Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

After Silence: VOCES8

‘After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’ Aldous Huxley’s words have inspired VOCES8’s new disc, After Silence, a ‘double album in four chapters’ which marks the ensemble’s 15th anniversary.

Beethoven's Songs and Folksongs: Bostridge and Pappano

A song-cycle is a narrative, a journey, not necessarily literal or linear, but one which carries performer and listener through time and across an emotional terrain. Through complement and contrast, poetry and music crystallise diverse sentiments and somehow cohere variability into an aesthetic unity.

Music for a While: Rowan Pierce and Christopher Glynn at Ryedale Online

“Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile.”

Flax and Fire: a terrific debut recital-disc from tenor Stuart Jackson

One of the nicest things about being lucky enough to enjoy opera, music and theatre, week in week out, in London’s fringe theatres, music conservatoires, and international concert halls and opera houses, is the opportunity to encounter striking performances by young talented musicians and then watch with pleasure as they fulfil those sparks of promise.

Carlisle Floyd's Prince of Players: a world premiere recording

“It’s forbidden, and where’s the art in that?”

John F. Larchet's Complete Songs and Airs: in conversation with Niall Kinsella

Dublin-born John F. Larchet (1884-1967) might well be described as the father of post-Independence Irish music, given the immense influenced that he had upon Irish musical life during the first half of the 20th century - as a composer, musician, administrator and teacher.

Haddon Hall: 'Sullivan sans Gilbert' does not disappoint thanks to the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Andrews

The English Civil War is raging. The daughter of a Puritan aristocrat has fallen in love with the son of a Royalist supporter of the House of Stuart. Will love triumph over political expediency and religious dogma?

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Choral Fantasy from Harmonia Mundi

Beethoven Symphony no 9 (the Choral Symphony) in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.

A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

The hum of bees rising from myriad scented blooms; gentle strains of birdsong; the cheerful chatter of picnickers beside a still lake; decorous thwacks of leather on willow; song and music floating through the warm evening air.

Taking Risks with Barbara Hannigan

A Louise Brooks look-a-like, in bobbed black wig and floor-sweeping leather trench-coat, cheeks purple-rouged and eyes shadowed in black, Barbara Hannigan issues taut gestures which elicit fire-cracker punch from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

'In my end is my beginning': Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida perform Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

All good things come to an end, so they say. Let’s hope that only the ‘good thing’ part of the adage is ever applied to Wigmore Hall, and that there is never any sign of ‘an end’.

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Baritone Roderick Williams seems to have been a pretty constant ‘companion’, on my laptop screen and through my stereo speakers, during the past few ‘lock-down’ months.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny bring 'sweet music' to Wigmore Hall

Countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny kicked off the final week of live lunchtime recitals broadcast online and on radio from Wigmore Hall.

Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein almost rescue Strauss’s Enoch Arden

Melodramas can be a difficult genre for composers. Before Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden the concept of the melodrama was its compact size – Weber’s Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz, Georg Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea or even Leonore’s grave scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

From Our House to Your House: live from the Royal Opera House

I’m not ashamed to confess that I watched this live performance, streamed from the stage of the Royal Opera House, with a tear in my eye.

Woman’s Hour with Roderick Williams and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

At the start of this lunchtime recital, Roderick Williams set out the rationale behind the programme that he and pianist Joseph Middleton presented at Wigmore Hall, bringing to a close a second terrific week of live lunchtime broadcasts, freely accessible via Wigmore Hall’s YouTube channel and BBC Radio 3.

Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis: The Choir of Keble College Oxford and the AAM

In the annals of musical controversies, the Missa Scala Aretina debate does not have the notoriety of the Querelle des Bouffons, the Monteverdi-Artusi spat, or the audience-shocking premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Two song cycles by Sir Arthur Somervell: Roderick Williams and Susie Allan

Robert Browning, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A.E. Housman … the list of those whose work Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) set to music, in his five song-cycles, reads like a roll call of Victorian poetry - excepting the Edwardian Housman.

Roger Quilter: The Complete Quilter Songbook, Vol. 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume 3 in their series The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

03 Sep 2019

Sir John Eliot Gardiner brings Benvenuto Cellini to the Proms

Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini is quite rarity on UK stages. Covent Garden last performed it in 1976 and English National Opera performed it for the first time in 2014 (in Terry Gilliam's riotous production), and yet the opera never quite goes away either.

