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Much Ado

New York
Manhattan School of Music
04/27/2003 -  
Hector Berlioz: Beatrice and Benedict
Elaine Alvarez (Hero), Jeniece Golbourne (Beatrice),Edwin Cahill (Leonato), Charles Clayton (Claudio), Alvaro Vallejo (Benedict)
Manhattan School of Music Chorus and Orchestra
Laurent Pillot (conductor)

No matter how poor, coarse, cheap, and obvious the thought
may be, the mood is charming, and the music of the words
expresses the mood.”

George Bernard Shaw, review of
Much Ado About Nothing, 1898

Of all of the great composers, no one was as passionate about Shakespeare as Hector Berlioz. Anthropomorphisizing his love in the extreme, Berlioz married the bard interpreter Harriet Smithson, and was at least as much enamored of her stage personae as her actual self. Although others based as many works on the master playwright, only Verdi ever equaled the pinnacles of emotion ascended to by this amateur mountaineer. Besides rhapsodizing in tones on such subjects as The Tempest, King Lear and Hamlet, Berlioz apotheosizes the “On such a night” speech from The Merchant of Venice into that most sublime love duet in all of romantic opera, “Nuit d’ivresse” from Les Troyens. Certainly no other composer “gets” Romeo and Juliet like Berlioz: not Bellini, not Gounod, not Bernstein nor even Prokofieff. Further, this rural child of a folk music tradition, whose instrument was the guitar, matured in a very different aesthetic environment from his conservatoire colleagues; somewhere deep down, Verdi and Berlioz are the greatest interpreters of Shakespeare because they were peasants, more fit to be groundlings than thespians.

Of course, it’s not all high tragedy. The light-hearted story of this late bagatelle can be absolutely hilarious. Oddly, however, Berlioz penned this romp during the darkest period of his life: disillusioned with the Philistinism of his era and the Byzantine world of the Paris Opera, physically ill and terribly worried about his seafaring son with whom he had had no contact for a long while (Dido’s powerful lament on the beach at Carthage is inspired by this father’s melancholy on a more metaphorical shore), he somehow was able to produce such an energetic comedy and actually to achieve a modicum of success which must have been a comfort to him in his otherwise neglected dotage.

Humor is the most elusive quality in all of theatrical production, and yesterday’s effort by the Manhattan School of Music was at least half successful. The orchestra and chorus were first rate, realizing the boisterous world of the opera comique quite expertly. Much of the wit in this creation of a music critic is directed squarely at the musical establishment, in fact, it was during this period of his life that Berlioz wrote about walking daily past the opera house in order to experience “the distinct pleasure of not going in”. Christopher Clayton as the chorus master struck just the right discordant tone in his lechery and pomposity, a characterization especially piquant at a modern conservatory. It was positively delightful to see the back of the conductor in the pit and the back of the conductor, powdered wig and all, on the stage leading the exaggeratedly bad double fugues of this character’s “masterpiece”.

However, the students here at MSM are not drama majors and their attempts at spoken humor were stilted and rhythmically chaotic. The singing was overall a pleasant affair: I was particularly taken with the ethereal duet of Ronnita Nicole Miller and Elaine Alvarez. All of the principals were giving their best, although I sensed no meteoric ascents to the operatic stratosphere any time soon.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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