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Béatrice et Bénédict

The Times, 16th August 1982, Paul Griffiths

Berlioz’s swansong was not an impossible dream for the theatre of the imagination, like the great works of his youth, but straight forwardly an opera, Béatrice et Bénédict, slantingly, glancingly developed from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.

The return to operatic conventions, however, is not without irony and detachment. Berlioz was evidently as much amused as fired by the task he had set himself, and as much bored.

That makes the piece difficult to revive. In the 1860s, when romantic opera with spoken dialogue was a living tradition, the oddity, the zest and the blankness of Berlioz’s effort would have been apparent, but today the work needs a different context, and the most obvious choice is the original play, ingenuously worked into the interstices among the musical numbers in the concert performance that last night opened South Bank Summer Music for another year.

Played, however, on a stage prepared for the visiting Canadian dancers, the opera had a frame out of which it could properly slip and peep.

The double cast of singers and actors helped, for the spoken drama was not just a connective but also a parallel course. The performance thus showed up the weakness in Berlioz’s adaptation, quite inevitable when it came to matching the repartee of Janet Suzman and Michael Pennington as sparring lovers.

It also showed how different are the strengths of the opera, indeed of opera in general. Miss Suzman acquainted of Bénédict’s lover was amazed but watchful, a sister to Shakespeare’s other witty women.

Maria Ewing, at the same point, joined the family of Berlioz’s Dido and Cleopatra, a noble woman surrendering to passion and singing superbly over a range from frail delicacy to sweeping determination.

Lillian Watson was a pretty and brightly sunny Hero. Simon Rattle conducting his Birmingham orchestra and chorus, commanded the score as Berlioz demands, true in needlepoint wit, swooning melody and boastful vigour.

So if laughter was all in the play, the rapture was all in the music.

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