Royal Academy Opera – Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict [conducted by Sir Colin Davis; directed by John Copley]

Béatrice et Bénédict – Comic opera in two acts to a libretto by the composer after Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing [sung in French with English subtitles; spoken dialogue in English, taken from Shakespeare’s play]

Béatrice – Katie Bray
Bénédict – Samuel Furnace
Héro – Nathalie Chalkley
Ursula – Sarah Shorter
Claudio – Gareth John
Don Pedro – John-Owen Miley-Read
Léonato – James Wolstenholme
Somarone – Adam Marsden

Royal Academy Opera Chorus

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Sir Colin Davis

John Copley – Director
Tim Reed – Designer
Prue Handley – Costume designer
Geraint Pughe – Lighting designer
John Castle – Dialogue coach

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 21 November, 2011
Venue: Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London

Rarely performed operas are doing rather well by the London colleges this autumn – Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor at GSMD, Bizet’s Le docteur Miracle and Djamileh coming up at the Royal College of Music, and Berlioz’s last work, a charming divertissement about the fractious Béatrice et Bénédict, who, when tricked into thinking that each loves the other, discover that they do. The big coup for the Royal Academy of Music is to have Berlioz’s representative here on Earth, Sir Colin Davis, conducting three of the four performances.

Sir Colin Davis. Photograph: Alberto Venzago / LSOThe music is far removed from Berlioz’s epic style, having more in common with the dreamy, lightly-scored Nuits d’été. It’s rather Baroque in the way that the spoken dialogue nudges along what drama there is, leaving the music to cast its mellifluous, melodious spell. The numbers are very fairly distributed around the cast – a big aria each for the title roles plus two duets, a trio each for the main men and women, a big aria for Héro in praise of love as well as the lovely ‘Nocturne’ for Héro and her companion Ursule, and some so-so ho-ho stuff for Somarone (a character not in Shakespeare’s play), a pedantic music-master and the butt of some anti-academic humour.

John Copley’s production is succinct and straightforward, with the groupings of chorus and soloists bringing the drama into clear focus. Tim Reed’s elegant designs of columns and architectural sections are just the right scale for the RAM’s stage and for the opera, and provide plenty of cover for the all-important, plot-forwarding eavesdropping. The costumes are nineteenth-century military for the men, puff-sleeved Victorian for the women, with the chorus and stagehands in contemporary Carluccio-style black. It’s all very traditional and, like the opera, not at all grandstanding. The chorus assembling a portrait of Berlioz in Act One and the parading of posters declaring Bénédict to be a married man strike a rather false, faux-larky note.

The three women were strongly cast. Natalie Chalkley had a great success as Héro. It helped that she looked so like a French chanteuse, and you could imagine her weightless, evenly produced soprano being put to good use in Fauré and Debussy. She set the tone and standard for some generally excellent singing with her tremulously ardent first aria, which was very idiomatically sung, and found the right sort of sweet melancholy for the ravishing ‘Nocturne’, which became even more rapturous with the fine, steady and luxurious mezzo of Sarah Shorter (as Ursula); it was a very beautiful, distinctive sound. Vocally, Katie Bray as Béatrice was as idiomatically French-sounding, with her agile, full mezzo shaping the drooping phrases of her Act Two aria with great elegance, and she managed Béatrice’s love-struck transformation very affectingly; her French diction was in the Gallic phonemes area.

Two of the three main men are really small roles – Héro’s husband-to-be Claudio is only there to flesh out the picture of true love; and most of what he and Don Pedro get to sing happens in the Act One trio. Gareth John made the most of Claudio, and it was good to be reminded of John-Owen Miley-Read’s sonorous bass-baritone in the role of Don Pedro.

Samuel Furness made Bénédict the most three-dimensional character. As early as his Act One spat with Béatrice, there was a charge between the two of them, and his short aria (‘Ah! Je vais l‘aimer’) after Claudio and Pedro have set their trap, flew along with fine, chest-out ardour. His tenor isn’t huge, but it’s very sweet and lyrical throughout his range, and he was the only singer to produce that typically French, slightly nasal twang in his voice. Adam Marsden coped well with Somarone, who’s a bit of a bore and gets to do a lot of comic business with the chorus, larded with, I suspect, a few RAM in-jokes.

A lot of the spoken dialogue was pretty jarring in its flat-vowel delivery (odd, since most of the sung French was very good), but it seems the norm now, so get used to it.

The last time I heard Béatrice et Bénédict was as a concert performance with the LSO conducted by Sir Colin in 2000. He’d have had twice the number of strings then, so there were only traces of that shimmering, swooning sound that so distinguishes his Berlioz. Good woodwind, though, and a fine guitar solo from Benjamin Bruant in Somarone’s drinking song.

  • Further performances at 7 p.m. on 23, 25 & 28 November
  • Final performance conducted by Jane Glover
  • Royal Academy of Music

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