The characters’ vulnerability will increase as the trees’ stage presence decreases, leaving them no cover for their true emotions.
They’ll either have to proclaim their love or not. Then again, those familiar with William Shakespeare’s 1623 comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing,” already know the outcome of Hector Berlioz’s “Béatrice et Bénédict,” the third production in the LSU Opera’s 2014-15 season.
The production will open Thursday, March 26, in the Claude L. Shaver Theatre, whose curtain will open on a moonlit forest, setting the stage for romance.
“The trees will disappear throughout the show,” says Dugg McDonough, director of LSU Opera. “They’ll have nothing to hide behind in the end, and the trees stand on a circle of grass, which symbolizes the circle of life. You could call it a human exploration.”
Of course, the human condition was — and still is — one of Shakespeare’s specialties. Love, hate, betrayal, deceit, loss, loyalty — all can be found in his stories. And in “Much Ado About Nothing,” he explored the comedy of romantic love.
“Berlioz’s two favorite writers were Virgil and Shakespeare,” McDonough says. “Most people may know him for his ‘Symphonie fantastique,’ ‘Grande messe des morts’ and ‘The Damnation of Faust,’ but he wrote operas, two near the end of his life based on stories by his favorite authors.”
The first was the 1858 “Les Troyens,” or “The Trojans,” based on Virgil’s epic poem the “Aeneid.” Then came “Béatrice et Bénédict,” which premiered on Aug. 9, 1863, at the Theater der Stadt in Baden-Baden, Germany.
“Béatrice et Bénédict” opens in Messina, Sicily, where Don Pedro, played here by Brad Baron, is celebrating a military victory. He his joined by fellow soldiers Claudio, played by Erik Erlandson, and Bénédict, a role that will be performed in different shows by Charles Moore and Jonathan Ray.
Michael Blade, as Messina’s Gov. Leonato, greets them with his daughter and niece, Héro and Béatrice. The role of Héro will be split by Yen Lin Chin and Rachel Looney. Christina Casey and Zoie Reams will share the role of Béatrice.
Now the scene is set. Héro and Claudio are engaged, and though Béatrice and Bénédict share a romantic interest, their exchanges are filled with teasing and insults.
So, Claudio and Don Pedro scheme to trick Bénédict into marrying Béatrice. Meanwhile, Héro and her attendant, Ursule, play a similar trick on Béatrice.
Will Bénédict summon the courage to proclaim his love to Béatrice before the story ends? And if he does, will Béatrice welcome it?
Well, their final song ends with the words, “today a truce is signed, we’ll be enemies again tomorrow,” which may or may not reveal their fate. No spoiler alerts here — the outcome can be found in this Shakespearian story, which Berlioz condensed for his opera.
“Shakespeare is filled with plots and subplots, and Berlioz basically removed all of the subplots and created a subplot of his own,” McDonough says.
He pauses to take a photo of the tree-filled set. It was created by Chicago set designer Adam Crinson and constructed by New Orleans Opera’s A. Lloyd Hawkins Scenic Studio.
“This is our first time to work with Adam,” McDonough says. “It’s also our first time to work with LSU’s resident costumer, Brandon McWilliams. And Chelsea Touchet is our lighting designer. She did the lighting for our production of “Dido and Aneas’ in the fall, and her work is always innovative. Our singers are going to have to find their light in between the trees.”
“Béatrice et Bénédict” is among McDonough’s favorite operas, but this production marks the first time he’s directed it at LSU. He discovered the opera early in his directing career and later directed it in St. Louis and Philadelphia.
“I was always waiting until we had the right balance for the cast at LSU,” he says. “The time was right. We have our strongest singers in the leading roles. It’s funny and romantic and incredibly intelligent in writing and music.”
It’s also an opera cominque, a genre of French opera that contains spoken dialogue and arias.
“They’ll be singing in French, which will have English subtitles, and speaking in English,” McDonough says. “But we’ll be using Shakespeare’s dialogue for the speaking parts.”
The combination of singing and speaking also makes it a little easier for new opera-goers to follow the story.
“It’s a good introduction for those who have never attended an opera,” McDonough says. “And it’s a wonderful opera for those who regularly attend. It’s a lot of fun.”