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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Benvenuto Cellini (1838)
Michael Spyres, tenor – Benvenuto Cellini; Sophia Burgos, soprano – Teresa; Maurizio Muraro, bass – Giacomo Balducci; Lionel Lhote, baritone – Fieramosca; Tareq Nazmi, bass – Pope Clement VII; Adèle Charvet, mezzo-soprano – Ascanio; Vincent Delhoume, tenor – Francesco; Ashley Riches, bass – Bernardino; Alex Ashworth, bass – Pompeo; Peter Davoren, tenor – Innkeeper
Monteverdi Choir
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. Opéra Royal de Versailles, 8 September 2019
no extras

Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini seems to have fallen rather into neglect in recent times, having been overtaken in prominence by the more readily stageable Béatrice et Bénédict, the ever-popular Damnation of Faust and even the long-regarded-as-impossible Troyens. Even in his centenary year productions of his operas tended to ignore his first completed score, and it is therefore welcome that John Eliot Gardiner has now taken up the cudgels on behalf of the work.

Mind you, it is sometimes difficult to tell exactly what Benvenuto Cellini actually is. It began life as an opéra comique with spoken dialogue (this is the form in which it was twice conducted on disc by Sir Colin Davis), then gathered sung recitative for its première at the Paris Opéra, and was subsequently substantially revised for a performance under Liszt at Weimar some years later – which was the form in which the opera was usually given after the composer’s death. The substantial booklet with this disc is rather coy about such matters; spoken dialogue is ruthlessly excised, but the re-ordered and somewhat illogical progression of the plot in the final scenes of the Weimar version is similarly avoided. What we have appears to be an attempt to provide the score as it was originally staged in Paris in 1838 conflated with later revisions, but it would have been nice to have had some explanation for editorial decisions especially since they were clearly carefully considered.

What we have here is a semi-staged performance, with the period-instrument orchestra centrally placed (and standing for the overture) surrounded by a front stage for much of the principal action and a raised dais at the back for the chorus and crowd scenes. This means that for much of the time the singers are actually having to progress backwards and forwards through the orchestra, which lends an air of artificiality to the proceedings which is not assisted by some forcedly humorous byplay between the conductor and the singer of the Pope. Incidentally the Paris production, on the insistence of the censor, replaced the character of Clement VII by a cardinal; so in this instance at least the performance here does adopt the Weimar revision of the text.

The costumes are a curious mixture of Renaissance and modern, not always to the benefit of either the singers or the drama; the booklet rather misleadingly seems to imply that the backdrop is a reproduction of that for the Paris première (the publicity describes it as “the historic 1837 set”), but in the event it turns out to be a generic scenic design intended for use in concerts given at the Versailles Opéra Royal (a recently restored building which was commissioned by Louis-Philippe but fell in disuse following the final collapse of the French monarchy in 1848). It looks fine, but it has little to do with the subject of Benvenuto Cellini.
The playing of the orchestra under Gardiner, as one might expect, is close to ideal – well-projected, showing great confidence in the handling of their period instruments (including Berlioz’s specified two guitars, four harps and three sets of timpani as well as a battery of four trumpets and two cornets). The string forces are substantial and produce a magnificently virtuosic sound. The Monteverdi Choir too are solidly romantic in tone, augmented to nearly sixty voices – which may belie their retention of their baroque name but nevertheless yields remarkably athletic results in the complex cross-rhythms of the Roman Carnival scene.

The soloists in this performance are rather more of a mixed bag, given roles that admittedly would challenge nearly all singers. The title role, originally written by Berlioz for the lyrical voice of Adolphe Nourrit and then revised for the more stentorian Gilbert Duprez (who gave up the part after a solitary performance), would contrive to defeat most challengers. After a wholly heroic opening, with the voice often striving in vain to make itself heard over a stentorian orchestra (with the players in an orchestra pit, this might not have been so much of a problem), Berlioz suddenly and unexpectedly confronts his tenor with a delicate and lyrical romance Sur les monts which not only holds up the dramatic action at a point when speed is surely of the essence (Cellini is being challenged to complete his statue of Perseus by sunset, or face execution) but also demands that the singer rein back his voice to a gentle meditation which would be difficult even if he had not already been delivering at full throttle for much of the evening. Not surprisingly Michael Spyres, who has basically the right sort of voice for the part, sounds tired and exhausted by this stage. As his beloved Teresa, Sophia Burgos also sounds stressed by her more heroic music; and even Lionel Lhote, whom I much enjoyed recently in the Glyndebourne Cendrillon, sounds out of sorts as the interfering Fieramosca – and he can make nothing of his unexpected change of motivation in the final scene. Tareq Nazmi is insufficiently firm and declamatory as the Pope (the debunking of his character an hardly have assisted in the portrayal of implacability), and of the remaining singers only Ashley Riches makes much of a mark in the minor character of Bernardino. It was probably cheaper to hire a living actor to portray the famous statue of Perseus than to manufacture a statue specifically for the occasion, but Duncan Meadows might at least have contrived to remain motionless. The singers of Pompeo and the Innkeeper, both members of the Monteverdi choir, are robbed in the booklet of their independent credits for their solo roles; they deserved mention (the details above derive from the Monteverdi choir’s website).

There appear to be two currently available rival video versions of Benvenuto Cellini¸ both from European opera houses on the Naxos label. One features an expectedly extravagant and highly ribald production by Terry Gilliam, and the other a Salzburg Festival presentation conducted by Valery Gergiev but with a plethora of pointless directorial glosses. Neither present the music in terms sufficient to overwhelm the opposition. Under the circumstances those wishing to experience a staged production of Benvenuto Cellini in their living rooms will find that this handsomely presented DVD answers their needs admirably. The booklet contains essays and plot synopses in English, French and German, and subtitles are provided in all three languages.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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