Thursday, February 25, 2010

Béatrice et Bénédict: Yes he can!

Bénédict (Allan Clayton) & Béatrice (Christine Rice) - Photo by Pierre Grosbois

Musical direction  Emmanuel Krivine
Stage direction  Dan Jemmett

Béatrice   Christine Rice
Bénédict   Allan Clayton
Héro    Ailish Tynan
Ursule   Élodie Méchain
Claudio   Edwin Crossley-Mercer
Don Pedro   Jérôme Varnier
Somarone   Michel Trempont
Alberto   Bob Goodie

As it is very likely that you, dear reader, have never seen this opera on stage, a few details about the libretto.

It is an episode from Much Ado About Nothing focusing on two couples Beatrice & BenedickHero & Claudio. Berlioz --one of the greatest admirer of Shakespeare of his time-- basically took several excerpts from the original play and made a messy libretto that is extremely hard on any director willing to make a credible show Béatrice et Bénédict. Besides, to this collection of excerpts Berlioz superposed an episode, i.e. a short sketch -- kinda self-deprecating joke in the person of a composer/conductor Somarone, berliozian character in the libretto. As a result the whole thing is conformal to the comic opera standards but awfully hard to produce.

Hector Berlioz was a bitter genius. Bitter, partly by his nature, and partly because he had to cope with  the Parisian "cultural elite" -- the kind we see today ruling the Paris Opera [sic!] -- who despised him with all their heart and soul making his life most of the time miserable. If you get to read any well-structured Berlioz biography, the baffling episodes of his troubles with the Parisian cultural circles are quite astonishing [but a good read ;)].

Back to Béatrice et Bénédict. At the time of its creation in Baden-Baden in 1862, it was an instant success. Hector was then almost 60, unloved in Paris but already a renown conductor and composer, admired in Germany, Russia, England, and even in Italy - so the success was expected. Curiously, most of the rehearsals in 1862  were made at the Opéra Comique in Paris even though the premiere was in Baden-Baden! It will take more than 100 years before a shortened version of this opera would be presented at the Opéra Comique (in 1966). In other words, this 2010-production is the first time that the full scenic version of Béatrice et Bénédict is produced on this stage.

Musically you might find Béatrice et Bénédict somewhat weird, because it is far too lyric for what you'd expect from Berlioz; but it's still a  pleasant score with several beautiful musical moments.

It is a risky business to try and stage an opera which is known to be a director's nightmare. Dan Jemmett took the challenge and showed that it is possible to bring this opera closer to its Shakespearian origin, and make it gain in flow of theatrical action. To do so, Dan inserted several short recitatives from the original text by Shakespeare, to connect the messy pieces in the libretto. The extra-text is recited in English by a new character introduced by Jemmett - Alberto. Note that the rest of this comic opera is sung and spoken in French. I found this quite clever not only for its main function and a better contact with Shakespeare, but also because the extra-text in English is a shield from those who would immediately attack him for "not respecting the original libretto".

Now, how to actually implement this idea and make the production come out right? Dan Jemmett sets the action in a Sicilian puppet theater, with marionettes coming in 3 different sizes: gigantic, the small ones and the middle-sized -- the latter are actually our singers/actors. Alberto (the new character - remember!?) is a puppeteer who tells this extra-text in a very Shakespearian way. His clumsiness  and fun help fitting the text and the character into the lightness of this opera. A Sicilian puppet theater also helps to relate to the libretto as the action there takes place at Messina (Sicily).

The formula works indeed wonderfully, although --I should be a bit nitpicky right?--  I could point out two slow moments which break the pace of the show a bit. Both are in the first act,  one with Alberto and the skit with Somarone could be easily reduced to half of its current length. That's just a tiny remark in an otherwise wonderfully constructed show.

You might ask if the crowd reacted well?! Ahem! The singers/actors were all warmly applauded, whereas  Dan Jemmett got partly booed. Note that this means nothing in Paris these days and the contrary reaction would be more significant a sign to be worried about -- it's a bit like in Germany.  Especially the shows that are slightly off the ultra-conservative line are regularly booed after the premiere. The booers are mainly the cultural conservatives who are (a loud!) minority in Paris [or I want to believe they are minority ;) ]. In any case, we were many-many more last night to shout "BRAVO!"

With this series of very good shows Opéra Comique sets very high standards. It's been so for almost two years already. Much poorer than the big fat Paris Opera, they've built their own style; they keep alive the traditional French elegance. More importantly they create new shows. This is their third new (co-)production this season and there are 4 more to come before summer, of which Pelléas et Mélisande looks particularly "sexy". To me the style of their productions is somewhere between the traditional English and French theater, but adapted to 21st century. It's a weird formulation - I knoooow, but that's maybe a reason more for you to go and see one of their shows live. You may like it or not but it is definitely peculiar and it's a special experience.