Prom 59: Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini - Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner

A review by Robert Hugill

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

Chelsea Opera Group has performed it at least twice, Sir Colin Davis persuaded the London Symphony Orchestra to produce it in concert not once, but twice, and I am sure there are other performances I have missed. Counting stagings in Amsterdam (by Tim Albery in the 1990s) and Strasbourg, I have seen the opera eight times, not bad for such a rarity.

The way that Benvenuto Cellini continues in the repertoire, in some form, is perhaps an indication of the affection with which the piece is held; despite the difficulty of the music and the craziness of the dramaturgy, the work's sheer invention, imagination and energy carry you away. Sir John Eliot Gardiner continued the tradition by bringing his concert staging of Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini to the BBC Proms.

Benvenuto Cellini has a complex textual history, Berlioz wrote it in 1836 and it was performed at the Paris Opera in 1838 but was not well received and only received five performances. From there it languished until Franz Liszt put the work on in Weimar in 1852 with Berlioz extensively revising it and Liszt suggesting cuts. From 1838 we can trace at least three versions, two of which are reconstructed and recorded, the opera as Berlioz first wrote it, before it went to the censors, the opera as first performed by the Paris Opera and the work as recorded in the Paris Opera archives after Berlioz' further cuts during its run at the Opera, as he tried to salvage what he could from a disastrous run. Another problem when producing the Weimar version is that Berlioz' revisions are mixed up with Liszt's swinging cuts designed to bring the running time into something acceptable. All this means that each performance takes its own route through the textual maze; the original version is full of good things which Berlioz later cut but is also a sprawling mess in dramatic terms.

In fact, there is one more version of the opera! Berlioz original plan was for an opera comique, but it was turned down so when approaching the Paris Opera with the idea the spoken dialogue had to be dropped. But the French vocal score was published with cues marking the dialogue, and a revival with dialogue, was planned at the Théâtre-Lyrique in l856 (though this did not happen).

At the BBC Proms, John Eliot Gardiner made his own selection (based on Hugh Macdonald's critical edition), so what we heard was 1838 with some elements of 1852. The result was long and full of felicitous detail omitted in the 1852 version, and had moments which were truly delightful but which, frankly, held up the action. But then, if one wanted tight, focused drama one would not listen to Benvenuto Cellini; its charms are those of the sprawling, riotous carnival which it depicts at the end of Act One. Hugh Macdonald's 1966 article on the Hector Berlioz website aptly sums up the differences between the various versions.

The title role is impossible. The first Benvenuto Cellini, Gilbert Duprez (who created Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and who was the first tenor to use chest voice for Arnold's top C in Rossini's Guillaume Tell) hated it. The role calls for flexibility, strength, stamina (the 1838 version is a long sing) and an ease in the high register, combined with a sense of comedy! No wonder opera companies shy away from it. The first Benvenuto Cellini in the revised, 1852 Weimar version was the first Lohengrin which perhaps indicates the direction some of the 1852 changes were going.

Michael Spyres (Cellini) and Sophia Burgos (Teresa).JPGMichael Spyres (Benvenuto Cellini) and Sophia Burgos (Teresa). Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

At ENO in 2014 Michael Spyres had already shown that he is in many ways the ideal protagonist: he has sung a lot of early 19th century French opera, can cope with the devilish complexity of Berlioz' writing and is an apt comedian. The whole of the first scene in Act One was delightful, as Spyres despatched Berlioz’ music with style, wooed Teresa with sly charm and was rather funny. His narration of his escape during the first scene of Act Two was equally fun, and you could appreciate Spyres’ attention to the words, always important in this work.

There were some profoundly beautiful moments too, notably Cellini's Act Two solo when he sings of the simple life, but in some later high passages we were also aware of Spyres managing his voice. This was his third performance in the role in five days: the production had been seen at the Festival Berlioz, La Côte-St-André on 29 August, and the Berliner Festspiele, Berlin on 31 August, and travels to the Opéra Royal, Palace of Versailles next Sunday. That is quite a punishing schedule for such a taxing opera.

The beauty of Spyres’ performance was that he wasn't just a comedian, but also brought out Cellini as the serious artist as well, and he really made the most of the quite full version of the piece that we heard, making all the felicitous details count. We were really rooting for him, so that the final casting scene was edge of the seat stuff, in all the best ways.

Sophia Burgos made a delightful Teresa. Perhaps her voice was slightly small for the Royal Albert Hall, but then this is hardly the best venue for Berlioz' serio-comic opera. Burgos combined dextrous facility in the vocal writing with immense charm and a strong sense of character, which made her anything but a passive victim. She and Spyres made a fine pairing, particularly in the Act One love duet, and her solo in Act Two (when, in Cellini's absence Teresa has to cope with the workmen going on strike) showed Burgos' real metal. This is not an easy role to sing, and the great virtue of Burgos' performance was that we forgot the difficulty of the music and simply enjoyed her warmth and charm.

