Sicily When it Should Sizzle: Béatrice et Bénédict at Chicago Opera Theater
The preshow lecture last night was by Stephen Alltop, who is intimately connected to Northwestern and not so intimately connected (or if he is, it's between him and whomever he's intimately connected with) with Chicago Opera Theater. He, of course, had to start by eroding our self-esteem. He told of Berlioz's extremely limited exposure to music (he learned flute and guitar as a mostly-home-schooled rural Alpine kid bound for medical school), which gave him no problem or pause whatever when he sat down to write his first symphony after "absorbing" music by watching the pit closely. "You've all probably sat in dozens or hundreds of audiences for opera and symphony. Are you ready to write a 55-minute symphony?" No. No I am not, thank you so very much, now why don't you give me a nice paper cut and poor lemon juice on it?
But Alltop knows how to work an audience of frustrated nonartists, because he then read from a letter from Mendelssohn to his sister about about Berlioz. It went on at length about Berlioz's ability to watch a performance, incisively evaluate every move by every player, and give insight into it as a whole. And yet, as a composer, Berlioz's excesses, cluelessness, and inability to hear anything but the voices in his own head depressed Mendelssohn to the point of rendering him unable to work. Berlioz, in contrast, rushed the stage and fell on his knees before Mendelssohn to tell him that he was a god among conductors.
It's sad that I can't find the text of that letter on line, because it's quite hilarious to think of the refined, repressed, white-gloved Mendelssohn pouring his rage out in ink to say, essentially, "He just bugs me." And dear Felix wasn't the only one that Berlioz bugged, of course. As Mendelssohn no doubt thought proper, Berlioz was much more successful as a journalist and critic than he ever was as a composer.
Berlioz as writer has a lot of relevance to Béatrice et Bénédict in general and to COT's production of it, in particular. Alltop had drawn a number of parallels between Berlioz and Wagner, both biographically and in terms of their approach to their musical works. During the Q&A someone pointed out that as Berlioz had written the libretto for B&B, so Wagner almost always wrote his own libretti and asked for Alltop's commentary on that. Very hesitantly, Alltop said, "Well . . . I think that either of them would have been awful for a librettist to work with, don't you?" Me? I don't think it's really an opera until you've thrown at least a few librettists on the fire.
Despite the fact that Berlioz's reputation as a writer exceeded his reputation as a composer, there seems to be a distinct lack of enthusiasm for his text, both historically and in this production. I'm still working through my issues with it, and I'm not sure who'll bear the full force of my righteous indignation in the end. Because B&B seems like a great idea: Much Ado: The Good Parts Version, right? I mean, Hero is such a wet rag, if Claudio were any more impressionable, he'd be silly putty, Don John's jealousy is so diffuse and indiscriminate he's like some pansexual/panaggressive hybrid chimp/bonobo hybrid. It's all about teh h0tn355 of B&B.
And yet, Béatrice et Bénédict serves to illustrate why you just shouldn't fuck with the Bard. Without the toothless main romance for contrast, the woo they're pitching to one another feels more like hanger after hanger, rather than an erratic series of fast balls and wicked curves. Without the misogynist insanity that ensues from Don John's plot, it's never clear that marriage is a threat and a danger, because it complicates relationships and loyalties. Without Beatrice demanding that Benedick avenge Hero by killing Claudio, Benedick's commitment to bachelorhood has about as much force, logic, and relevance as Saving Silverman.
So there's that, which I guess could be laid at the feet of Berlioz as an objective problem with the whole endeavor. In the program there's a 2007 essay by David Cairns (that link is not to the program essay, but to an article he wrote in the wake of London's bicentennial honoring Berlioz's birth) in which he sidesteps, to some extent, issues of blame by pointing out that B&B was not really the opera that Berlioz wanted to write (or should have written, Cairns implies) as his last operatic effort.
Although Berlioz had thought of working on a much more transformed version of the story 30 years earlier (fusing the Shakespeare to Boccaccio by moving the action to a Sicilian castle under quarantine during the plague), toward the end of his life, he'd gotten a case of the Wagners and had been dreaming big dreams of writing Cleopatra. However, his health and commission to write an opera for a theater's opening dictated something fluffy. (Ironic, given that the theater was in Baden Baden, and as we know, the Germans have no word for "fluffy.")
