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S & H International Opera Review

BERLIOZ, Benvenuto Cellini, Orchestre National de France, December 8, 2003 (FC)

In the lifetime of the composer, this opera was staged thirteen times. In a futile effort to please the public and critics, the composer actually cobbled thirteen different versions. Conductor John Nelson sensibly took to the premise that the composerís first thoughts were best and the manuscript as first given to the Paris Opéra - before the rehearsals even started - was the one heard during the first of two concert performances at the studios of Radio France.

It is a sprawling, high-energy work, if somewhat lacking in focus, and is stirring in impact if the enthusiastic audience at the Salle Olivier Messiaen was any measure. You can also imagine how disturbing the music might have been to the contemporary Parisians comfortable with their Meyerbeer and Rossini. The familiar stutter-step beginning bars of the overture and the delirious orchestration, horns blaring and drums pounding, provoked derision from those first audiences.

The pair of concerts, part of a recording project for this opera by EMI, had been intended to star Roberto Alagna in the challenging title role. He withdrew in the weeks before the performances and the American tenor Gregory Kunde was able to fill in, both for the concerts and the recording. Kunde, who impressed last month as Enée with John Eliot Gardinerís series of performances of Les Troyens at Châtelet, is not a power tenor in the Vickers mould. But his sense of French style and graceful, focused tenor is always a welcomed presence. He was seen to struggle only when Berlioz made almost impossible demands. The great Gilbert-Louis Duprez, legendary for his high Cs, threw up his hands after only three performances at the first Paris run.

Other non-French principals were Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi as Teresa and American mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the trouser role of Ascanio. Ciofi, filling in for Natalie Dessay during her time off for surgery, was the Lucie de Lammermoor in Lyon and Paris last year, has since become a major star in her own right and her limpid tone and dramatic phrasing only confirm her new diva status. DiDonato has twice sung Rosina at the Opéra de Paris and is another whose stardom is clearly warranted. Her lively reading of the Act II mocking aria "Tra la la la Mais quai-je donc?" - sadly often cut - was one of the highlights of the evening.

The distinguished French baritone Laurent Naouri blusters effectively as the father of Teresa, Balducci. He is currently singing also Agamemnon in La Belle Hélène at the Châtelet Theater. Baritone Jean-François Lapointe created an unusually vivid Fieramosca and tenor Eric Salha and young baritone Marc Mauillon (who is still in school) provided strong support as Francesco and Bernardino. It was only the Pope, bass Renaud Deliague, who had unsteady moments.

John Nelsonís way with Berlioz was markedly different than John Eliot Gardinerís, with his original instrument orchestra. This was a full-blooded, meat and potatoes performance of an older, more traditional line of conducting. While lacking detail and clarity, it was a propulsive, naturally unfolding reading of great spirit. He threw himself into this work with such abandon that he had to take a break during the extended final section of Act One (after conducting the choral section which the composer lifted for the ending of his Roman Carnival Overture). After a few minutes, a chair was installed on the podium and the maestro sat through most of the rest of the performance.  Orchestra spokespersons confirm that it was only an ear infection, which was later treated.  He will be on the podium for the December 11 public performance and has worked on the recording details with the orchestra between the two performance dates.

Several side stage groups were conducted - and the Chorus of Radio France prepared well - by Philip White. In the version given last night, the choir and assembled singers have great parts to play. It is almost a grand oratorio rather than an opera and the love between Cellini and Teresa, despite a ravishing duet, is almost a side show to the carnival activities which seem center stage. But the music is never less than engaging and often among the composerís best. It is, finally, an opera full of vigor and melodic charm and its youthful high spirits are hard to resist.

Frank Cadenhead



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