Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini – Opéra semi-seria in two acts

Benvenuto Cellini – Gregory Kunde
Teresa – Laura Claycomb
Ascanio – Isabelle Cals
Fieramosca – Peter Coleman-Wright
Giacomo Balducci – Darren Jeffery
Pope Clement VII – John Relyea
Francesco – Andrew Kennedy
Bernardino – Andrew Foster-Williams
Innkeeper – Alasdair Elliott
Pompeo – Jacques Imbrailo

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 26 June, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Preparing a performing version of Berlioz’s first opera is something of a textural nightmare, and it would take an extensive essay in order to delineate the various permutations.

The composer’s initial plan was proposed to the Opéra-Comique, which presented works including spoken dialogue (Bizet’s “Carmen” is a famous example). This was rejected, and so Berlioz – and his librettists – approached the management of the Paris Opéra – which required that everything should be sung – who accepted the opera. Berlioz subsequently composed recitatives in place of the dialogue. When it went into rehearsal, the inadequacies of the performing forces were such that the composer was obliged to re-write and cut certain passages. Which of these were voluntary and which were imposed by the conditions he faced can not be ascertained for sure. In any event, the 1838 performances were disastrous – to put it mildly – and Berlioz withdrew his opera after only four complete presentations (plus three that gave the first act alone followed by a ballet).

Apart from excerpts given in concert, nothing more was heard of this remarkable score until Liszt staged it in Weimar in 1852, when cuts and emendations were again made. A single performance in London in 1853, and some further airings in Weimar in 1856, was all that Berlioz experienced during his lifetime; yet he was immensely proud of the opera’s energy and prodigy of invention. Towards the end of his life, Berlioz again re-considered his work, and was thinking about re-casting it in its original Opéra-Comique form.

It was a conjectural rendering of this version that Sir Colin Davis elected to give at this concert. His pioneering studio recording of “Benvenuto Cellini” (on Philips) also adopted this approach, but I am not, in all honesty, convinced that it is the right one. Bärenreiter’s authoritative Berlioz Edition provides the option for three versions – Berlioz’s original thoughts (Paris I), the revisions made at the time of the first production (Paris II) and the later Weimar version.

The last time “Benvenuto Cellini” was heard in London was under the direction of Sir Roger Norrington at a 2003 Prom, and he adopted the ‘straight’ Weimar text. Davis’s slightly uneasy combination of Paris I plus various interpolations from subsequent revisions did not entirely convince. We simply do not know how Berlioz would have interpolated dialogue and whether this was considered for a particular production or for a final version of the score is uncertain. In the end – given the circumstances – it would perhaps be prudent to either present the first Paris version or that from Weimar, rather than attempt a kind of hybrid as was given on this occasion.

John Nelson has recorded – on Virgin – Berlioz’s initial thoughts, with judicious selections from the revisions. This seems to me to be an admirable course. Far be it from me to criticise David Cairns, the acknowledged Berlioz expert, but it appeared odd that he commended Davis’s approach in the LSO programme note, but also applauds Nelson in the booklet for the Virgin release.

In any event, what finally matters is the music – and how wonderful it is with its freshness and vitality. Sir Colin Davis is, of course, now the éminence-gris of Berlioz performances. He has huge and obvious affection for this music, and yet I invariably sense that his approach is not always appropriate. A work such as “Benvenuto Cellini” surely demands razor-like attack from the orchestra, and yet Davis encourages a more relaxed approach to the way in which orchestral sound is invoked. A word which comes to mind is ‘spongy’, and I cannot believe that this is what Berlioz would have wanted. Davis held the work’s disparate elements together effectively enough, but there were some untidy moments and some distinctly strident sounds from the brass section which, it perhaps goes without saying, Berlioz deploys very often in a score which is frequently very loud.

Gregory Kunde is also to be heard on the Nelson recording and he certainly has the notes within his range. Whether or not Berlioz would have wanted a crooning falsetto for the very top ones I rather doubt, but Kunde has the character for this multi-faceted part, if without the vocal personality of Nicolaï Gedda who sings for Davis on Philips. Laura Claycomb’s attractive soprano was also heard with Norrington in concert and on the subsequent Hänssler recording. If her tone spread somewhat at the top, her personable delivery was, nevertheless, effective. Ascanio is a ‘breeches’ role – he is Cellini’s apprentice and a soprano in Paris, but a mezzo in Weimar. Isabelle Cals is the latter, and so we missed the high-lying and elaborate contributions to her first ‘air’ – a drinking-song in all but name – to which Philip Glass must surely have lent an ear when the elaborate woodwind arpeggiated figuration suggests rapid and voluminous imbibing. Cals sang adequately though did not, ultimately, present much in the way of characterisation. Peter Coleman-Wright made a positive contribution as Teresa’s would-be lover – convincing in both dialogue and song – Darren Jeffery rather less so as her father, being somewhat ‘covered’ by the orchestra at times. John Relyea, however, was utterly magnificent as the Pope (who had to be downgraded to a Cardinal, thanks to the censors, for the Paris performances). He was imposing, dignified and yet not without a sense of the ironic, or ‘cynical’, to quote Cairns’s note.

Whatever reservations one might have, it was undeniably good to hear this opera live again. The consequent recording for LSO Live will surely prove rewarding and interesting.

  • Second performance on Friday 29 June at 7.00
  • Barbican
  • LSO

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