Obviously a big Berlioz banner-waver (as am I), Cairns is reluctant to criticize too directly or too harshly, but he does say this:
Even in its final two-act form, the work remains a divertissement, mercurial and fleeting as the love the protagonists celebrate in their final number. Formally it breaks no new ground, being content to stay within the conventions of opera-comique. What are unusual are its attitudes and the delicacy with which it depicts them, catching the conversational quality of Shakespeare's dialogue 'with the point of a needle' indeed. the tender, sparkling woodwind writing and the teasing, fine-spun lines of the first-violin part are marvels of orchestral imagination and craftsmanship.
Although he doesn't come out and say it, I think Cairns has hit the nail on the head: Musically, Berlioz grabbed the brass ring with B&B. It should be no surprise that the overture is the most frequently heard part of the opera. He creates this dense, frenzied world in the strings (after all, the play takes place in the midst of a war), and then writes these strong lines in the woodwinds that bob and weave to make themselves heard as bold individual voices and as something grander and more beautiful in pairs.
That's true of many of the numbers in the opera proper as well. Hero and Ursula's "Nuit paisible et sereine," is a love song to love as much as it is a superficial pastoral interlude. It's the flip-side to Benedick's fears about marriage (realized in the play, but absent here), as Hero and her mother figure reinforce their familial love even as they celebrate Hero's romance. Likewise, "Je vais d'un coeur aimant," adds Beatrice's voice, a mixture of longing and reservations, maturity and insecurity, to the conversation about love.
But as much success as Berlioz enjoyed at musically illuminating Shakespeare's text, his text not so much. Director Nicola Raab is much less delicate than Cairns in her criticism of Berlioz's libretto. (And speaking of criticisms of text, I'm going to assume that some of the more opaque sections of Raab's notes are attributable to either poor translation from German or her not writing in her first language. At least she doesn't imply that if Hero would just employ maids who looked less like her, she could have avoided the whole disgrace-and-death nonsense.) In case you don't feel like trudging through those, here's the meat of her beef:
Shakespeare’s language, full of wit, word-play, and images, matches this feeling perfectly. The original French operatic dialogue of the opera - at least to our nowadays ears and understanding - does not. This is not a negative evaluation at all: the original dialogue, indeed Berlioz’s own adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy, “Much Ado about Nothing,” obliges to the operatic conventions of the time when the opera was written. Whereas Berlioz was able to surpass, mostly only to be completely misunderstood by his contemporaries, conventions of the time mile-high in his musical thinking, in the dialogue for his comic opera (after all his last opera altogether written 5 years before his death), he didn’t.
This is the underpinning for her decision to adapt the dialogue from Shakespeare in English. It's also worth noting that in the Q&A, Artistic Coordinator Alexandra Subbarao quoted Raab as saying in a previous discussion that she'd have used the best German translation for the dialogue if she were mounting this production in Germany. At first, I'd been thinking that I was perfectly able to enjoy the comedy of, for example, Die Fledermaus despite the German dialogue. But of course the situations aren't really parallel. Shakespeare wrote in English, Berlioz in French 300 years later, so there's little reason to take mid-19th century French as "cannon" for the dialogue. And since Raab wisely confined her role to deciding what dialogue to include and what to cut (certainly I haven't committed Much Ado to memory in its entirety, but it's among the plays I know very well and I detected no fuckery with the Bard's dialogue), there's not a lot to criticize in her text.
That said, the very small amount of dialogue that involves Somarone, the kappelmeister added by Berlioz to work out a touch of his aggression about his critics (who were, admittedly, thick on the ground), was very poorly integrated. It clunked. Loudly. I find that particularly interesting because Raab spends some time on Somarone in her notes:
Another element of the opera, this time one of the characters, had to re-learn its identity.
Berlioz, out of sheer mischievousness, based only on a minor incident of music-making in the original, had created Somarone, a music teacher, as his private joke against his critics and the then current musical taste dominated by Academism. Without that knowledge though, the poor guy’s musical in-jokes are completely lost on us! So the music making stayed, but within a newly found context to underline plot and mood and situations - and a character with a story: a humane, believable one, emerged. Truth also serves beauty.
