Prom 39 – Benvenuto Cellini

Berlioz
Benvenuto Cellini (Weimar Version)

Benvenuto Cellini – Bruce Ford
Teresa – Laura Claycomb
Ascanio – Monica Groop
Fieramosca – Christopher Maltman
Giacomo Balducci – Franz Hawlata
Pope Clement VII – Ralf Lukas
Francesco – Johannes Chum
Bernardino – Reinhard Mayr
Innkeeper – Ekkehard Wagner
Pompeo – Matthias Hoffmann
Officer – Ekkehard Vogler

MDR Radio Choir Leipzig
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (SWR)
Sir Roger Norrington


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 17 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

“Est-ce folie ou bien génie?” – Is this madness, or is it genius? Thus cries Cellini towards the end of this remarkable opera. Such a thought must surely have occurred to those who witnessed Benvenuto Cellini’s disastrous premiere in Paris in 1838 (the Opéra stage would never again be graced by a Berlioz creation during the composer’s lifetime). Maybe, also, when Cellini was given in London in 1853. Perhaps even during the successful 1852 production in Weimar, given at the instigation and under the direction of Liszt who had insisted on changes and cuts.

It was this Weimar version which was performed at this Prom. However chequered the opera’s fate whilst Berlioz was alive, one could marvel again at Berlioz’s sheer prodigy of invention and, yes, genius. How tragic for him that his gifts were not recognised in his lifetime – although he is not, of course, alone in that regard – but how fortunate we are to have his musical legacy and the opportunity to appreciate it.

One can only imagine what the first performance of Cellini must have been like. Given Berlioz’s fearsome demands on his instrumentalists, and the rhythmic and metrical twists in this score which would give even the young Stravinsky a run for his money, the results must have been, to put it mildly, chaotic.

Not so with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sir Roger Norrington’s assured direction. The playing was totally secure – the gymnastics Berlioz required of his brass players were negotiated with aplomb, the virtuosic woodwind writing delivered with conviction and the three timpanists revelled in the innovative writing – and all the colour the composer wanted was amply provided.

Personally, I do not like vibrato-less string playing. Norrington does, of course, and one respects his view. In passages where the writing is florid and scalic it does not especially matter. I can’t help feeling, though, that more lyrical moments would have been even more effective with a more expressive string sound and, perhaps, an easing of the tempo which, on the whole, were judiciously swift and kept the drama bubbling along appropriately.

It was salutary to note that there was not one native French singer amongst the cast, but, overall, it was a strong one. In general terms, Berlioz’s vocal writing is not as innovative as his orchestration, taking note as he does of the prevailing operatic style of the time, with shades of Rossini and Italian and French ’bel canto’ being evident. One important feature, however, is his ensuring that any vocal display – such as in Teresa’s first aria – is put to the service of character and drama rather than as a means and end in itself.

Bruce Ford is a noted exponent of nineteenth-century opera and is equipped with the capability of meeting the majority of Berlioz’s demands, not the least of which is the tenor’s unusually extended top register. Perhaps Berlioz’s singers would not have resorted to falsetto quite as much as Ford did, but he valiantly negotiated the tricky writing, even if he did not dominate and command in a way which would have been ideal. His voice is actually smaller in the flesh than it sounds as recorded, but his expounding of this taxing role was thoroughly commendable.

As the object of his love, the part of Teresa was convincingly rendered by Laura Claycomb who had the right kind of bright sparkling voice. She conveyed the various facets of the character most engagingly and she blended perfectly with Monica Groop in the scene between Ascanio and Teresa discussing Cellini’s fate against the background of chanting monks. The audacious harmonies were all the more noteworthy by being perfectly in tune. Elsewhere, Groop was rather anonymous in delivery, with some cloudy tone and unclear diction.

As Teresa’s father, Franz Hawlata mistook bluster for character and was the least effective both histrionically and vocally. Ralf Lukas provided dignity and pompous solemnity as the Pope, and other parts were cast from strength – chorus member Ekkehard Wagner providing a delicious cameo as the Innkeeper demanding money for the considerable quantity of alcohol Cellini and his friends had already consumed.

Berlioz’s esprit always rises whenever imbibing is on the agenda, and the riotous goings-on of the second act were, quite simply, breathtaking, and perfectly controlled by Norrington. He pointed up the grotesque elements of the scoring, such as the inebriated euphonium. The cross-rhythms at the conclusion of the act were exhilaration itself.

Sadly, Berlioz did not leave a definitive version of Cellini. The first Paris version includes spoken dialogue, this Weimar edition has recitatives – and wittily inventive they are, too. Whether the cuts and modifications instigated by Liszt might have been further amended had Berlioz had an opportunity to do so, we cannot know for sure. What is certain is that Berlioz’s brazen talents were fully at work in Benvenuto Cellini, and that this performance confirmed the startling originality of his gifts.

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