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S & H Prom Review

PROM 39: Berlioz, ‘Benvenuto Cellini’ (Weimar version), Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, MDR Radio Choir Leipzig, cond. Sir Roger Norrington, RAH, Sunday 17th August 2003. (ME)


 


Benvenuto Cellini was ‘hissed with exemplary precision and energy’ at its 1838 Paris premiere, presumably owing to its blend of strikingly modern music with an unconventional central figure and a style which, like La Damnation de Faust, would be most accurately described as ‘a concert opera.’ It’s exactly the kind of piece that a Music Festival such as the Proms should be offering: infrequently given, yet possessing many beauties, difficult of execution yet highly successful when the cast is equal to it. This evening attracted a fairly small but unusually attentive audience, and they were not disappointed - Norrington directed a fiery performance of startling energy, and drew from the chorus and soloists some of the most committed singing I’ve heard on this stage.

Benvenuto Cellini himself has just about everything required to be a romantic hero, including a strong leaning towards the ‘anti’ side of heroism, combined with the creative artist’s mercurial temperament, the ‘about to mount Pegasus’ / ‘divine afflatus’ aura, and above all the deliberate desire to go beyond the accepted boundaries of art, thought and behaviour. The work at which he is the centre may be a strange conglomeration of the buffa and the seria, but it also brings out the desire of the creative artist for some kind of serenity – a desire very much to the fore in this performance, since I’ve seldom been so aware of the more sensitive side of the character. Like many of Handel’s heroes, this Renaissance man’s strongest desire is to escape to a pastoral idyll in the company of his beloved, an idyll far from the brash and brassy Court and city which much of the music so vividly depicts.

Bruce Ford’s Cellini was strongly focussed on this side of the character, perhaps necessarily so, since his wonderful, ringing tenor voice did not sound quite the instrument it used to be – however, he could have been affected by the usual swelter inside the hall (I always wish singers could just rip off those penguin suits & sing in a T shirt and shorts, cooling themselves with Chinese paper fans during the pauses…) or maybe it was just a less than perfect day for his voice. However, Ford is the genuine article: he may have ducked a couple of the more stratospheric notes, and he may have rushed a line or two, but he remains one of the very few tenors who can truly be described as a Haute – contre, and hearing him reminds you how ludicrous it is to pin that label on so many others who just don’t have the required timbre, agility and deportment. He was superb during his tender duets with Teresa, unfailingly elegant in his narratives, and both incisive and fiery in his faster passages: of the set pieces, ‘Une heure encore’ had many beautiful moments, especially ‘Le mien sera le plus joyeux,’ but he had tired by the time ‘Seul pour lutter’ had arrived: nevertheless, his wonderfully even emission of that slightly reedy, other-worldly tone, his quietly elegant turns and his depiction of a troubled and complex character remain close to the ideal in this music.

Laura Claycomb’s heroine was very finely sung, with bright, open tone and excellent diction: the character does not give a singer much to work with, but she did all she could to portray this capricious 17 year old: ‘Quand j’aurai votre âge’ may not have displayed much vocal colour but the music was articulated with impressive skill, and ‘Mère de tendresse’ was beautifully phrased. Ms Claycomb has real stage presence, too, and she and Ford would have brought the house down with their blazing ‘Quand des sommets de la montagne’ if most of them hadn’t been dozing off by that time, not from any ennui but simply from the heat.

Christopher Maltman continues to pop up everywhere, and one is always glad to see him: of course, the role of Fieramosca is made for him, or rather he for it. His French is excellent these days, and his familiarly committed acting a delight: ‘Ah! Qui pourrait me résister?’ showed his energetic phrasing and burnished tone at their best – who, indeed, could? The other ‘star’ role here is that of Ascanio, quite possibly the fourth most irritating character in all opera - the others being, in ascending order, Octavian as Mariandel, Olga (Onegin) and Oscar (Ballo) – indeed, Ascanio has much in common with that pesky latter: Monica Groop sang the part very sweetly, and gave the dramatic elements plenty of commitment – no mean feat.

There were no real weaknesses in this cast – Franz Hawlata’s wonderfully sonorous bass shone as Balducci, Ralf Lukas managed to present Clement VII as a convincing character, Johannes Chum displayed a bright, confident tenor as Francesco, Ekkehard Wagner was an endearingly preposterous Innkeeper, and even the smallest roles of Bernardino, Pompeo and the Officer were cast from strength with Reinhard Mayr, Matthias Hoffmann and Ekkehard Vogler.

I have not previously heard this choir or this orchestra, and both were superb: from the extreme contrasts in the overture, with its massive use of brass, to the blazing finale, the playing was engrossing in every detail: Norrington brought out all the tenderness and mercurial quality of Berlioz’ music in his shaping of the arias, and the high drama and low comedy were both brilliantly etched by the orchestra. I am one of those with a tendency to drift away mentally during silly bits: my own habit is to think of something much more serious & therefore more agreeable to me – on this occasion it was Domingo singing ‘Gia della notte densa’ to Margaret Price – but I have to say that this Choir’s singing kept my inattention to the very minimum during all those metal – workers choruses and to-ings and fro – ings – their incisive attack and amazingly clear French are a credit to the chorus-master, Howard Arman.

Victor Hugo wrote of Shakespeare, whom Berlioz revered, that he ‘…is drama – drama which blends the grotesque and the sublime, the terrible and the farcical, tragedy and comedy.’ The same could be said of Benvenuto Cellini, a work whose mixture of styles and grandiose actions might seem to render it problematic to stage in these straitened times, although I would love to see what Peter Sellars would do with the great climax where Cellini’s bronze statue of Perseus finally breaks from its mould: this Prom performance may have been only the next best thing to a full staging, but it was an unusually vivid, committed and enjoyable one.

 

Melanie Eskenazi

 

 


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