We live in a funny time.
On the one hand it’s the era of director’s theatre, when operas can be a departure point for elaborate adventures so extreme that the composer’s work becomes mere background music for interpretations of the story that may seem to have little to do with what’s in the text, generating spectacular attention in the press due to booing audiences. Yet at the same time it’s an era of fundamentalism in the musical world, between historically informed approaches, or conductors insisting on an approach of “come scritto”, refusing to interpolate the traditional high notes.
In this minefield of contradictory impulses, companies may surprise us with their productions. Metro Youth Opera is a fairly recent company aiming to create opportunities for young singers & artists in the fields related to opera production.
Perhaps it was an omen that I ran into Linda Hutcheon, literary theorist and author of A Theory of Adaptation at today’s Metro Youth Opera production of Béatrice et Bénédict, Berlioz’s version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. At one time I used to worry about the divergence between the source and the resulting opera, a question I understood as one of fidelity, that I now see as a bogus concern.
Berlioz wrote his own libretto for B & B, freely cutting what I would understand as the main storyline of the opera –the drama surrounding Hero’s slander and eventual redemption in Claudio’s eyes – in favour of secondary plotline concerning Beatrice and Benedick. Many of the other characters, both high (Don John) and low (Dogberry) are removed from the story. MYO’s Béatrice & Bénédict is itself an adaptation of Berlioz’s opera by Rob Herriot, using English dialogue and with musical numbers sung in French with super-titles. There’s no chorus and there’s no Somarone (a character we don’t miss). I’m not clear as to whether these omissions are in Herriot’s text or a further change made by MYO, but the point is that MYO presented a very slimmed down B & B, accompanied by music director Natasha Fransblow at the piano, roughly two hours with an intermission. I say this huge preamble in defense of an opera that is outside the standard repertoire (aka the works that are regularly produced) possibly because it’s unfaithful to Shakespeare, even though many popular operas also fail to measure up. Berlioz created a highly original, tuneful piece with much to recommend it, and one that MYO are to be commended for having undertaken.
Alison Wong accomplished a bit of a miracle, shared with her cast members, of making the comedy believable, as though we weren’t watching an opera, but instead experiencing a play.The Aki Studio space is somewhat dry in its acoustic yet so intimate that we’re right on top of the performers, able to see every facial expression. We discover that we care about Béatrice (Simone McIntosh) and Bénédict (Asitha Tennekoon), intrigued by their denials of affection for one another, and the birth of a romance between them. Our empathy begins in the skilful dialogue, as each figure is firmly established. Tennekoon shows us more voice early on, soaring with effortless agility to several high notes.
McIntosh blossoms in the second act showing off a unique colour; while the role usually goes to mezzo-sopranos she hit spectacular high notes that make me eager to see the path of her future development.
Lindsay McIntyre was a delightful Héro¸ especially in her first act aria. Alessia Naccarato’s Ursule was a good addition to the comic mix, her voice blending beautifully in her duets with McIntyre. Janaka Welihinda & Peter Warren were also a pleasure to watch. The performance sparkled on the musical side, the ensembles tightly following Fransblow, often at a brave tempo.
I congratulate MYO Artistic Director Kate Applin for the slightly off-beat choice of opera, an excellent learning opportunity and a brilliant showcase for the fascinating cast she assembled.