This performance of Shakespeare’s comic portrayal of two intertwined pairs of lovers who meet (and mete out) treachery, buffoonery, deception, but eventually, a happy ending, is testimony to the richness that the University of NC’s School of the Arts brings to the Triad, and to the high ideals it serves. Repeat performances will take place Thursday, April 5 through Sunday, April 8.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score of the incidental music for a 1918 Viennese production of the popular Shakespeare comedy, Much Ado about Nothing, has been resuscitated by Maestro John Mauceri, Chancellor of the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts, making this the North American premiere of Korngold’s score. Written when he was only 22 years old, Korngold (1897-1957) later won two Academy Awards for his film scores, and has also written a violin concerto which has become quite popular in recent years.

In 1921, Korngold saw fit to take the five major pieces from the incidental music, rearrange them, change the ending of the closing number, and publish them (Schott) as his Opus 11, Suite from Much Ado about Nothing. Certain of these pieces, have made it into the violin repertory, with piano accompaniment. But it was a pleasure to hear the original dozen major pieces plus half a dozen shorter scene-setting passages in situ. Larger pieces included an Overture, a Nocturne, a Masked Ball with a brilliantly choreographed waltz by Allen Berryhill, a Funeral March, a quirky March, reminiscent of Prokofiev, a Romance and a Hornpipe leading into the final coda.

The chamber orchestra in the pit of Agnes de Mille Theater on the UNCSA campus was composed of a string quartet, a woodwind quartet, a brass quartet (two horns, a trumpet and a trombone), a pair of percussionists, a harp, a piano and a harmonium (an instrument very popular in Vienna in the first quarter of the 20th century). The playing was outstanding on all accounts, with special mention for the virtuosic horn playing in the Hornpipe, and some gorgeous cello and clarinet solos. And the Chancellor was also clearly enjoying himself, leading such a stellar band in such a charming work.

The senior class (Studio IV) of the School of Drama was equal to the task of delivering Much Ado about Nothing with all roles well suited to the young actors. Saucy Beatrice (Jackie Robinson) abused skeptical Benedict (Ari Itkin) until she caught him. Wide-eyed and naïve Claudio (Daniel Emond) foolishly almost lost the beautiful dimpled Hero (Jessica Richards). Bumbling Dogberry, the constable (Jonathon Majors) spouted one malapropism after another, so quickly that there was little time for laughter. The discrete use of hidden microphones helped the actors cope with those few lines meant to be heard over the orchestra which was otherwise silent during the dialogues.

Director Bob Francesconi enlivened the entire production with his ingenious use of the group of Watchmen. Not only were they called upon to capture and try the malfeasant Boraccio and his accomplice, Conrad, but during longer musical excerpts and the many adjustments of scenery they entertained the audience with their slapstick humor. Most notable was their gradual appearance during the longish overture, when they gradually led the audience to focus on the great music rising from the pit. Wearing half-masks during the entire evening, they moved benches, hedges, ladders and captives all evening in a manner that pushed the action forward.

Those planning to attend one of the remaining performances would do well to “brush up on their Shakespeare” because the printed program is of no use in understanding the play. The cast is not listed in order of appearance (despite the claim); eleven men are listed in random disorder and there does not seem to be any order in the next ten listings, nor are the relationships between the characters mentioned (e.g. Don John, illegitimate half-brother of Don Pedro). And there is no synopsis or indication of acts – which did not detract from the pleasure of seeing the drama unfold in the “here and now!”  The play is costumed (felicitously by Christine Turbitt) in the style of the 1920s, presumably to correspond to the date of the composition of the score.

This was a very pleasant evening, even for my 17-year-old son, who usually cannot be pried away from anything with a screen!