Monday, October 24, 2011

Soft stillness and the night at Opera Boston

Julie Boulianne and Sean Panikkar as Béatrice et Bénédict.
Opera fans who don't have tickets yet for Béatrice et Bénédict will want to hustle: there's only one performance left (on Tuesday night) for Opera Boston's season opener, Berlioz's short-but-sweet genuflection to the Bard's Much Ado About Nothing. Devotees of the human voice will certainly want to be there: the production boasts at least four world-class voices: soprano Heather Buck, mezzos Julie Boulianne and Kelley O'Connor, and tenor Sean Panikkar. In the past, a recurring carp I've had with Opera Boston has been that they often seemed unable to assemble a full Met-level cast; their stars would shine, but the ensemble was sometimes variable. Not this time. Not only are the (rising) stars sublime, but the supporting roles are capably sung, and the chorus sounds great, too. Béatrice et Bénédict is solid, shining vocal gold.

Whether fans of Shakespeare will find the comedy as glittering, however - well, that's a harder call, particularly given that we're experiencing a tsunami of Shakespearean opera these days. Last spring we saw Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, and the summer brought both Gounod's Roméo et Juliette as well as Verdi's Falstaff. This season we're being treated to not only Berlioz's take on Much Ado but also Verdi's Macbeth. And next spring Opera Boston returns with Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi.

Now generally in Shakespearean opera you find the dramatic stakes and emotional moods have been heightened, but the intellectual structure has been stripped out.  And while you might imagine the very-literary Berlioz could prove (like Britten) an exception to that general rule,  I'm afraid the highly-edited Béatrice et Bénédict hews closely to that simplifying tradition, with one unusual wrinkle: the sombre romantic notes that Berlioz often strikes aren't much in evidence in the original play.  There's much worldliness in Much Ado - and far more shadow than Berlioz allows - but only one stretch of mournful, moonlit melancholy, and unsurprisingly, it's a musical interlude (the song before Hero's supposed grave).  Now Berlioz has ditched entirely the sinister plot against poor Hero, but he has retained, and even extended, the sweet eeriness of that song into two set-pieces that are probably the high points of his opera: a duet, "Nuit paisible et sereine," that's a kind of mutual dream for Héro and her maid Ursule at the close of Act I, and a haunting chorus offstage just before the joint wedding in Act II.

Both are paeans to love, but they resonate not with the joy of youth but with the rue of age; unsurprisingly, Berlioz composed the opera, his last major work, near the end of his life (while Shakespeare was just 34 when he penned the play).  The elder artist also had perhaps a more pointed view of human folly - there are a few more "caustic" jabs (in the words of the composer) at the play's self-deluded heroes than there are in the original (although there's also a brilliant piece of psychological insight into Béatrice in one aria that I'd say Shakespeare actually misses).

Julie Boulianne by moonlight.
Which isn't to say that Béatrice et Bénédict is in any way grim; it's simply light on its feet but mature; its occasional bitter-sweetness only enhances its piquant comedy.  If only, that is, its comedy were funnier.  For I'm afraid Berlioz, unlike the Bard, was no comic genius, and Béatrice et Bénédict  may strike Much Ado fans as something of an uphill comic struggle.

Fear not, much of the leading couple's "merry war" is here, verbatim (the dialogue of this opéra comique is wisely done in English - perhaps for this reason - while the singing is in French).  But Berlioz has dropped Shakespeare's clowns, and supplied his own musical jesters instead; he has added a pompous, incompetent musician to the mix, 'Somarone' - which, in a nod to Shakespeare's Dogberry, translates from Italian as "Great Ass."  Bass Andrew Funk gives the role his best shot, but I'm afraid the forced hijinx fall flat - even if his musical offerings fall flat, too, in just the right amusing way.

Even where Shakespeare's sparring has been retained, however, it has sometimes been interlarded with director David Kneuss's ad-libs, which are set in a modern idiom (like the costumes and staging, mostly), and, well - is it really much of a criticism to say that Kneuss just ain't Shakespeare?  (And btw, bring back "For man is a giddy thing," Mr. K.)

What surprised me more, however, was that Kneuss's stage business wasn't nearly as inspired as his work on La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein a year or so ago, which was a lively, witty riot. What went wrong this time around? I don't know, but over and over again I felt the dreamy atmosphere of Héro and Ursule's duet was tugging at the whole show.

I should also add, I'm afraid, that Julie Boulianne (above left) and Sean Panikkar aren't quite convincing as the opera's eponymous lovers.  Both are pleasing personalities; Boulianne, despite the difficulty of delivering Elizabethan quips in English (she's Québécoise) proves the more accomplished comic actress; it's just that neither feels romantically "right" for the other, an accident of casting which is simply too bad.

You could forgive all that, though, once either began to sing.  Boulianne is blessed with a complex and darkly lustrous mezzo that conveys through its very timbre everything you need to know about her character.  And Panikkar's clarion tenor - perhaps a shade too light for Bénédict's bluffness - seemed to open up to a dazzling size as he climbed higher in his range.  Meanwhile, as Héro, the gorgeous and delightfully poised Heather Buck took a little time to warm up, but achieved a kind of soft, luminous rapture in her duet with mezzo (but almost-alto) Kelley O'Connor, whose own smoky tone may have been the most sophisticated color yet in this dazzling vocal palette.

The same sophistication wasn't always evident in the orchestral playing - although under Gil Rose's baton, the performance was always solid, if not stylish (things did improve when the moon came out).  But it certainly extended to the elegant production design, by the Met's Robert Perdziola. You could quibble, I suppose, with Perdziola's pretty costumes - the gorgeous gowns all seemed to be from roughly 1947, while the men's suits were from . . . well, something like a forty-year span! I wasn't sure what that was supposed to convey; but I forgot all about it when I took in the exquisite, subtly-painted set - particularly when it opened up to reveal a ravishing moonlit scene for the "Nuit paisible et sereine." Here soft stillness and the night did indeed become the touches of sweet harmony.  Heather Buck and Kelley O'Connor took us to the moon vocally; Perdziola did it visually. Together they brought this memorable production to the edge of the sublime.

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