- Béatrice et Bénédict, opera, H. 138 - Hector Berlioz - Hector Berlioz - Gabriel Bacquier - Gilles Cachemaille - Lyon National Opera Chorus - Susan Graham - Philippe Magnant - Sylvia McNair - John Nelson - Lyon National Opera Orchestra - Jean-Paul Racodon - Catherine Robbin - Vincent le Texier - Jean-Luc Viala - Philippe Bardy - Darren Lewis - Philippe Bertin - Enrico Di Giovanni - Henri Ambert - Laurence Roy - Sophie Niedergang - Valérie Jeannet
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"Béatrice et Bénédict," Berlioz's last completed work, is based on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, but the libretto, by the composer, dispenses with most of the intrigue of the original and reduces the plot to a single premise: Béatrice et Bénédict mask their affection for each other by squabbling, and then finally come to their senses and get married. Although designated an opera, it is closer in effect to an opéra comique because of its very extensive use of spoken dialogue. The effectiveness of a recording of an opera with this amount of dialogue depends at least in part on the persuasiveness of the spoken drama, and on that count this version is largely successful because it uses professional actors. They make the comedy plausibly fun, so that the listener is fully engaged, not just waiting around impatiently for the music to start up again. A great amount of attention has been given to production values, with impressive sound effects and realistic spatial blocking. The vocal performances are for the most part well taken, but the women outshine the men. Soprano Sylvia McNair in the relatively small role of Héro practically steals the show. Her aria, "Je vais le voir," is the undisputed highlight of the album because of the music -- this is Berlioz at his most melodically eccentric, most deeply felt, and most inspired -- and because of McNair's radiant, soaring performance. A close runner-up is the gorgeous, graceful women's trio, "Je vais d'un coeur aimant être la joie et le bonheur suprême," with McNair, Susan Graham as Béatrice, and Catherine Robbin as Ursule, Héro's lady-in-waiting. The rhapsodic duet with McNair and Robbin, "Nuit paisible et sereine!" also deserves mention, as does Béatrice's aria, "Dieu! que viens-je d'entendre?"; Berlioz's writing for women in this opera is consistently spectacular. In the opera's leading role, Graham sings with warmth and smooth lyricism, but because of the fragmented nature of the opera, it's difficult for her, or almost any other cast member, for that matter, to establish much of a sense of dramatic momentum. An exception is baritone Gabriel Bacquier as Somarone, a comic character invented by Berlioz to lampoon the pomposity of the composer Spontini. Bacquier is in excellent vocal form and he is a natural comedian, and he alone performs the spoken dialogue as well as singing. The remaining singers, Jean-Luc Viala as Bénédict, Vincent le Texier as Don Pedro, and Gilles Cachemaille as Claudio, are adequate at best. John Nelson, leading the Orchestra and Chorus of l'Opéra de Lyon, delivers an exceptionally polished performance and keeps things moving at a vivacious clip. The sound of the 1991 recording is disappointingly one-dimensional (except, paradoxically, for the sections featuring the actors), dull, and sometimes distant.