Opera Boston, whose mantra is “Only innovative repertory. Only original productions” has created a new production of Berlioz' Béatrice et Bénédict for Boston. Seductively charming, the production's depth and complexity become apparent with time and acquaintance – just like any worthwhile relationship.

© 2011 Clive Grainger
© 2011 Clive Grainger

This little-seen opera is sung in French, with spoken dialogue. In the new production, dialogue is in English and is provided by stage director David Kneuss. According to the program notes, there are 15 musical numbers in addition to the overture. This leaves quite a bit of dialogue and, since it is based on Shakespeare, the English version is welcome. With so much witty banter happening on stage, it would be a pity to be glued to the surround titles. In the musical numbers, there is so much repetition it's hardly necessary to reference the translations.

The libretto is by Berlioz, after Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. As evident from the title, the opera focuses on the love/hate relationship between Béatrice and Bénédict, comparing and contrasting them to their more idealized romantic counterparts, Héro and Claudio.

The opera opens with the return of Don Pedro, Claudio, Bénédict and the other young men to Messina after a military victory. The victory means that the governor's daughter, Héro, will be reunited with and wed to her fiancé Claudio. It also offers the opportunity for Béatrice and Bénédict to continue their tradition of wittily insulting discourse.

Because each is the only suitable match for the other, Béatrice and Bénédict are tricked by their friends into falling in love (or realizing that they have long been in love, as becomes apparent). Bénédict, self-sworn to eternal bachelorhood, is hidden among the flowerpots when he overhears Don Pedro, the governor and Claudio express their concern for Béatrice, who (according to them) is hopelessly in love with him. Meanwhile Béatrice, a quick-tongued minx who belongs to no one, is made to overhear a similar conversation about Bénédict. Hearing the lovesick plights of each other, the two realize that they are, in fact, in love.

While the opera is based on the lightest of the Much Ado About Nothing storylines, it makes up for the simplicity in myriad ways. The duet in Act II, which could so easily fall into trite territory, is given fullness and depth by Ursule's mezzo-soprano (sung winningly by Kelley O'Connor). In an earlier scene, two local musicians, both claiming to be in tune, play an A with hideous results. They gradually come together and create harmony. This is a small moment in a comic scene, but it serves as musical illustration of the out-of-tune elements in the characters and how a little work needs to go into bringing them together.

The scene above is also one of many references to other works of Shakespeare. The band is led by Somarone (“Great Donkey” in Italian), who rehearses local musicians to perform at the wedding of Héro and Claudio. In this scene Berlioz has fun with community theater – mocking the incompetence of the musicians and chorus while skewering Somarone's lack of musical sense. The combination of arrogance and ignorance evident in his bridal fugue makes this scene a comic gem.

What is new about the production? The costumes, primarily. Scene and costume designer Robert Perdziola created a world of 1950s American idealism and dropped it into 1860s Sicily. Against a Sicilian backdrop (including a gorgeous twilight harbor scene from the garden), narrow-waisted wives twirl and toast in crinolined summer dresses. At first I found it hard to bridge the disconnect, but the vision grew on me. It is a world where everything seems perfect and ordered. Ideal on the surface, the rocky reality of relationships is the undercurrent keeping the story interesting and mobile.

Julie Boulianne and Sean Panikkar, as Béatrice and Bénédict, both made their Opera Boston debuts in this production and received enthusiastic applause at curtain call. Also receiving loudly enthusiastic praise was Kelley O'Connor as Ursule. Her part was not a large one, but as mentioned, it gave needed dimension to her friend Héro's character. The role of Héro was sung beautifully by Heather Buck, matched nicely by David McFerrin as a comedic Claudio. Don Pedro was sung by Robert Honeysucker – an audience favorite.