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Reviews

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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.

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