I regret to say that Raab's reimagining of Somarone was entirely lost on me. He's wearing a leg brace, so maybe he's 4-F or something? Or was injured earlier in the war and had to return? He's on stage a total of, I think, four times: At the very top of the opera, he's leading the local youngsters in a song of welcome for Don Pedro and his entourage. Later, he's far, far upstage behind a platform that mostly obscures him, again directing the youngsters who are singing to the upstage wall. He rolls around drunkenly (or maybe he's just limping because of the brace) at the top of act II and sings a song in praise of the wines of Sicily. And then he seems to be sulking and/or reading a pr0n magazine during the wedding festivities. Perhaps it seems mean to pick so ruthlessly on the most minor of characters. Unfortunately, I do so because the strange handling of Somarone is emblematic of some pretty confused direction overall.
Raab sets the action in the 20th century. I can't really be more specific than that. The dresses and hairstyles say WWII, the bobby sox say later. (And the distinguishing feature of our two heroines? A sad genetic predisposition to wear bobby sox with open-toed shoes. For shame.) In terms of place? It seems to be some kind of Logan's Run district of Sicily (what's that I hear? M calling shennanigans on me because I've never seen LR?), as Leonato is the lone "white-haired" fellow in town, thus putting a different spin on Benedick's transparent willingness to believe Beatrice is in love with him: If the geriatric oddity says so, maybe it's not just that he wants to be convinced or is conceited that he hardly needs to be.
So there's baffling directorial decision #1: Where- or whenever the play is supposed to take place, I just can't think of any reason for the town to be entirely population by those under 25. If you're worried about the pretty factor, may I direct your attention to the bathing scene in Branagh's Much Ado (remember? it was back when Kate Beckinsale had her own nose, some flesh on her bones, and integrity and talent), which is a veritable study in multiracial, multigeneratial, multi-body type hot, wet, soapy, nekkid asses and other bits. I think probably Ursule was supposed to be a bit older, but Jurgita Adamonyte just radiated youth.
Baffling directorial decision #2 was not knowing where within Logan's Run, Sicily, most of the action was taking place. I absolutely appreciate that neither the music nor the libretto lends itself to elaborate staging. However, I do wonder why, then, Raab opens her notes by remarking on the fact that the plot, not the music, mind you, "constantly evokes situations and locations of Mediterranean beauty." That quote struck me as being particularly at odds with the fact that the set designer seems to have been ordered to stage the action inside a packing crate.
The preshow curtain was an indiscriminate beige mottled as though it had been used as a drop cloth and washed a dozen times over. At the bottom, clusters of faded letters had been stenciled on. When the curtain rose, the back and wings were masked with very stiff and heavy cleaner versions of the front curtain. There were sets of movable bleachers fashioned from plywood, one at each side of the stage and two smaller, permanent sets of these that were actually built out from the apron, flanking the orchestra.
At the top of the opera, this was the entire set, but as soon as the soldiers actually began returning, the main set piece, a rolling platform about 15 feet square and 4 feet high or so, also of unadorned plywood, was moved out to the center of the stage. The angle of this piece could be adjusted to suggest a change of scene, and it was revealed very late in the show that it could be opened into three separate pieces, each about 5 feet wide, that could either be set at angles to one another (suggesting a path winding in a W shape) or unfolded completely to make up the aisle of the church, extending the whole depth of the stage. This versatility was sadly underused, though, and mostly it was just a big raised block in the center of the stage.
At first, I rather liked the idea of this platform. It could have suggested a dock where the battered soldiers were reunited with their loved ones. It had the potential to serve as a stage-within-a-stage. It's funny that this is one of Shakespeare's few plays that doesn't feature a play-within-a-play and yet there is so much speech and interaction that is deliberate, calculated performance (especially in the B&B plot), that it could have been tremendously fruitful to highlight the contrast between performance and genuinely felt, honestly conveyed emotions and thoughts.
