Notes and Editorial Reviews
Sixteen years ago, Colin Davis's Oiseau-Lyre recording of Beatrice et Benedict must have come as a revelation for many listeners of Berlioz's charming, wry, witty, uneven opera. It is a difficult work to stage; it suits the gramophone well, for the dramatic arena is at least as much ideal as practical. On the other hand, there is the question of the dialogue, which is part of the structure rather than merely narrative linking numbers: there would be a more drastic loss were someone to do a Guiraud and write recitatives even than there is with Bizet's Carmen, for the conversational rapier-work that Berlioz has taken over from Shakespeare is constructively alternated with music. In this recording, the dialogue is skilfully abbreviated; and a
tactful translation by David Cairns, drawing on Shakespeare when possible and elsewhere finding a suitably near-Elizabethan tone without parody, links the numbers together deftly. It is spoken in French, and credit is due to the coach, Janine Reiss, in making even those singers to whom French pronunciation does not come naturally carry off their lines with aplomb.
This does not seem to be much of a problem to Robert Tear, for whom the whole part is tailor-made. John Mitchinson's rather plain performance was not one of the best features of the earlier set; Tear enjoys himself shamelessly, rattling away in French with the kind of self-mocking fluency of a Peter Ustinov, lightening his voice and touching it with swerving inflexions in the sardonic "Me marier?", then, with moving effect, charging it with emotion and a steady, richer tone from which all the comic instability has gone in his Rondo, "Ah! je vais l'aimer". His Beatrice is none other than Dame Janet Baker, in place of Josephine Veasey on the earlier set. The raillery does not come so quickly to her as it does to Tear, for humour rather than wit is the natural obverse of her more serious qualities; but she gives as good as she gets, and she comes fully into her own with a marvellous performance of her great Air, "Il m'en souvient". Colin Davis helps her to make the most of the reflective opening, caressing the phrases in the orchestra with the open tenderness that Beatrice is only beginning to admit to herself, as if drawing her true feelings out of her; and at her nightmare of Benedict lying slain by the Moors, he brings up the orchestra in a kind of miniature tone poem of horror that almost overwhelms her before she awakes—and of course, the awakening is of two kinds, for now in her soliloquy she has fully accepted to herself the truth of her love for him, and orchestra and voice can phrase their music as one. It is a beautiful, intelligent performance by singer and conductor.
The two other female voices always present a problem. Hero is Christiane Eda-Pierre, nice if a trifle cool in "Je vais le voir" until she comes to what one can almost call the cabaletta, when she dances away with a delicious sparkle. The difficulty comes with the Nocturne, the most beautiful number in the score and indeed, together with that in Les Troyens, the most ravishing night piece Berlioz ever conceived. Helen Watts, the sole survivor from the earlier recording, sings richly but is really rather on the heavy side for a full blend with Eda-Pierre's quicksilver tones. The contrast seems a little too great; yet if the tone colours are too close in this number, there will be a problem in the Trio, when Ursule and Hero are joined by Beatrice. With Dame Janet Baker in the middle, the blend and contrast are filled out satisfyingly, certainly more so than with Josephine Veasey and April Cantelo in the earlier recording. It is difficult to see a solution, but for all the gains in the Trio it is a pity to lose the sense of full vocal pairing in the Nocturne.
Robert Lloyd and Richard van Allan deal handsomely with Don Pedro and Leonato; and a brilliantly funny performance by Jules Bastin lightens the heavy joke of Somarone into something positively enjoyable, with his drunken swaying, and his cries of encouragement of reproof—"onctueux!" he beseeches his singers in rehearsal, as oilily as Mr Chadband himself. The chorus respond entertainingly: they are straightfacedly ecclesiastical in the Epithalamium, goading Somarone into a frenzy, vigorous at the start, lively at the end. It is a skilfully varied performance of real character. There is some splendid orchestral playing, especially from the woodwind—beautifully unanimous clarinets at the end of the Nocturne, an oboe that fully deserves Somarone's ecstasies, quick-witted playing of the overture and final music that has all Davis's old cut and thrust but now also an amused fluency that exactly suits this "caprice written with the point of a needle".
-- Gramophone [5/1979, reviewing the LP]
Works on This Recording
Béatrice et Bénédict by Hector Berlioz
Dame Janet Baker (Soprano),
Thomas Allen (Baritone),
Jules Bastin (Bass),
Christiane Eda-Pierre (Soprano),
Robert Lloyd (Bass),
Robert Tear (Tenor),
Richard Van Allan (Narrator),
Helen Watts (Contralto (Female alto))
Sir Colin Davis
John Alldis Choir,
London Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1860-1862; France
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