Berlioz’ first opera Benvenuto Cellini is rather an unorthodox piece, since it possesses quite an unwieldy plot and demands much from a staging in order to portray, among other things, the casting of a giant bronze statue. When he directed the work for English National Opera in 2014, Terry Gilliam’s solution to the problems posed by this was to go all out to fill the stage – and indeed auditorium – with spectacle, so that any inconsistencies or weaker moments were swept aside in the overall wave of excitement.
Such an option was obviously not open to the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, in this ‘staged concert performance’ which completed conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s five year long exploration of the composer at the BBC Proms. While, however, one might imagine that the only approach to such a work under the circumstances would be to pare everything down to an absolute minimum, this performance, directed by Noa Naamat, did better than that. Costumes, courtesy of Sarah Denise Cordery, were worn by principals and chorus alike, while a few props and some movement were introduced. As a result, one felt that we were receiving a ‘pure’ performance of the opera that let the music speak uninhibited, but with the added bonus of the innovations there were going a very long way. As a result, there was a degree of dynamism that far exceeded what one might ever have expected could have been achieved.
As a rule, principals sang from the front of the stage while the chorus was positioned on raised steps behind the orchestra. Since many of the latter’s moments involved boisterous singing as, for example, the crowds bombard Balducci with confetti or Cellini’s pupils sing in a tavern to the glory of metal-workers, their positioning towards the back presented no problems regarding balance or projection. When Balducci’s servants give Fieramosca a beating, having them simply hurl their abuse to him over the orchestra worked well, while the act of splitting the principals and chorus also produced dividends at the carnival. With the principals all in a line at the front one gained far more of a sense of how the individual vocal lines interacted with each other, as well as with those of the chorus, than it is usually possible to do in a full staging when the individuals tend to be scattered all over the place.
The carnival saw the pantomime-opera ‘King Midas’ played out as it would be in a full production, while the fact that costumes were used meant it was possible to work out what was going on, and who was who, when so many characters are deliberately disguised in the same way. The ending actually saw the statue of Perseus appear, by being played by an actor (Duncan Meadows), while the forging of it possessed the right sense of monumentality with the chorus miming the appropriate actions as smoke appeared amidst a few red hot graphics.
An appropriate sense of farce was also brought to the scene in Teresa’s bedroom, with Fieramosca creeping about the orchestra, and even receiving some sympathetic glances from the conductor as he realised she was with Cellini. In Pelléas et Mélisande Debussy wished Pelléas to die in the violins, but here we saw Fieramosca hide near the double basses!
The playing was exceptional, as Gardiner elicited such levels of precision and balance from the orchestra that these, in themselves, acted as the basis from which all of the unorthodox and boisterous sounds that are so often demanded could come to the fore. It was also a real coup to have the orchestra stand for the Overture, as a sense of drama and excitement was instilled into the evening from the outset. Many scholars see Benvenuto Cellini as possessing many wonderful moments and some weaker ones as things go off the boil. In this performance, however, it felt hard to detect any of the latter, and this was largely down to Gardiner for two distinct reasons. First, he compiled this version, with it representing a composite of both Paris versions and the Weimar version (based on the Urtext of the ‘New Berlioz Edition’), and this seems to have minimised the less successful moments to begin with. Second, his conducting on the night captured such a sense of the sweep of the score that it became easy to appreciate exactly why everything was there.
The cast was superb. Michael Spyres, who also played the title role for English National Opera in 2014, proved a class act as he revealed an exceptionally expansive tenor voice. Occasionally, in Act II there seemed to be signs of strain, and yet usually within the next moment or two he was right back to his best. Maurizio Muraro, replacing the previously advertised Matthew Rose, was a tremendous Balducci, asserting his powerful bass while capturing something of the treasurer’s mean-spirited character. Lionel Lhote, with his excellent baritone voice, was an entertaining and unusually likeable Fieramosca, which worked because it meant we felt sorry for him as we saw him creeping around and realised that he was always going to lose out in both work and love. He also wrote in a nice joke of tripping over every time he exited the stage, rather like Freddie Frinton in Dinner for One.
Tareq Nazmi, with his own strong bass voice, was good value as Pope Clement VII, playing out the character’s worldliness with a glint in his eye and perhaps a nod to Mr Bean. Soprano Sophia Burgos tempered fullness with sensitivity and, when considered alongside the attention to detail that she showed in her phrasing, helped to highlight Teresa’s multi-faceted character. Just as accomplished was Adèle Charvet as Ascanio, whose mezzo-soprano voice was something special and whose gestures and reactions were minutely observed every second that she was on the stage.