As an addendum to April’s “Shakespeare-400” offerings, “Trove Thursday” presents Béatrice et Bénédict, Berlioz’s witty adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing, in a 2009 performance featuring Joyce DiDonato and Charles Workman and conducted by Sir Colin Davis.
Much Ado and its quarrelsome lovers was probably the first Shakespeare play I ever saw and it has remained one of my favorites.” While I was still in grade school the local “educational” television station showed Franco Zeffirelli’s London production with Maggie Smith and her then-husband Robert Stephens as Beatrice and Benedict.
It made a big impression on me as it was all very theatrical and very Italian, but no copies were thought to have survived until one was recently rediscovered in Washington, DC. Unfortunately it hasn’t yet been shown nor released on DVD.
There are, however, several wonderful interpretations of Much Ado available on video from A.J. Antoon’s charming turn-of-the 20th century, Scott Joplin-flavored version with Kathleen Widdoes and Sam Waterston to Kenneth Branagh’s sumptuous star-studded theatrical film in which he bickered with his then-wife Emma Thompson to Joss Wheden’s recent chicly contemporary black-and-white film.
Berlioz’s adaptation has perhaps not been so lucky—occasionally performed in concert, it’s been avoided by most opera companies perhaps because it contains spoken dialogue. Yet some of the composer’s most inspired music dots the score, including the delicious sparring duet for B&B and especially the ravishing nocturne for Héro and Ursule that concludes the first act.
DiDonato sang Béatrice in English at the Houston Grand Opera also in 2009, but I believe this Paris concert is her only (so far) performance in French and it suits her very well, particularly “Dieu! que viens-je d’entendre?” the heroine’s stunning second-act monologue, one of the greatest arias in all French opera. DiDonato has been singing more Berlioz lately, adding Damnation to her repertoire and I’ve heard there’s a Didon coming up in the near future.
A legendary Berlioz interpreter, Davis recorded Béatrice three times; I have a special affection for his first on L’Oiseau-Lyre with Josephine Veasey and John Mitchinson. His second on Philips finds both Janet Baker (who would have been ideal a decade earlier) and Robert Tear sadly off-form, although Christiane Eda-Pierre sings a gorgeous Héro. I haven’t heard his final effort on the LSO label with Enkelejda Shkosa and Kenneth Tarver, but Davis’s shining 2003 Béatrice performance at the New York Philharmonic with Susanne Mentzer and Gordon Gietz remains a fond memory.
Béatrice may be undergoing a bit of a renaissance—it was staged last season in a hideous production (based on the video) by the Monnaie in Brussels which will be revived this fall in Toulouse. French mezzo Stéphanie d’Oustrac, the bright light of that flop, repeats the title role in a new Laurent Pelly staging later this summer at the Glyndebourne Festival opposite Paul Appleby. She also sings it next season in concert at the Paris Opéra with Stanislas de Barbeyrac, conducted by Philippe Jordan.
Berlioz: Béatrice et Benedict
Théâtre du Châtelet
7 February 2009
Béatrice: Joyce DiDonato
Héro: Nathalie Manfrino
Ursule: Elodie Méchain
Bénédict: Charles Workman
Claudio: Jean-François Lapointe
Somarone: Jean-Philippe Lafont
Don Pedro: Nicolas Cavallier
Léonato: Christophe Fel
Choeurs de Radio France
Orchestre National de France
Conductor: Sir Colin Davis
“Trove Thursday” offerings can be downloaded via the audio-player above. Just click on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.