Unfortunately, it was a possibility not only never capitalized on, but actively squandered. Benedick and Beatrice both break the fourth wall, delivering their soliloquies (both sung and spoken) quite pointedly to the audience. And, mostly, the set piece just blocked sight lines and kept me wondering about blocking and staging choices.
For example, if we take the "platform as dock," then we've got a whole bunch of Jesus soldiers walking on water upstage of it. At the end of act II, the Ursula/Hero duet, which, unbeknownst to them, is overheard by Beatrice, really should be in an intimate space that is open to the night they're glorying in . . . the balcony of her room, a private courtyard maybe, but it's on the same old platform on which the soldiers shave, Beatrice hangs out clothes (for a badly done sight gag when Benedick "overhears" the conversation between Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio). Worse still, this seemingly thoughtless, might-as-well-plop-them-here staging of the Duo-Nocturne squanders Adam Silverman's magnificent lighting design in this scene. With care suggesting that he planned each move down to the bar, he lowers in single bulbs, first one at a time, then in pairs, trios, and so on, as the stars wink into existence overhead. (Sadly, these same lights are used in Beatrice's act II aria, sans platform, so she appears to be wandering through a dangerous and potentially painful forest of unlit lightbulbs.)
Then, most bizarrely, when Beatrice and Benedick haltingly and abrasively declare their love for one another, the monolithic platform is finally spread out into three pieces set in a W-shape. But Beatrice sits on the end of the piece at stage right and Benedick is pinned in the V formed by that piece and the center piece, physically separated from her as she delivers every. single. line. to the house. That was possibly the biggest dud of a love scene I've ever seen on stage, all the more so because it is, by nature, one of the best love scenes in all of Western literature.
In addition to some pretty comprehensive failure to stage (or failure in staging if more thought was put into this than I'm giving credit for), Raab seems to have devoted an inordinate amount of attention to a handful of on-stage gags with dubious payoff. During the soldier's clean-up (oh, I forgot to mention that every single freaking person has a real mirror. No. Mirrors. On stage. EVER!), there's this . . . canvas bucket thing that gets flown in at the beginning of Claudio/Don Pedro's song. It just hangs there, siphoning off attention until the very end when, in yet more clumsy blocking, they drag Benedick under it. I think it's supposed to dump water on him, but either there was a misfire, or it really was just that much of a whimpering effect. Similarly, at the very end, the letters "in their own hands" from Beatrice and Benedick, confirming one's love for the other, are dropped in on little parachutes. Cute, perhaps, but the time it takes for them to drop and then the time it takes to find them and then the time it takes to get them into Hero's and Claudio's hands? Well, you've got a real pacing killer on your hands there.
The one gag in which Raab invested that worked on any level at all was the letter gag. Alltop had referred to the importance of letters in the production, but didn't say much more, because he knows teh 3v1l tht is 5p01l3rz!
During "'Comment le dedain pourrait-il mourir'," the upstage curtain rose about a third of the way up, revealing a bank of letters, each about 18" high or so, hanging on the wall. (I immediately wondered if someone was going to use them to spell out "Fuck you, male oppressor," and thus get themselves kicked out of the Pottery Barn Kids on the Plaza, but no pink stand mixers or blue chain saws made an appearance, which explains why this didn't come to pass.) The chorus members selectively harvested letters and handed them around. Beatrice and Benedict scavenged them for weapons in their war of words, spelling out various things like "Women are Smart," "Men Fart," and so on. I'm surprised, given the slapdash appearance of so much else in this production, that this wasn't a clumsy, disorganized nightmare. But to give deserved credit, it worked quite well, thanks to investment and commitment on the parts of Joseph Kaiser (Bénédict) and Sandra Piques Eddy (Béatrice).
But if direction and individual performance came together during that number, they rarely did elsewhere. Rinnat Moriah's Hero, in particular, seemed to suffer from lack of the slightest idea what her character was about. Her single-cadence approach to dialogue brought to mind some of the more painful auditions I've sat through. Even Piques Eddy, who seemed to have a lot more comfort with spoken-word acting, frequently seemed adrift in a see of acting choices not made.
