Bridget Wallbank – Lighting
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 14 October, 2023
Venue: Gregynog Hall, Newtown, Powys, Wales
Beatrice and Benedict – Berlioz’s final work for the stage – is rather the antithesis of his other music dramas, construing that term in its broadest sense to encompass The Damnation of Faust, as well as Benvenuto Cellini and Les Troyens. This distillation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing is shorter than those, and its lighter-hearted scoring and division essentially into numbers interspersed with spoken dialogue making it almost an operetta, especially in this English version of the work with the spoken text taken over from the Bard’s original. The somewhat hammy delivery here, and the more intimate performance of this reduced version in Gregynog Hall perhaps even brings it more within the world of a G&S farce, though the more or less Regency or Napoleonic era costumes in Richard Studer’s simple production takes it back a little in time to seem like a somewhat friskier, unsentimental rom-com by Jane Austen.
Lively acting and hearty singing by the six soloists make up for the omission of the other principals and chorus of Berlioz’s full version. Monica McGhee and Huw Ynyr are aptly vociferous as the bickering lovers, protesting too much that they loathe each other, eventually succumbing to the inevitable when their friends’ ruse brings about their union. John Ieuan Jones combines an earthier wit and agility as Claudio with a responsive and earnest stage presence; while Lorena Paz Nieto as his lover, Hero, presents an arresting contrast with her strenuous performance, particularly in her Italianate Act One aria which climaxes in her feisty rendition, with teasing pauses, on the florid cadenza at the end of what amounts to its cabaletta. Stephanie Windsor-Lewis is a blowsy Leonata, and Matthew Stiff a boisterous Don Pedro rounding a nicely varied group of characters, as though bringing together the high and low of opera seria and opera buffa.
Jonathan Lyness’s skilful arrangement of Berlioz’s scintillating music for a quartet of players (violin, clarinet, cello, and piano) inevitably nullifies a lot of detail.
But in its own terms it sustains plenty of vigour and timbral character to enliven the drama, the clarinet in particular presenting contrasting personalities, be it cheeky and playful, or wistful and winsome. If the frequent tunefulness of the score and the work’s subject of the emotional tussle between the sexes recall Mozart’s great operatic comedies, then the arrangement for this ensemble, putting one of that composer’s favourite instruments centre stage and blending the forces of his chamber masterpieces the ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio (K498) and the Clarinet Quintet (K581), all the more evoke the spirit of his genius. Led discreetly but confidently from the piano by Lyness, the four play with palpable gusto. This charmingly realised project provides much to cheer an autumn’s evening.
Further performances at various locations to 10 November