Tacoma Opera crafts BIG production on postage-stamp stage
Rialto Theater presents creative challenges to staging a musical
adaptation of a play by Shakespeare
ROSEMARY PONNEKANTI; The News Tribune
It sounds a bit like a comedy line: How do you get 18 singers,
11 musicians and some sets onto a 17-yard stage with no pit or
wings? Be creative, that's how. Tacoma Opera opens its season
next weekend with Hector Berlioz's "Beatrice and Benedict" and
has taken every liberty you can think of to fit an opera onto
the tiny Rialto stage.
Musicians are on stage, cast members sing in French and speak
dialogue in English, the conductor takes on a solo vocal role
and the stage director - obviously not challenged enough by a
total lack of fly (overhead rigging) or wing space - has volunteered
to write extra Shakespearean dialogue. The result? A version of
the opera that hopefully fits the chocolate-box theater - and
its audi--ence - perfectly.
The first task was to rewrite the libretto. Rarely performed,
the 1862 "Beatrice and Benedict" is an operatic adaptation by
Berlioz of Shakespeare's comedy "Much Ado About Nothing." It
deals not so much with Shakespeare's reunited lovers Hero and
Claudio as with two sub-characters, Beatrice and Benedict, who
hide true affection with mock fighting and witty repartee - to
everyone's delight. The original is, however, three hours long
and involves lines and lines of Berlioz's French translation.
Stage director Kristine McIntyre and general director Kathryn
Smith both agreed that something more approachable was needed.
"I decided to set the story in 1919 America in Messina, a fictional
town that's probably right here in the Northwest," explains
McIntyre. "So it seemed appropriate to use the original English.
I even went back and found parts of "Much Ado" that Berlioz had
left out and put them back in."
Berlioz's exquisitely light, lyrical music would be ridiculous
in anything but French, however. So in hiring singers, general
director Kathryn Smith had first to ask if they could perform
bilingually. For most singers, used to multiple European languages,
this isn't a problem. For the audience, it can take some getting
used to, though anyone who saw Tacoma Opera's "The Abduction
from the Seraglio" will be familiar with the idea.
Using Shakespeare, though, is a problem when the composer has
invented some completely new scenes and characters. Somarone, a
pretentious European music master, is one of these. McIntyre's
solution was to mix and match from the original, even writing
some lines in faux-Shakespearean prose ("Halt! You bellow this
ode like a funeral dirge!")
The next thing to be rewritten was the score. "Beatrice and
Benedict" is the chamber piece in Berlioz's otherwise massive-scale
repertoire ("Symphonie Fantastique" has five movements and 120
musicians; another opera, "Les Troyens," takes five hours to
cover the entire fall of Troy). Nevertheless, it requires full
orchestra. The Rialto doesn't even have a pit. Conductor Bernard
Kwiram had some long computer hours ahead of him.
"Berlioz's score is huge," grimaces Kwiram. "There are two harps.
The violins split into eight parts. So I went to Kathryn (Smith)
and asked, 'How many musicians can we afford? How many will fit
on stage?'" The magic answer was 11, and Kwiram spent "more hours
than I kept track of" reducing the 300-page score and cutting
the length to two hours. Meanwhile, McIntyre worked on a stage
arrangement that would involve the musicians in the action. "It
seemed better to integrate the orchestra, rather than pretend
they weren't there," she says.
As part of the integration, McIntyre volunteered Kwiram to sing
a role himself: Somarone, appropriately enough. In costume, the
conductor (who has sung with the Seattle Opera) both conducts
the real orchestra and the music group in the story (the Tacoma
Opera chorus), blurring the line between singers and accompaniment.
Yet McIntyre had to fit even more people on the stage. Without
wings, the chorus and lesser characters are forced to be part
of the action much more than in larger theaters. The solution
was to make each chorus member a character - a maid, gardener
or cook in the huge Cape Cod mansion that Benedict's uncle owns
- and even involved them in turning the reversible set for scene
"It's very much an ensemble piece now," says McIntyre, and the
rest of the cast agrees. ...
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