Sunday, March 11, 2018

Putting the Shakespeare back in, Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict gets an exciting new look at Seattle Opera

Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict, Seattle Opera, directed by John Langs
It passed as a somewhat extended and bubbly entertainment in an eye-catching staging beating with energy on a structurally tight and reimagined Béatrice et Bénédict, Berlioz’s final opera based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. With it, Seattle Opera have quite a work to be proud of in this exciting hybrid opera-play directed by John Langs and incorporating an assured cast to prove it.

Langs has put the Shakespeare back into the comedy and replaced Berlioz’s French libretto with, as well as inserting a little more of, the Bard’s witty all English text to create a neatly padded new look, acute accents erased. There’s also some added music in the mix from La damnation de Faust, Benvenuto Cellini and L’enfance du Christ, all Berlioz and all very smoothly spliced with lyrics adapted by Jonathan Dean. In all, its pacy two acts cames in at a little over two and a half hours, including interval and it packs a punch with its stand-off of love and trickery to fuse it.

The refined and sumptuous sounding Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s superbly played bobbing and darting overture set the foundations for a musical journey that conductor Ludovic Morlot guided with spirited command. The strings hummed in beautiful textures and the humble piccolo got to frolic high and proudly above the soundscape in this penultimate and secure run.

Andrew Owens as Benedict and Hanna Hipp as Beatrice
When the curtain went up, Matthew Smucker’s lofty multi-level set - a crazy network of stairs, landings, overhangs and square-columned supports - looked breathtaking under Connie Yun’s bold lighting that would continue to vividly and dramatically tint the singular setting. The audience agreed in a burst of applause. Then, charging down the aisle, an officer of the Sicilian army screams out “Leonato!” as the townsfolk of Messina, dressed in Deborah Trout’s dazzling costumes, are interrupted in their day’s activities as local soldiers return from duty in a festive celebration. Thus begins the confidence and vigour characterising Langs’ mobilisation of his cast. And what followed were details aplenty and a comic life without overload from a gifted team of principals.

Both the inflammatory and irresistible chemistry between young Beatrice and the Sicilian officer Benedict was aglow in the well-acted and strongly sung pair, Hanna Hipp and Andrew Owens (who alternated with Daniela Mack and Alek Shrader). Their opening duet didn’t quite coalesce into a magic union - neither were their sentiments, of course, at this stage - but from hereon, Hipp’s gleamingly topped luscious soprano and Owens’ warm ringing tenor made an impressionable mark both individually and together. Not that the duet that comes with the finale, “This love is like a flame”, is as attractive for voice as its music is for orchestra which you hear so buoyantly in the overture. You rather expect something more bombastic.

Shelly Traverse, Craig Verm, Daniel Sumegi and Marvin Grays
Craig Verm gets a good chance to flex his impressively etched and muscular baritone and strut a dashing aide-de-camp as Benedict’s friend Claudio, notably getting Act 2 off on a furious and vengeful start in “Woe to those who dare to love!” Stepping up to take on the role of Hero after Laura Tatulescu’s indisposition, Shelly Traverse easily won over her audience with her delightfully sweet and breezy soprano and effortlessly defined characterisation to become a deserved champion of the stage. Marvin Grays cut a dapper Leonato, Beatrice’s niece and Governor of Messina, and Daniel Sumegi’s gravelly-rich and swarthy bass resonated large in playing Don Pedro as a smarmy, self-important Sicilian general.

Giving Maestro Morlot coercive tips in musical direction, and in his element, Kevin Burdette’s wild comic antics and impressively steered robust baritone came together marvellously as the music master Somarone. The scheming, darker characters of the plot that pop up here and there were an unseemly duo rendered by Brandon O’Neill’s dastardly Don Juan and Avery Clark’s chipper Borachio. Rich and gracefully sounding contralto Avery Amereau also gives impact in the smaller role as Hero’s lady-in-waiting, Ursule alongside Christine Marie Brown’s Margaret, Chip Sherman's Messenger/Friar  and the Seattle Opera Chorus filling the town and the auditorium with wonderful singing life. Miked dialogue was warmly delivered and balanced comfortably with unamplified singing.

As an inventive part of the Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare Festival, Berlioz sits front seat with the Bard in this fresh and lively work. It's over for now but expect it to pop up again.

Beatrice and Benedict 
Seattle Opera
McCaw Hall
Until 10th March, 2018

Production Photos: Jacob Lucas

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