Béatrice et Bénédict is Hector Berlioz’s last work; he wrote it between 1860 and 1862 for the theatre that patron Edouard Bénazet had built in Baden-Baden, then Germany’s most chic health resort. As the work proved an instant success, Bénazet probably never regretted that Berlioz had talked him out of a work set in the Thirty Years’ War in favour of a light opéra comique which is loosely based based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Béatrice et Bénédict therefore tells the story of a young woman and a young man who fight verbal battles and need their friends’ subterfuge to find out that they do not hate but love each other.

Arnold Schoenberg Chor © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Arnold Schoenberg Chor
© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Director Kasper Holten’s production puts the revolving stage of the Theater an der Wien to good use, with the addition of a theatre-inspired arena on and around it, and its floor divided by a screen that rises and drops in height as needed. The two halves stand for the men’s and women’s worlds respectively (specifically, a men’s sauna and a chat over coffee), as well as for the imaginary barrier between Béatrice and Bénédict. This screen is also used for imaginative video projections (Finn Ross) and sometimes mirrors what is going on in front of it and partly shows the scene behind. The simultaneous use of two of these features often makes for fascinating effects, like in the Act I scene where the returning soldiers can be seen on a train in a black-and-white film and seem to step right out of it. On another occasion, the screen serves as the net in a tennis game between the leading duo with the chorus watching in both grandstands of the arena – not only an interesting sight, but also a spot-on illustration of their war of words. The same can be said of Moritz Junge’s late 19th-century costumes, of which the ladies’ elaborate gowns and opulent hats naturally stood out.

Unfortunately, as an exception to the rule of many opera performances, the musical side was not always as interesting as the visuals. The leading couple is as blond as the libretto has it, and was cast to type in this respect, but other than that and her acting capabilities there is little else that qualifies Malena Ernman for the part of Béatrice. She is usually fine in Baroque repertory and in this performance impressed with low notes and some fortissimo or other, but her middle register was throaty, the top strained and the longer notes in her music often vanished the moment they were produced. I had been looking forward to hear Bernard Richter again, as he had delighted me as Don Ottavio in this house’s production of Don Giovanni, among other parts, but this was a bit of an off-night for him. His voice is usually even, but in this performance the top notes seemed to be detached from the rest and he had serious trouble towards the end of his last Act I aria. Other than that he was convincing as Bénédict, who slowly but surely discovers that with the opposite sex, no risk means no fun.

Vocally, then, this was Christiane Karg’s night. Karg sang Héro’s Act II nocturne with otherworldly beauty, gracefully supported by Ann-Beth Solvang (Ursule). This was one of the most finely tuned duets I’ve ever listened to and I was particularly impressed by simultaneous messa di voce.

In this opera, the men get more to speak than to sing (happily, in more or less idiomatic French), and one of them gets to play the clown. Somarone, a character that does not appear in Much Ado About Nothing, is the composer of Héro and Claudio’s wedding music, and Miklós Sebestyén gave him in true slapstick form, receiving (deliberately) mediocre singing from the Arnold Schoenberg Chor as a comic foil. Even the conductor was involved in the comedy and I wish that Leo Hussain, a native Briton, had been as flawless in his musical direction as he was in supplying a spot-on Austrian accent for the comic skit. On two occasions the singers on stage and the orchestra were not in sync, but this didn’t bother me as much as the feeling that the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien is capable of more than he could elicit, ably but not very imaginatively executing the score rather than really playing it and cherishing its inherent wit. In contrast to other works of Berlioz, Béatrice et Bénédict is scored with a spare orchestration; but since he was a master at this (let us not forget that he wrote a still valid treatise on it), it compares to a great painter who decides to produce a drawing for a change – every line fits.