Opera Boston began its season of relative rarities (two of them based on Shakespeare) with Berlioz's enchanting last opera, Béatrice et Bénédict, centered around the two most compelling characters in Much Ado About Nothing — witty antagonists who, in their "merry war," renounce love, until they are forced to admit they love each other. Berlioz dropped the melodrama and, instead of the malapropistic constable Dogberrry, invented the buffoonish music master Somarone ("Great Ass"). In both the overture and closing moments, Berlioz echoes his gossamer, will-o'-the-wispy "Queen Mab" music from his symphonic cantata Romeo et Juliette, as if all his own fleeting wisdom were dissolving into thin air.
The most memorable music is for neither of the protagonists: a ravishing Nocturne for soprano and alto (the love-drunk ingénue Héro and her sympathetic friend Ursule) — a gently rocking hymn to an evening made for love, one of the most sublime moments in 19th-century opera, comparable to the exquisite nocturnal duet for Dido and Aeneas in Berlioz's epic Les Troyens ("On such a night as this" — another allusion to Shakespeare: the love scene between Shylock's daughter Jessica and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice). It was sung by soprano Heather Buck (Héro) and the creamy-voiced alto Kelley O'Connor (a friend called her rich tone melted chocolate — she almost stole Opera Boston's 2007 production of Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar playing Lorca). Wearing designer Robert Perdziola's charming 1950s crinolines, they sat on the edge of his evocatively lit (by Christopher Ostrom) set depicting the twinkling bay of Messina. Beautifully paced by conductor Gil Rose and stylishly played, this magical interlude closing Act One was worth the admission price.
Buck, who in 2003 was terrific as the scandalous Duchess's maid in Opera Boston's "Opera Unlimited" production of Thomas Adès's Powder Her Face, sounded more vocally challenged in Héro's solo aria. Like the two main characters, she "acted" the spoken English dialogue (the singing was in French) with a hammy exaggeration that turned what Berlioz called his "caprice written with the point of a needle" into sledgehammer slapstick. Blame David Kneuss, who returns to Opera Boston after staging last year's delightful Offenbach Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein and was also the stage — or "semi-stage" — director of most of Seiji Ozawa's operatic ventures with the BSO, including, in 1978, this same Berlioz! His major victim was the French-Canadian soprano Julie Boulianne as Béatrice, who ought to be more like Lauren Bacall making devastating ironic barbs under her breath than a clownish Lucille Ball racing breathlessly about the stage. Those of us who heard Lorraine Hunt (not yet Lieberson) in the 1993 Boston Lyric Opera production will remember a Béatrice whose wit and elegance were the sign of her poignant repression.
Fortunately, Berlioz's musical numbers are mostly static passages of introspection, commentary, and contemplation. So when Boulianne just sang (in impeccable French), especially her emotionally conflicted aria, she revealed her true artistry and eloquence. As Bénédict, Sri Lankan-American tenor Sean Panikkar made a handsome and handsome-voiced leading man, but seemed embarrassed as an actor. Andrew Funk's physical comedy, as the drunken Somarone, took some toll on his vocal production. The chorus itself was more hilarious, especially in its spot-on parody of vibrato-less early music performance practice. The only soloists not damaged by Kneuss's staging were O'Connor, a lovely presence, who never had to do anything but stand or sit there and sing, and veteran Boston baritone Robert Honeysucker (Don Pedro), whose still-impressive voice conveyed warmth and effortless authority. In minor roles, they got — and deserved — the biggest hand.
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