Much ado about opera

Beatrice & Benedict

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

NOT many operas can boast a stand-up to jolly things along but in Donald Maxwell as the tired and emotional (as a newt) Somarone, Welsh National Opera has a comic character to savour.

He has some classic and even topical lines which would not go amiss in a comedy club indeed the whole opera, sung in English, is a bit of fun, a lighthearted homage to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Much of the libretto and the large amounts of dialogue, by opera standards, could have come straight from The Globe.

Berlioz had a passion for Shakespeare and literature but this is no Much Ado – The Musical. Berlioz takes just a part of the Shakespeare comedy concentrating on the love-hate relationship of Beatrice (Sara Fulgoni) and Benedict (Robin Tritschler) with the other affair of the play, Hero (Laura Mitchell) and Claudio (Gary Griffiths) already a done deed reduced to a footnote in the story. They are getting married and that is it.

There is no dark edge, no sinister plots to frame Claudio or threats to his life and no idiot constable Dogberry to provide the laughs.

Instead we get Somarone who was added to prick the pomposity of the 19th century musical establishment and who now pokes a little fun at singers with lines such as “I was a singer but I saw the light and became a musician” or when arranging his choir he tells them if they are not sure what part they should sing: “If you are blonde you are a soprano, if you can read music you are a mezzo.”

When his orchestra – of two – appears and play out of tune in different keys and tempos he declares they were not playing from the same hymn sheet “but that is what you get in a coalition!” which got one of the biggest laughs of the night.

Sara Fulgoni as Beatrice who has decided that she wants to be free of men and in particular, Benedict

We even had a cheeky reference to one of the other operas in the Spring season. La Traviata, when we were told his star soprano, Violetta,  could not appear as “she was suffering from a nasty cough in Paris” the result of "too many parties and running off with a tenor”.

When his choir actually sing and the orchestra play in their rehearsal you have to marvel at the level of skill and ability required to sound quite that bad with more keys than a locksmith and more notes than a banker's bonus all at the same time.

Meanwhile, back at the opera the tale opens with the victorious army returning to Sicily where Hero awaits her Claudio to be married.

Which is all a bit of a blow for cousin Beatrice who declares that she will belong to no man and Claudio's fellow officer and professional bachelor Benedict who would rather die than be tied down in marriage - and thought Claudio was a fellow traveller.

 Just to prove their disdain for commitment the pair spend all their time squabbling and expressing dislike for each other.

But lead by the army commander Don Pedro (Piotr Lempa) the cast contrive to get the warring couple together by letting each overhear that the other had expressed undying love for them. The conversations are all fictitious, but we all want to feel loved so the plan works - after a few more skirmishes.

As the opera ends at the marriage of  Hero and Claudio we find Benedict and Beatrice finally expressing their love – for that day at any rate – and ready to tie the knot in a flash, bang, wallop finale with a wedding tableau picture.

There are some interesting moments, such as a chef having to prepare a pasta meal for 16 on stage – and it is genuine hot food – and although there is nothing particularly memorable in the music, nothing to hum on the way home or likely to turn up in the Pub Quiz, it is pleasant and full of melody.

The drawback seems to lie in the spoken dialogue, not the stock in trade of opera singers, particularly in the language and Elizabethan word play of Shakespeare, but then again you would not expect the RSC to put on Tosca or La Traviata.

Even if the RSC has been doing the dialogue though it would still have broken the rhythm and slowed the action with momentum lost. The result is somehow neither play nor opera but is stranded on an island in between.

Robin Tritschler as Benedict who is determined to avoid marriage at all costs - particularly to Beatrice

That is not to say that it is not an enjoyable production though. Tritschler is a male chauvinist of a Benedict, all bravado and bluster until cupid's arrow deals him a fatal blow and with no great arias to display his talents has an easy tenor which fits the part,

Sara Fulgoni seems to be keeping her mezzo (she obviously must be able to read music) in check, again with no great opportunities to display her undoubted talent although her trio with Hero and Hero's lady-in-waiting Ursula (Anna Burford) is a delight.

It is 1994 since this production directed by Elijah Moshinsky was first staged and the costume designs by Dona Granaya and the beautiful set, the terrace of a Messina villa,  by Michael Yeargan looks as fresh and elegant as ever,

A mention too for the lighting designed by Howard Harrison and realised by Paul Woodfield which gives us realistic sunlight, moonlight, evening lights from the villa and a gradual dawn. We even have a moon and twinkling lights in windows in the village across the valley.

The WNO orchestra under Michael Hofstetter were, as always, the extra cast member and set the tone for the evening with a splendid overture, often played on its own as a concert piece.

Despite misgivings about it falling between two stools it is one of the most accessible of WNO's productions and probably the easiest to follow – it's in English with a simple, one thread plot after all.

For operagoers it is a bit of lighthearted fun while there is still enough there in a most enjoyable evening  to encourage newcomers to perhaps try something with a bit more meat on the bone.

Roger Clarke 

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