Alek Shrader and Daniela Mack as Berlioz’s titular sparring lovers. Photo by Jacob Lucas

Alek Shrader and Daniela Mack as Berlioz’s titular sparring lovers. Photo by Jacob Lucas

The Merry War of ‘Beatrice and Benedict’ Shines Thanks to Clever Doctoring

Seattle Opera goes back to Shakespeare and enriches a slender but sparkling composition.

Once the afterglow of Seattle Opera’s adorable Beatrice and Benedict has died down, you may be left, as I was, with a troubling question: Why isn’t Hector Berlioz’s comedy in the standard repertory? There’s more musical interest in any six bars of Berlioz’s 1862 score than in an entire Donizetti comedy, which are ubiquitous on the world’s opera stages. Seattle Opera’s skillful script-doctoring of what is admittedly a fairly slender piece may help it gain a foothold. Generally, I’m not a fan of tinkering with a score, but when the solution is to add rather than subtract, it’s hard to complain.

From his source play, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Berlioz retained only the main story thread, the two title characters who “never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.” (The opera is part of the citywide Seattle Celebrates Shakespeare program.) Director John Langs and conductor Ludovic Morlot fleshed out a subplot with another pair of lovers, Claudio and Hero, borrowing from Shakespeare a scene in which Claudio is tricked into believing Hero unfaithful (which makes a affectingly bittersweet Act 1 curtain) and their later confrontation at what would have been their wedding. (The villain behind this deception, Don Juan, is included too as a non-singing part, and Brandon O’Neill makes him richly hissable.) A little music is added as well, all Berlioz, most notably a dramatic aria for Claudio (from his earlier opera Benvenuto Cellini). Shakespeare’s song “Sigh No More, Ladies” is cleverly set to the music of a brief aria from The Damnation of Faust and given to Somarone, the village music master. One short choral number is the third addition; a couple of the arias are slightly repositioned; and much of the spoken dialogue between the musical numbers comes straight from Shakespeare rather than from Berlioz’s adaptation of it. All this clocks in at about two hours; Berlioz’s original version must be barely 90 minutes, if that.

This is Seattle Opera’s third consecutive comedy of the season, and the contrast to the effortful Barber of Seville and Cosi fan tutte is like night and day—a sunshine-drenched day in Italy, to be exact. Langs and Morlot did a masterful job of making a full meal out of Berlioz’s tasty hors d’oeuvres, preserving the dash and insouciance of the original; the added pathos and drama enrich it without cluttering it. Not all opera singers are comfortable with spoken dialogue—with straight acting—and the four principals especially deserve a lot of credit for making even the longest musicless scenes work: Craig Verm as Claudio, Shelly Traverse as Hero (replacing Laura Tatulescu for the rest of the run due to illness), Daniela Mack as Beatrice, and Alek Shrader as Benedict. Shrader is, refreshingly, charming throughout; in the era of #MeToo, it’s a relief to see this production avoid the misogynist trope of making the heroine inexplicably fall for a jerk.

Matthew Smucker’s multi-level set, all bridges and spiral staircases, is as light as lacework; Deborah Trout’s costumes splash color everywhere. Langs has a fantastic eye for simple yet powerful scenic effects; I won’t spoil the surprise of what happens at the thwarted wedding. The best sight gag comes during Hero’s luscious Act 1 aria, interrupted at the end by a regiment of soldiers jogging past, ending in a gallant gesture from Claudio. Dramaturgically, everything works; technically, only about 50 percent of the spoken words overall come through, and the blame should be divided between the sound system (the singers are miked, we’re told, only for their dialogue) and, unavoidably, McCaw Hall’s resonance (it was designed wet for music, not dry for theater). Maybe a little can go to the actors; some of them do talk fast. You may end up hoping that the spoken passages as well as the sung ones would be supertitled.

Beatrice and Benedict

Feb. 28 & March 3, 7, 9, & 10 at 7:30 p.m., McCaw Hall, $61–$199,

More in Arts & Culture

Students perform their original pieces prior to watching ‘Hamilton’ on March 14, 2018. Photo by Christopher Nelson
Seattle Students Find Empowering Lessons in ‘Hamilton’

High schoolers draw parallels between modern and historic struggles after watching the Broadway hit.

Full Upstream Music Fest Lineup Revealed

The reunited Jawbreaker joins Miguel, The Flaming Lips, and a myriad of local bands.

Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform Jerome Robbins’ <em>The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody)</em> as part of its season-opening Jerome Robbins Festival in September. Photo by Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2018–19 Season Balances Old Favorites and Premieres

The upcoming slate also feature a Jerome Robbins Festival.

Pick List: Moisture Festival, Seattle Youth Symphony, Nirvana at MoPop

Seattle’s best entertainment events this week.

Photo by Nicola Dove/IFC Films
The Scathing Commie-dy of ‘The Death of Stalin’

Armando Iannucci’s latest film provides razor sharp pseudo-historical satire.

Illustration by Taylor Dow
Healing Crisis

A feisty Mars and tender Chiron make for a complex new Moon.

<em>Come From Away</em> kicks off 5th Avenue Theatre’s 2018–19 season. Photo by Matthew Murphy
5th Avenue Theatre Reveals Its 2018–19 Season

Find hope in performances of musical favorites like ‘Annie’ and ‘Come From Away.’

Pick List: Lorde, Jason McCue, Melissa Kagerer

Seattle’s best entertainment events this week.

Stanley Tucci and Addison Timlin get too close in Submission. Courtesy Great Point Media/Paladin
Unlearned Lessons

While Stanley Tucci shines, ‘Submission’ feels uncomfortably pre-#MeToo.

Most Read