Monday, 2 July 2007

Review of Benvenuto Cellini

On Friday we went to see the 2nd of the LSO's performances of Benvenuto Cellini at the Barbican. It was billed as being part of their Choral Blockbusters series. Really, I can't see Benvenuto Cellini as a choral blockbuster, but it does have some fabulous choral set pieces and the entire London Symphony Chorus was present in force. As was the LSO, to such an extent that there was barely any room on the platform for the soloists. Colin Davis was in charge and the tenor soloist was supposed to be Giuseppi Sabbatiini, who had sung the role with the LSO in 1999. This was the period when the LSO were just setting up LSO live and Benvenuto Cellini was one of the items they missed, so this pair of performances could be seen as filling a gap allowing them to have the complete Berlioz dramatic works on their label with Colin Davis.

Unfortunately both Sabbattini and Michele Pertusi pulled out, so that we had Gregory Kunde instead. Kunde has a rather open sounding voice, quite surprising in this repertoire, but he does specialise in French 19th century operas. He sang Aeneas in the staging of Les Troyens at the Chatelet which was conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. The nearest voice that I can come to is the sound of John Vickers, singing something like Samson (I never heard Vickers in any Berlioz). Kunde usually takes his chest voice quite high and there are moments where you think the voice will strain but it does not. He also mixes in some lovely head voice, which balances well with the rest of his vocal production. He is also technically adept, so that the verbal and vocal intricacies of the part were well covered.

Whilst Kunde is not, perhaps, my ideal in the role he delivered fabulously. He seemed tireless, but also responded well to the mercurial nature of the part. By Act 3 he still had plenty of reserves to deliver a well shaded account of Cellini's impassioned invocation.

As his love, Teresa, Laura Claycomb encompassed everything that the role required. Here coloratura was dazzling and she sang charmingly and winningly. She also displayed a sense of humour, which is important in this part. My only real complaint was that her tone seemed at times a little too firm, not quite hard but not really flexible enough for this role. She never ever seemed 17 and her delivery was very mature (think Bellini heroine) rather than girlish. But when sung as well as this, I am probably being picky.

Darren Jeffery seemed a little young to be singing Balducci and, in fact, the part might be a little low for him. But he worked hard at the gravitas and succeeded by and large. Peter Coleman-Wright was superb as Fieramosca, imbuing the part with the necessary mix of comedy and bumptiousness. A very dramatic performer, you never ever felt that he was merely giving concert performance.

In fact, none of the artists gave the impression of just singing their roles. No producer was credited, but some thought had been given to entrances and exits and the way the singers interacted. All of them sang to each other and responded. The result was to create a good dramatic performance even though the staging area was tiny. This had the advantage that the whole drama was extremely involving.

Of course, it helps that everything was superbly controlled by Colin Davis. He is a conductor who has a secure grasp of the structure of Berlioz's work, whilst never losing control of the details. Every detail was beautifully in place, whilst the work flowed just as it should.

The smaller parts were very well cast with Andrew Foster Williams and Andrew Kennedy making quite a mark as Cellini's workmen, Francesco and Bernadino. Isabelle Cals, as Ascanio, seemed the only native French speaker in the cast and I would have liked to hear more of her.

The chorus part was not designed for a large amateur chorus and it says much for the LSC's discipline and professionalism that they fitted into the performance superbly and gave a well crafted performance.

The Paris version was used, but with some of the recitative replaced by spoken dialogue. A change which works remarkably well and facilitates the flow of the piece. I look forward to hearing the CD.

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