Each summer since 2015, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR) and John Eliot Gardiner have featured the music of Hector Berlioz in their annual appearances at London’s famed BBC Proms festival. This year marks both the orchestra’s 30th anniversary and the 150th anniversary of the French composer’s death. To honor these twin milestones, Gardiner and the ORR return to the Royal Albert Hall to conclude their five-year commitment to Berlioz’s music with a staged account of his first opera, Benvenuto Cellini, on September 2. Anchored by the Monteverdi Choir, with Michael Spyres in the title role, the Proms performance – announced just today – crowns the ensembles’ high-profile European tour of the opera this summer. Also taking in the annual Festival Berlioz in the composer’s birthplace, La Côte-Saint-André (Aug 29), the Berliner Festspiele (Aug 31), and the Palace of Versailles (Sep 8), the tour represents the work’s first modern performances on period instruments and provides a fitting sequel to the ensembles’ transatlantic “Berlioz Series 2018” tour, which – after the London Proms performance – prompted the Financial Times to marvel: “Berlioz has no idea what he missed.”
Rarely performed today, Benvenuto Cellini (1838) is the story of a maverick Florentine sculptor and goldsmith, whose lust for life repeatedly gets him into trouble. After eloping with the beautiful Teresa, daughter of the Pope’s treasurer, Cellini hopes to escape papal retribution by casting the prelate a statue of Perseus. Running short of time and metal, he saves himself only by melting down all his previous artwork to feed the furnace. The casting is eventually successful, winning the sculptor not only the pardon of the Pope, but also Teresa’s hand in marriage.
John Eliot Gardiner, the winner of more Gramophone Awards than any other living artist, explains: “Benvenuto Cellini has so much going for it – ravishing music, a cast of three-dimensional characters, a gripping plot, love interest, a murder, a riotous carnival scene, phenomenal choruses, and a spine-chilling dénouement. There’s no choral writing in opera to match it for sustained excitement and acrobatic virtuosity. Cellini is one long string of enchanting musical surprises. It’s Berlioz at his most witty and exuberant.”
The opera’s score exists in three main versions. For the upcoming tour, Gardiner has incorporated selections from all three, combining part of Berlioz’s initial score, from before the rehearsals in 1838, with the version reflecting changes made during the first production and the revised version created by the composer for the Weimar revival of 1852, which was conducted by Liszt.
As Gardiner notes, the opera presented problems for performers from the outset. “The first performance at the Paris Opéra in 1838 was a resounding flop,” he says. “The singers and the orchestra found it altogether too difficult, too modern, and too rhythmically challenging.” To meet these interpretive challenges, he and the ensembles have joined forces with an impressive international roster of soloists. American tenor Michael Spyres – “a tenor who has the world at his feet” (Opera magazine) – undertakes the title role, opposite Puerto Rican-American soprano Sophia Burgos – a “rising star” (The Times of London) – as Teresa. Critics Circle Award-winning English bass Matthew Rose sings the role of her father, Balducci, with Belgian baritone Lionel Lhote, also appearing this summer at the Glyndebourne Festival, as her fiancé, Fieramosca. German-Egyptian bass Tareq Nazmi lends his “sympathetic charisma and profound bass” (Süddeutsche Zeitung) to the role of the Pope, and French mezzo-soprano Adèle Charvet, winner of the Verbier Festival’s Yves Paternot Award, portrays Cellini’s apprentice Ascanio. Polish tenor Krystian Adam – a “real star” (New York Times) and British bass-baritone Ashley Riches – “one of today’s finest young singers” (The Guardian) – round out the cast as artisans Francisco and Bernardino.
Spyres and Riches were among the vocal soloists who took part in last year’s “Berlioz Series 2018,” which took the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Gardiner to New York’s Carnegie Hall, London’s BBC Proms, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, and six more key U.S. and European destinations. The critical response was euphoric. The Amsterdam performance was “a true triumph” (Opera Click), the London one scored five-star reviews in The Times, the Arts Desk, and the Financial Times, and after the New York concerts, the New York Times observed: “The boldness of the music was matched by the performers. At 75, Mr. Gardiner is relentlessly inventive and risk-seeking.”
Before the Benvenuto Cellini tour, there is still time to catch Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir, together with the English Baroque Soloists, in a new production of a very different opera: Handel’s Semele. Directed by Thomas Guthrie, this takes them to four iconic European concert halls – the Paris Philharmonie, where they launched the tour last week; Barcelona’s Palau de la Música (April 24); Milan’s La Scala (May 6); and Rome’s Sala Santa Cecilia (May 8) – as well as to London’s oldest new theater: the Alexandra Palace Theatre (May 2), a faithfully restored marvel of Victorian engineering that has just reopened for the first time in 80 years. As Forum Opera remarked after the Paris performance: “Nearly 40 years after recording the complete 1993 edition, John Eliot Gardiner continues to refine his interpretation in live performance, and we understand from the first moments that this is going to be a memorable evening. … The feeling of expressive urgency will not be denied. … The Monteverdi Choir is in dazzling form and captivates with its ability to make sense of every word.”