Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Benvenuto Cellini, 26 June 2007

Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini

Barbican, London, 26 June 2007

Gregory Kunde (Benvenuto Cellini)
Laura Claycomb (Teresa)
Darren Jeffery (Balducci)
Peter Coleman-Wright (Fieramosca)
Andrew Kennedy (Francesco)
Isabelle Cals (Ascanio)
Jacques Imbrailo (Pompeo)
John Relyea (Pope Clement VII)
Andrew Foster-Williams (Bernadino)
Alasdair Elliot (Cabaratier)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

It was about time Sir Colin Davis and the LSO returned to Benvenuto Cellini. Their last performances were too early to be included on the LSO-Live label. One assumes that a 'live' recording will now follow, to join the astounding Troyens, the hardly less remarkable Béatrice et Bénédict, and a host of other Berlioz semi- and non-operatic works. With the exception of Les francs-juges – now largely destroyed – Cellini is Berlioz's first opera, and as such a wider public will doubtless want to hear how have Sir Colin's thoughts have developed since his groundbreaking first recording (1972) and indeed since the recent appearance of John Nelson's worthy competitor, which, in the light of Hugh Macdonald's Bärenreiter edition of the score, added about half an hour's additional music to that previously available. Nelson's recording is a fine achievement indeed, but what works for a studio recording is not necessarily best for a performance, and Davis acknowledged this, if only implicitly. Moreover, choices must always be made between competing versions (both for Paris and for Weimar). Whilst I do not propose to conduct this review as a comparison with these earlier recorded performances, they are important to bear in mind as an important context for how subsequent performances of the work will now be received.

Davis's Berlioz has always been of a somewhat Classical bent – hardly surprisingly, given his stature as a condutor of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. The colouristic wildness of a Bernstein or a Munch has never been his way; yet for a composer who has often been criticised for alleged formal deficiencies, it is no bad thing to entrust the score to a conductor for whom structure and its delineation are so crucial. The authority with which he approached the score was evident from the first to the last bar, and the Overture set the scene for both work and performance. Orchestral weight and lightness of touch stood in perfect equilibrium. There was never any question, given the conductor's long experience with this work and with Berlioz's œuvre as a whole, that he knew precisely where he was going and that every episode would fall precisely into its allotted place. Delicate woodwing colouring brought to mind the Wagner of Die Meistersinger. (If only Davis and the LSO would perform a Wagner opera or two in concert...) The recollection, or more properly presentiment, of Wagner and of Meistersinger in particular was not at all inappropriate, I reflected: both works are comedies, both involve elopements and communal celebrations (Carnival or Midsummer's Day), and most crucially, both are concerned with the figure of the artist and the nature and purpose of art itself. Wagner was far from an uncritical admirer of Berlioz, but he acknowledged the Frenchman's mastery of the orchestra (his 'mechanical means', as Wagner wrote in Opera and Drama). One could very well understand why, as the trombones displayed an awesome combination of absolute precision and luxurious richness of sonority. Davis and his orchestra showed beyond doubt that command of structure and detail does not in any sense imply a slight dullness of interpretation.

Indeed, the orchestra was faultless throughout its navigation of the vast score. It would be impossible to mention every instance of brilliance, but that should not prevent citation of a few instances. The virtuosic tuba solo was played not only with great technical aplomb, but also with true tenderness of feeling. Another world was sounded, as the trombones solemnly intoned the arrival of the Pope. Rarely, if ever, have I heard such a beautiful yet portentous sound from these instruments. Even in apparently small accompanying figures, David Pyatt's horn sang more sweetly than one had any right to expect. Guitars and percussion made the street scenes credible without scenery. The crucial rhythmic and harmonic pointing of the strings, the nervous energy they imparted, underpinned the whole as if Berlioz's idiosyncratic writing were the most natural thing in the world (which it is emphatically not). They provided a rhythmic beat and a heartbeat to the progression of the score.

The chorus was every bit as good. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of its performance was the unanimity of attack in conjunction with the orchestra. Orchestra, chorus, and conductor must have performed more Berlioz together than any other such combination; yet whilst this quality of performance should not necessarily surprise, it nevertheless does. The great perorations were as thrilling as anything in Les Troyens. Moreover, choral diction was beyond reproach.

Whilst in many ways, orchestra and chorus stand at the very heart of the opera, there are also of course singers to consider. Let it first be said that no one was any less than good, but the picture was somewhat more mixed here, at least considered by the stratospheric standards invoked above. I felt the absence, with but one exception, of any Francophone singers. Other singers are perfectly capable of singing the roles, of course, and many have done with great success. Yet it does seem, perhaps especially with Romance languages, that inclusion of at least one or two native speakers, lifts the general level of communication. Such has often been my experience, for instance, with Italians in Don Giovanni. Much of the French sounded a bit too much like hard work, as was unfortunately highlighted in the painfully slow delivery of the spoken dialogue. Rather oddly, Isabelle Cals, the only French singer, produced some very odd vowel sounds during her second act aria, 'Mais, qu'ai-je donc?' So maybe nationality was not the problem after all...

Gregory Kunde, also the Cellini on Nelson's recording, brought authority to his role. He could sometimes sound a little strained, though, and in some instances just a little too old for so youthful and virile a role. His approach perhaps erred on the Italianate side, but this is something very difficult to get right in so international an age of vocalism. Laura Claycomb certainly had the technique for Teresa, as she displayed in the excessive cadenza to her first-act cavatina. (Any excess is Berlioz's fault, not hers, I should add.) I felt that her voice lacked a certain warmth and colour, but one can rarely have everything. Darren Jeffery's Balducci was a bit too much of a generalised buffo figure, although it should in fairness be mentioned that he was a late replacement (as indeed was Kunde). For a buffo villain par excellence – at least until his conversion in the final scene to the cause of art – we should turn to Peter Coleman-Wright's Fieramosca. There was nothing generalised and everything particular to this characterisation, which brought a real sense of the theatre to proceedings. We were not so far yet still far enough from the world of Rossini (albeit with far superior orchestration!) Coleman-Wright's aria, 'Ah! Qui pourrait me résister,' was very fine indeed. Alasdair Elliott made the most of Berlioz's delicious little cameo portrait of the innkeeper who refuses to serve Cellini and his friends more wine until they pay their bill. And Jacques Imbrailo made a striking impression in the small yet dramatically crucial role of Pompeo. There was no finer singing than that of John Relyea, as the Pope. His deep, sonorous tones perfectly complemented those of the trombones I mentioned above. Such were his vocal and dramatic authority, one wondered whether he might be a future Boris.

In many ways, a concert performance is a sterner test than a staged performance for singers. All of their acting must be done vocally, rather as in a studio recording, and yet they must also be seen. Taken as a whole, the ensemble worked well, and there were, in the cases of Coleman-Wright and Relyea, two outstanding performances. If the general level of the soloists did not quite reach that of conductor, orchestra, and chorus, that is as much testament to the greatness of the latter as to any great shortcomings from the former. For the rapturous reception accorded to the performance was richly deserved; Berlioz was fortunate indeed at the Barbican.