BEATRICE AND BENEDICT
Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 7th March, 2012
Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favourite plays. Tamper with it at your peril. Hector Berlioz, in trying to create a lightweight and witty comic opera, has not so much tampered with Shakespeare’s sublime romantic comedy as diluted it to almost homeopathic proportions. The main plot has been excised in order to bring the rocky relationship of Beatrice and Benedick to the fore. The problem is without the main conflict the couple’s tentative attempts to realise and declare the feelings they have for each other is nothing more than a matter of their own wilful pride. They don’t wish to lose face having railed against each other so publicly. Their relationship is never in any real jeopardy and as a result lacks depth and, frankly, I found it difficult to care.
The piece is more of a singspiel – the music stops every now and then for passages of dialogue, some of it cut and pasted from Shakespeare; it is painfully obvious when the words aren’t Bill’s . Robbed of dramatic tension, the scene where the couple finally admit their feelings is a pale imitation, a weak imposter. With no “Kill Claudio” line, there is no opportunity for Benedict (sic) to prove himself.
Despite my misgivings and disappointment with the material, I have to state in no uncertain terms that, as ever, the production values are second to none. Welsh National Opera is a world class company and everything is as you’d expect: sumptuous, detailed and the singing sublime. As Benedict, Robin Tritschler is both dashing and very funny. He appears more at ease with the spoken passages than others in the company. All the more frustrating when Benedick’s scenes and speeches are truncated! There is also some fine comic playing from Sara Fulgoni as a formidable and yet tender Beatrice but she is denied her eavesdropping scene. I couldn’t help wishing Mozart had written this adaptation and began to think I should have listened to Cosi fan Tutte instead.
Comedy policemen, Dogberry, Verges and the Watch have all been removed. In their place we get choirmaster Somarone (Donald Maxwell) who is a likable comic turn, interspersing his musical incompetence with topical quips and musical in-jokes. His choir is huge, filling the stage. Their rehearsal is funny but there is too much of that am-dram silent meeting and greeting where everyone is pleased to see each other. This is a cliché of crowd scenes director Elijah Moshinsky could easily avoid.
Laura Mitchell’s Hero is in fine voice, singing about her (somewhat inexplicable) pre-wedding misgivings and there are some moments of real beauty and fun. On the whole though, the piece is dramatically unsatisfying. It is a confection, a chocolate box from which someone has already snaffled the best chocolates.