‘It’s the nicest day we’ve had this season’, sighed the press officer, and she certainly had a point. A gloriously sunny Saturday saw the first performance of the seldom performed Berlioz opera Béatrice et Bénédict, and a cheery audience responded extremely well to Laurent Pelly’s bold and innovative staging; at times, it seemed as if a neglected masterpiece was being brought to life before our eyes. Although the clear light of day reveals this over-generous analysis to be ascribing qualities to the opera that it neither possesses nor attempts to possess, it is testament to how enjoyable Pelly’s production is that such comparisons can even be contemplated.
As the title suggests, the opera is an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, albeit with all the darker and rougher edges carefully removed to make it palatable. Its almost determinedly light tone is all the more surprising when you find that it was Berlioz’s final opera, and one that he wrote while in excruciating pain towards the end of his life. However, it’s sunny and joyful from start to finish, albeit with moments of quieter contemplation. An especial highlight is the duet that ends the first act between Héro and Ursule, ‘Vous soupirez, Madame’. Sung to perfection by Sophie Karthaüser (a late replacement for Hélène Guilmette) as Héro and Katarina Bradić, it is helped by the skilful and sympathetic conducting of the London Philharmonic by Antonello Manacorda – another replacement, this time for the indisposed Robin Ticciati.
Pelly’s staging is modernistic and often daring, favouring a monochrome palette and a series of geometric boxes and cubes from which the more than capable chorus emerge at the beginning, and then offering an intriguing counterpoint to the all too human antics that make up the rest of the opera. Of course, virtually everyone watching will know that (spoiler alert) it all ends happily, but there is enough darkness and gravity imbued in the production to mean that this is not just a gloriously entertaining evening, but also a thought-provoking one. Béatrice et Bénédict might not be a classic, but in what’s proving a very strong 2016 for Glyndebourne, it’s a very capable account of an intriguing opera.
Béatrice et Bénédict at Glyndebourne until 27th August 2016. Production images by Richard Hubert Smith. Limited availability, for more information please visit the website.