Kaiser comes the closest to thriving in this production. He's tall and not particularly slight (that's him on the left as Tamino in Sir Kenneth's upcoming Magic Flute), so the decision to go with a very physical Benedick was not the most obvious path. Mostly he makes it work, though. He's dark and scornful with a decidedly masculine edge that resists slashing him with Claudio (thank jeebus), but the physical take makes him enough of a dork that you can see why Beatrice can't help but find him endearing. Certainly there were a few instances in which the physical comedy was overplayed, but for the most part, I was glad to know who at least one person really was.
I'm willing to let Raab off the hook on Claudio, because there's just next to nothing to go on for his characterization. Matthew Worth and Kaiser seemed to work up enough of a rapport that their friendship is believable despite Berlioz's lack of attention to it. I wanted to love Joshua Bloom's sonorous Don Pedro (and who could help but love him as a singer?), but he's so saddled with shiny knee-high boots, his officer's hat, and cigarette after cigarette after cigarette that he just comes off like some kind of inverse drag queen.
I felt for both Bloom and Piques Eddy during the "Will you have me, lady?" scene. They both wanted so badly to do something with it, but it fell utterly flat. I hate to keep making unfair comparisons, but I have certainly been spoiled forever by Emma Thompson's "Why thank you very much I would love a heaping helping of Denzel Washington and a side of his tight blue leather breeches, please," read on that scene, but even leaving that definitive treatment aside, that scene is exactly the kind of moment that makes Shakespeare something to discover your whole life long and I hate to see those opportunities wasted.
Larry Yaddo (Leonato) and Jurgita Adamonyte (Ursule) are an interesting pair. Leonato has nothing to sing that distinguishes him from the chorus, but has to handle a lot of dialogue. Yaddo does so admirably, except perhaps in the opening scene (which was so confused and confusing I wondered if they prematurely raised the curtain or something). Adamontye has almost no dialogue, but she has a strong vision of Ursule, her role in the stripped down play (that still manages to evoke the role she plays in the "Ado"), and her relationship with Hero. Both deserve kudos for escaping the directorial vortex.
I seem to be flying in the face of something that Alltop asserted in the preshow lecture, namely that there was a degree of care and attention obvious in this production. If he was speaking of care and attention to music (and several adjacent comments suggest that he was), then I actually agree with him. There was very little to take issue with on the musical front. The overture had a questionable tone or two in the winds, but otherwise, I think Jan Latham-Koenig's COT debut in the pit was just fantastic. In terms of the singers, the only person I could find fault with was Rinnat Moriah who lacked confidence and power in a number of places. Funnily enough, although John von Rhein was unbelievably soft on this production, in my admittedly bitchy opinion, he takes issue with her performance in the Duo-Nocturne, which I thought was lovely, and makes no mention at all of the fact that her opening aria, complete with painful end cadenzas, led me to believe that she must have distinguished herself as a failure among failures as the Queen of the Night. (Seriously, vocally speaking she improved greatly through the evening, and although her opening was less than stellar, I don't think that there's a thing wrong with her voice that time and experience can't fix.)
Kaiser is officially going on the list of boyfriends. This was inevitable as of Midsummer Marriage, but it was his Narraboth that streamlined his application. His Benedick sealed the deal, and I can't wait to see his Tamino. He is everything good about tenors, vocally all wrapped up in an intelligent, emotive package.
I also greatly enjoyed Piques Eddy's voice, even if her acting went astray too often. It's big and warm as a mezzo's should, but surprisingly delicate and sparkling in the upper register when it needs to be. If there was one flaw in the Act II trio, it was that Piques Eddy and Adomonyte were just too damned powerful, despite Moriah filling out her soprano to its utmost.
Worth and Bloom sang and worked well together and were excellent vocal contrasts to Kaiser not just as baritones, but because, vocally at least, they had good direction and were able to distinguish themselves from him and from one another in phrasing, tone color, and so on.
I wish that I had loved this production more. I'd been doubting my dissatisfaction after seeing what passes for a glowing review from von Rhein. Not that I care what he, in particular, has to say, as he is quite frequently pompous (in the bad way), silly, and wrong. But Andrew Patner has renewed my faith in my bitchiness. The singers, the costume design, the lighting, and even the set design deserved better attention. And lord knows that the text, even Berlioz's flawed version of it, deserves more.