To finish this LONG entry, a word about singers/actors. This opera exposes more the female singers. Everybody knows that Christine Rice is a wonderful singer, but her Béatrice was better than I expected her to be.  Cool singing from Ailish Tynan and Élodie Méchain too.
Allan Clayton was excellent as usual. All the others were very good too. Too bad Edwin Crossley-Mercer  didn't have more to sing to show off more of his talent... but OK he'll be singing a lot in his Winterreise @ Musee d'Orsay in May.

Special props to the costume designers and makeup folks: the actors are hardly recognizable but cute. ;)

It was the 1st show out of 6 shows. If you can, go and see it! To all who say that this opera cannot be staged correctly, Dan Jemmett is living proof it can! Or, yes he can!

Links to three beautiful musical numbers from this opera:
Nuit Paisible , Je vais le voir  and Dieu! Que viens-je d'entendre?  ENJOY ;)

If you're interested in live broadcast of this show, you should catch it on  Radio France Musique on Saturday, March 6 at 7:30 pm (CET).

If you want the image too, et si vous êtes en France, voici le lien pour consulter la liste des cinemas qui rediffuseront cet opéra en direct de l'Opéra  Comique le jeudi, 4 mars à 20h.

And.... curtain call pics:

In one corner close to the ceiling of Opera Comique

Allan Clayton and Bob Goodie 

 Jérôme Varnier & look the costimes of the chorus - you can see the details -  l'élégance,la classe

Varnier, Crossley-Mercer, Méchain, Tynan, Rice, Clayton, Goodie, Calò and Trempont: you see also the full stage - "sicilian puppet theater"

Emanuel Crivine was OK but he got a bit booed for the franco-French reasons which are often irrational and with no importance. He was good and the orchestra played well on the instrument used at the time of the creation of this opera in 1862.

One more... Varnier, Crossley-Mercer, Méchain


  1. Your résumé portrays very well the really good time you had. I was unable to go myself, so I sent a representative. Your justified remark about Edwin Crossley-Mercer is one I heartily agree with, as I shall see him at the Musée d'Orsay in May. He has that special timbre, the vocal and thorough fundamental musical training, the feeling, the scenic energy and intuition to carry him far, very far indeed. I believe you share this point of view about a musical perfectionist with the means to attain his ambitions.

  2. I totally agree & hope we'll see much more of him in Paris in the years to come.

    His singing in Germany has been greatly appreciated (made a very good impression recently in "La Boheme", at the Komische Oper in Berlin); I was also told that he was terrific in Amsterdam in "La Juive"; I listened to his Guglielmo in "Cosi fan tutte" in Paris in 2008 [excellent!]. It's time for him to jump in among the big names. The concert at the Musée d'Orsay will hopefully be a defining moment. ;)

  3. There is no doubt that this Midi-Trente concert at the Musée d'Orsay will be a linch-pin one, especially as he will be performing the Schubert Winterreise with Semjon Skigin, that excellent pianist with whom he was so enthusiastically received in Moscow last year. You are right, his work in Germany at the Komische Oper has been greatly valued, and in Amsterdam in La Juive, where it was said that he was far from being used to his valuable full potential ("sous-employé" was the term I read used by one most favourable critic). His performances in Amadis recently in Avignon and in Massy have not gone unnoticed. Let us wish him every success. He's a hard worker and is not at all pretentious; he's a perfectionist.

  4. In Béatrice et Bénédict he is "sous-employé" too.

    He's the real deal, hes got it all, and I'm sure we'll be taking about him a lot in the years to come.

  5. I sincerely hope so and I believe so. As you say, he's got what it takes, the volume the timbre, the musicality, and the scenic energy, not forgetting the wide spectrum of his linguistic ability.

  6. Heh. This production features in the current edition of's "Guess the opera" Regietheater quiz.

  7. Heh, but that's the most beautiful part about the production! Its most creative part.

    Half of the people I know in Paris who saw this production are unhappy b/c they didn't get yet another cheesy production of B&B. It's all goooood :)

    Thanks for the link.

  8. In reading the French comments, I have noted that quite a number of them are critical of the presence of English-speaking singers, because of their accent, which in this production was barely perceptible. What on earth would we do if we had to banish all non-Italian speakers from Verdi, Puccini or Rossini? French chauvinism is wonderful in its naïvety and despicable in its narrow-mindedness. For the Parisian, there are only clodhoppers outside the gates of Paris, a pathetic conclusion for a culture-"enlightened" population.

  9. Spare your nerves and don't read such comments! ;)

    Those who write that garbage are not representative at all (very tiny minority, as far as I can tell).

  10. Many thanks for your reassurance,