Sunday 27 November 2011

Chelsea Opera group - Beatrice et Benedict

Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict is only an intermittent visitor to London. It is many years since ENO staged the work, but Colin Davis has done concert performances with the LSO and the piece has been performed at the music colleges. Now Chelsea Opera Group have performed the piece in concert at the Cadogan Hall (26th November 2011).

The problem with Beatrice et Benedict in concert is the amount of spoken dialogue, a common problem with the opera comique and singspiel genres. The short rehearsal time just does not allow for adequate preparation of the singers in the dialogue and companies tend to shy away from it, replacing dialogue with a narration or abandoning it altogether. I didn't see the LSO performances but I understand that Davis used a parallel group of actors. COG took a similar view, understandable given that their cast included at least 2 non-British singers.Their Somarone was Donald Maxwell, who will be singing the role for WNO in 2012, so he plus two young actors (Sion Davies and Helen Ramsorrun) delivered a shortened form of the dialogue in English whilst the musical items were delivered in French.

Maxwell delivered spoken lines for Leonato, Somarone and the Notary, Sion Davies was the Messenger, Don Pedro, Benedict and a servant, whilst Helen Ramsorrun was Beatrice, Claudio, a servant and Hero. Which meant that at times Sion Davies had to have dialogues with himself; the addition of an extra actor or, perish the thought, having one of the male singers speak some lines, would have made big difference to dramatic logistics.

Also, having a spoken and a singing pair of lovers on stage at the same time was slightly odd. To add to the confusion, where Berlioz's text was based directly on Shakespeare, then Shakespeare's text was spoken, but for other passages modern English was used. Frankly I found this fussy and confusing and felt that a simple, straightforward English translation should have been used.

One of the problems with stagings of the opera is that producers tend to want to make Berlioz's opera closer to Shakespeare, rather than perceiving it as a work in its own right. Still, whatever the quibbles, COG's presentation was far better than their previous use of spoken narration to replace dialogue.

Berlioz's distillation of the text lacks the kill Claudio moment of Shakespeare's original, Hero and Claudio's path to matrimony is straightforward so that Hero becomes a softer romantic heroine. Ana Maria Labin made an attractive Hero, delivering her aria Je vai le voir with passion and with a richer, more vibrant voice that I am used to in this role, Labin's Hero was no soubrette, though her coloratura was slightly sketchy. Labin is Roumanian but seems to have performed a lot on France and her French was attractive and convincing; in fact all of the cast were entirely praiseworthy when it came to their French diction.

Beatrice was sung by Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Liora Grodnikaite who has sung other roles for COG in the past. A striking, tall presence on stage, Grodnikaite had a nicely modulated way with Berlioz's music, though she seemed to concentrate more on beauty of utterance, her delivery lacked something of the pertness which might be appropriate. But then Grodnikaite accounts of her two arias were so beautifully passionate, that they were entirely satisfying.

The third female member of the cast was Emma Carrington as Ursule. Carrington is possessed of an extremely striking contralto voice and I would love to have heard more of her.

Act 1 concludes with a duet for Ursule and Hero, a sort of barcarolle. Labin and Carrington's voices combined superbly in this and conductor Nicholas Collon coaxed some hushed magical playing out of the  orchestra. The image of Ursule and Hero stood on the coast of Sicily looking out to sea came to mind and Berlioz's music implies that you can see all the way to Carthage, so palpable were the echoes of his music for Les Troyens.

All three women combined in another highlight, the trio in Act 2. Again the 3 voices blended beautifully and these two female ensemble pieces were the stand out moments in the performance.

The male trio, sung by Benedict (Ben Johnson), Claudio (Simon Lobelson) and Don Pedro (Adrian Clarke) was robustly enjoyable, unfortunately Lobelson and Clarke got very little else so sing. Johnson as Benedict had two duets with Grodnikaite as well a solo of his own. Johnson has a lovely lyric voice, having sung Nemorino and Don Ottavio. In this context he negotiated Berlioz's lines beautifully, but seemed slightly under powered. He wasn't helped by the way Collon encouraged the orchestra to play out. More worryingly, Johnson's performance seemed to be at a distance from the attempts at drama in the presentation (Martin Lloyd-Evans was credited as director). Certainly the first duet with Grodnikaite Comment le dedain pourrait il mourir did not raise the sparks it should and their relationship did not develop.

Maxwell, as Somarone, had relatively little to sing but he did have the rather embarrassing rehearsal scene, where Berlioz pokes fun at musical performances of his own day. Maxwell, using a degree of improvisation, brought this off delightfully as well as giving us a fun rendition of the drinking song at the opening of Act 2.

In this, and in other places, the chorus were participants in the drama, not only singing but entering into the dialogue with enthusiasm and commitment.

The two actors, Davies and Ramsorrun gave sterling performances. Davies proved suitable schizophrenic in his abilities to deliver two different characters simultaneously. Ramsorrun was nicely tart as Beatrice, so much so that I felt that it would certainly be interesting to see her in the full role in Shakespeare's place.

Nicholas Collon drew fine playing from the orchestra, in fact I think that this was one of their best performances. Granted, Collon compromised the balance at times but generally the orchestral contribution was at a very high level and the group brought off the magical effects of Berlioz's orchestration. All in all a magical evening.

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