Hector Berlioz - Béatrice et Bénédict
L'Opéra Comique, Paris, 2010
Emmanuel Krivine, Dan Jemmett, Christine Rice, Allan Clayton, Ailish Tynan, Élodie Méchain, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Jérôme Varnier, Michel Trempont, Giovanni Calò, David Lefort, Bob Goody
France TV, Culturebox - Internet streaming
The Opéra Comique's 2010 production of Béatrice et Bénédict takes a somewhat distanced theatrical approach to Berlioz's version of Shakespeare's comedy 'Much Ado About Nothing', setting it as a puppet show come to life. The distancing technique is a method that Shakespeare would himself use on occasions through an Induction opening that indicates that the work in question is a play-within-a-play (in 'The Taming of the Shrew' for example), using it as a means perhaps to have a little more freedom that takes it away from naturalistic drama. There isn't such a device used in 'Much Ado About Nothing', even though some of the narrative twists and comic drama do require some suspension of disbelief, so the puppet show does at least provide a certain justification for this.
Since Berlioz's opera jettisons much of the rather more wild twists of Shakespeare's play in favour of the romantic comedy between Beatrice and Benedick (and it must be said, much of the comedy goes too), the device has other uses and benefits here. On a simple formal level, the production looks good with a strong visual hook and two huge puppet heads looming over the stage. Since puppet productions have a fairly specific period character, this allows the work to be put on in a more traditional setting. You could also consider that the two principal characters of the opera are indeed treated somewhat like puppets by the manoeuvring of their friends in their efforts to get this unlikely couple to somewhat improbably put their hatred for each other aside and recognise that they are actually in love with each other.
The best thing about the Opéra Comique's production however is the introduction of a "puppet master" who recites lines from the original play in English and thereby brings a little bit of the magical poetry of Shakespeare back into a drama that loses much of its character in French translation and more in its adaptation to opera. This also serves to bring some human feeling back into the actual production, since unfortunately, as you might expect, having the characters walk around and make jerky movements as if they are on strings, does tend to restrict the dramatic action and leave it rather static and... well, wooden. Dan Jemmet also however finds some good ways to use the added character of choir master Somarone to bring back some of the Shakespearean humour that is lacking in Berlioz's adaptation, and takes the humour out to the audience in a way that is typical of the Opéra Comique, as well as fully in the spirit of the work.
The spirit of the work is however undoubtedly more that of Berlioz than Shakespeare. The composer makes great use of the chorus, he even manages to get a ballet in there at the start to celebrate Don Pedro's victory, the drama fairly zipping along with some fine melodies and, in the case of Beatrice and Ursula's duet 'Nuit paisable et sereine', at least one truly great piece. As an opera, Béatrice et Bénédict lacks the tragicomic elements of Hero's betrayal and her 'death' of heartbreak at the accusations of her fiancé Claudio, and the all-out comic hilarity of Dogberry and his constables' investigation is missed, but Berlioz has a good feel for the sensibilities of the romantic-comedy storyline and rightly focuses on that alone. Those characteristics are brought out marvellously here in a fine account of the work as conducted by Emmanuel Krivine.
The singing is also excellent throughout. It's surprising in a work that has quite a few passages of spoken French dialogue that three of the four principal roles are assigned to native English-speaking performers. Perhaps the intention was to give more value to the English character of the Shakespeare work (even though it is actually set in Messina) than to the French, but generally the diction in the spoken sections was reasonably good. In terms of singing, it could hardly be faulted. Both Christine Rice and Allan Clayton as Béatrice and Bénédict are simply perfect in this register, Rice in particular richly toned and lyrical, but both brought the necessary character to the work. Ailish Tynan's Héro and Élodie Méchain's Ursule were also fine, although they both seemed to find the puppet concept somewhat restricting.