Lionel Lhote.JPGLionel Lhote (Fieramosca). Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Fieramosca, the Pope's official sculptor and Cellini's rival suitor for Teresa's hand, is technically a comic role - he is perpetually the butt of Cellini's manoeuvrings and always seems to come of worse. I have always loved the Act One trio, where Cellini instructs Teresa about the plans for tomorrow's carnival, and then when they repeat them, Berlioz adds a third line for Fieramosca who is now listening. It is very funny, and dazzling musically, and perhaps sums up Benvenuto Cellini. Lionel Lhote made Fieramosca a wonderfully funny character, a hapless schemer who always failed, but he brought rumpled charm to the role and had the right sort of presence to be threatening too, and he sang very finely indeed. This was no buffo bumbling, but Berlioz' high baritone line beautifully and dextrously sung.

The smaller roles are also highly important in this opera, and there is a strong ensemble element to the piece requiring a well-balanced cast. At the Royal Albert Hall we had a series of well-drawn characters, but also a sense of ensemble too.

Tareq Nazmi (Pope) and Maurizio Muraro (Giacomo Balducci).JPG Tareq Nazmi (Pope) and Maurizio Muraro (Giacomo Balducci). Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Adèle Charvet was a charming Ascanio, complete with a fine youthful swagger. Ascanio is not a huge role, but Charvet gave the young man strong personality, and she made the most of her delightful (yet dramatically redundant) Act Two aria. Maurizio Muraro was a finely comic, very buffo Balducci (Muraro was a last-minute replacement for Matthew Rose). Tareq Nazmi was very funny indeed as the Pope, here a frankly comic character prone to falling asleep. Ashley Riches and Vincent Delhoume (repacing Krystian Adam) were Cellini's co-workers Bernardino and Francesco, always popping up and contributing much by their double act. Peter Davoren and Alex Ashworth (both from the Monteverdi Choir) provided finely comic cameos as the Innkeeper and Pompeo.

The staging by Noa Naamat was simple but effective, and she did not shy away from any of the librettos requirements, so we had a carnival scene, and we had the casting of Perseus (though embodying the statue on stage in the person of Duncan Meadows was perhaps unnecessary). Essential to this was the Monteverdi Choir which sang with focused dexterity and power, yet also entered with a will into the whole of the action, erupting on stage during the carnival.

The whole performance had a rhythmic tightness and brilliance which belied the music's complexity and Gardiner's speeds certainly took no prisoners so that the Carnival scene was completely dazzling in many ways as choir, soloists and orchestra articulated Berlioz' busy and complex rhythms whilst keeping the whole sparkling and fun. The finale, with the casting of Perseus, was equally devastating.

It was here and in other moments that we could really appreciate the period instruments. The narrow bore brass, including cornets as well as trumpets, and an ophecleide (!) made a strongly characterful impression without overbalancing in the way can happen with modern instruments and the period wind (with four bassoons) were similarly characterful and colourful. And it was this sense of a wider range of colour that we took away from the performance, something that Gardiner seemed to relish. The period strings were lighter in colour and far less dominant in the busy passages, making the whole full of lovely detail, which meant we could appreciate the sheer skill of all the performers.

This was a performance which positively sped by, the sprawling drama overflowed the whole Royal Albert Hall stage and erupted in a carnival of delightful moments, but Sir John Eliot Gardiner kept things flowing and moving, always aware of the need for pacing and the importance of making the details build into something greater. Whilst Michael Spyres charming rogue was at the centre, this was a finely balanced ensemble cast which made this most tricky yet engaging a complete delight.

The performance is on BBC iPlayer for 30 days .

Robert Hugill

Benvenuto Cellini - Michael Spyres, Teresa - Sophia Burgos, Balducci - Maurizio Muraro, Pope Clement VII - Tareq Nazmi, Francesco - Vincent Delhoume, Fieramosca - Lionel Lhote, Ascanio - Adèle Charvet, Bernardino - Ashley Riches, Perseus - Duncan Meadows, Pompeo - Alex Ashworth, Innkeeper - Peter Davoren; Director - Noa Naamat, Conductor - Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Lighting Designer - Rick Fisher, Costume Designer - Sarah Denise Cordery, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.

BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London; Monday 2nd September 2019.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):