Ending a memorable 16-season career with University Opera, director William Farlow directed a charming rendition of Hector Berlioz's comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict at the UW Music Hall on Friday, April 11. The production will be performed again on Sunday, April 13, at 3 p.m., and Tuesday, April 15, at 7:30 p.m.
The 1862 opera, Berlioz's last work, is based on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing but features a pared-down plot and additional comedic sections. It embodies the artistic virtues revered by the composer, a true son of the Romantic era: wit, comedy, drama, lavish music and great romantic conflict resolved, in this case, in celebration.
Berlioz wrote both the libretto and the music for this two-act opéra comique, which contains both spoken dialogue and music that ranges from choruses to arias to light dance numbers. University Opera's rendition departs slightly from the original score, with characters speaking all dialogue in English. Musical numbers, however, are sung in the original French.
Conducted by James Smith, the UW Symphony Orchestra delivered an expressive and lyrical overture. (Though orchestras often perform Béatrice et Bénédict's famous overture in concert settings, it was a pleasure to see the music presented in its original context.) The orchestra dazzled with tight technical passages and moving melodic sections in its solo numbers, but it also excelled in providing sensitive accompaniment for the vocalists.
Although the eccentric musician and composer Somarone (Benjamin Schultz) was not a character in Shakespeare's original play, Berlioz added him for touch of comic relief, perhaps mimicking himself. Schultz delivered a brilliant and memorable performance of this relief character. The storylines involving Somarone are brilliantly funny; they must be seen to be be fully appreciated.
As Héro, Anna Whiteway performed several memorable arias. Her first came in Act I, featuring an impressive cadenza replete with brilliant scales and impeccable phrasing. Both Whiteway and Lindsay Metzger (Béatrice) embodied their characters with naturalistic body language and facial expressions.
Erik Larson (Don Pedro) and Jordan Wilson (Claudio) were most dynamic as a pair, performing a moving first-act duet that melted into a touching trio with Daniel Lopez-Matthews (Bénédict). Whiteway (Hero) and Kathleen Otterson (Ursule) performed a second-act duo that was similar in structure and also resolved into a moving trio with Metzger. In both instances, the performers balanced tender harmonies with subtle lines that brought to mind a delicate Ländler.
Professionally performed and filled with humor, this Béatrice et Bénédict is an excellent choice for first-time opera-goers as well as longtime fans. Dark themes are masterfully combined with humor about love, romance and destiny. Plus, the production makes fun of high art while being a clear example of it. Both Berlioz and University Opera show their appreciation for Shakespeare's talents while displaying their own magnificently.