The LSO performing a major work by Berlioz, under the baton of Colin Davis, sounds like a sure-fire hit and, while ultimately not as uplifting and totally engrossing as some of the other works in the canon (most notably The Trojans), this latest concert performance came close to fulfilling expectations. The second of two concerts this week, this Benvenuto Cellini is destined to take its place in the marvellous Berlioz catalogue on the “LSO Live” CD label.
There’s something inherently dramatic in the conflict between the artist as creative genius and as hard-drinking libertine and yet this work doesn’t quite convince. Berlioz’ “semi-seria” opera sits uncomfortably between drama and operettaish comedy and the portrait of Cellini shows him much more prominently as a cavalier rake than the sculptor and silversmith who created some of the great masterpieces of the High Renaissance. It’s reminiscent of those movies from the ’50s where Charlton Heston or Kirk Douglas scowl, dab away at a canvas and spin out their human dramas, without convincing us for one moment that they’re artists.
Despite these dramatic weaknesses, the opera contains some head-churning music and this was as formidable a performance as you’d expect from Davis and the LSO. From the off, the ebullient overture told us we were in for a rip-roaring evening. In the great carnival scene, the brass positively blistered and the London Symphony Chorus was simply magnificent. At the end, the orchestra summoned up the fiery forge as though it were the devil’s own and, throughout, this was as intense and boisterous an account as this often tricky score demands.
The soloists were slightly more mixed. Laura Claycomb was a fine Teresa and Gregory Kunde a quality replacement for the indisposed Giuseppe Sabbatini. Already an impressive Ene on DVD and Cellini on disk, Kunde is a terrific Berlioz tenor, although his big number (the stunning “Sur les monts les plus sauvages”) was not entirely effortless and the voice is not as fresh as it once was. Isabelle Cals was cute and impish as the boy Ascanio but her solo “Mais, qu’ai-je donc?” was a little underpowered against the mighty sound of the orchestra and didn’t quite hit home.
Peter Coleman-Wright played the comedy of the treacherous Fieramosca to the hilt while, on the other end of the blade (and fresh from his well-deserved popular success in Cardiff), Jacques Imbrailo made his mark in the cameo role of Pompeo.
The dramatic potential of the piece came alive in the confrontation scene with the Pope, with John Relyea displaying gravitas and a deep rich bass-baritone as Clement VII. The youthful Darren Jeffrey, who slid up the dramatis personae when Michele Pertusi dropped out at a late stage, brought an introverted tone, hammy acting and a shortfall of maturity to the part of the over-protective father Balducci.
Gripes about some of the singing apart, Colin Davis and his forces worked hard to persuade us this is a masterpiece but I, for one, left with some doubts still intact.