Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Review of Macbeth (Glyndebourne at the Proms)

To the proms last night for the Glyndebourne Prom, their performance of Verdi's Macbeth. First of all, though we had to negotiate the perils of getting into and around the Albert Hall. There were huge queues at the doors, as attendants were searching bags. Luckily some of the attendants had sense and were redirecting people to doors where there were no queues.


Once in, we had to encircle the dreaded corridor; why is it that this space seems to encourage people to linger in awkward groups thus making the circumnavigation rather cumbersome. The queue for the ladies toilet was so long that it was blocking the way into the gents. Oh I do love this place! Still, at least they had not run out of programmes as they did at the late night Striggio Prom last week.

Geoffrey Dolton had reduced Richard Jones's production to manageable proportions, given the tiny stage area available. The chorus were dressed vaguely in tartan and remained generally stationary. When being witches, 3 actressess/dancers came onto the stage dress in the costumes familiar from the production photos. They proceeded to gyrate during the choruses and frankly, I wished they hadn't. Given the vividness of the chorus utterance and the intensity of their Italian diction, I could quite happily have done without the visuals. For the men of the chorus, sitting in serried ranks in kilts on a level above the audience must have given them a cause for concern when sitting, lest they flash more than just their knees.

This was also true in the ballet when the 3 actresses were joined by 3 others garbed as a skeleton, a mummy etc. Looking at the production photos again, I could imagine that on the Glyndebourne stage with the whole ensemble, this might have been effective. But with just 6 people gyrating on the Albert Hall acting area the results were risible. I just closed my eyes and listened to Verdi's ballet music. It was the first time I'd heard it in situe. I'd like to hear it again in a more propitious circumstance.

This reduction of the production to small details meant that what might have been effective and powerful at Glyndebourne, became risible in the Albert Hall. The reliance of both Macbeths on axes - in moments of stress each reached for an axe (or two) - looked a little foolish. Similarly the Sleepwalking Scene was reduced to a pile of rubber gloves, an orange sack and a bucket. Whether or not you liked the original production, such reduction is hardly helpful.

Still, what we were left with was the sheer intensity of the individual performances. Whether the cut-down production worked or not, the soloists delivered stunning performances. Stanislav Shvets made a fine, meliflous Banquo; very much a cut above the barking, older bass that we can sometimes expect in this role. He seemed to have developed a real dialogue with Macbeth in the opening scenes. His appearance as a ghostly card-board box was one of the other less helpful bits of production business.

As the Lady, Sylvie Valayre had all the notes that the role required, including the ability to do the coloratura. Hers is not the most lovely voice and she seemed to have a tendency to push it at times, but I'm not sure how much of this was to do with trying to cope with the Royal Albert Hall. If I have time this week, I plan to listen to the opera on the BBC web site and will report back again.

Her coloratura was generally done in a lighter, more lyric voice which lent it subtletly and shading. Valayre is definitely not a Lady in the Ghena Dimitrova/Rita Hunter mould where one huge voice is called upon to negotiate itself round Verdi's fiddly bits. But those that heard Hunter in the role probably know that she did the negotiating with brilliant skill.

Valayre simply did not, in the end, endear her voice to me no matter how well she played the role. Which was a shame as she made a very fine Lady. Her presence was a bit more subtle than the usual blood and thunder we can get, for this we must credit both Valayre herself and Richard Jones.

She developed a fine rapport with her husband. And it was Andrzej Dobber as Macbeth which made the whole thing worthwhile. He gave a stunning account of the role, beautfully sung and fine stage-crafted, totally believable and lovely to listen to. He even managed to not look embarrassed at having to wear a kilt. I was glad that
Jones had opted for the 1845 ending. Not only do I prefer this, as it omits Verdi's rather trivial chorus of praise from the 1865 revision. But it also gave us the opportunity to hear Dobber singing Macbeth's final 1845 aria. I long to hear Dobber again, but next time in a decent size theatre please.

Peter Auty made a fine Macduff, giving us a fine Italianate account of the single tenor Aria in the piece.

I think the Albert Hall may have given Vladimir Jurowski one or two problems, at least the orchestral ensemble seemed to take a little time to settle. But when it did, it was fabulous. Dobber apart, the main reason for going to this performance was to hear the wonderfully subtle performance by Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This was worlds away from the rumty-tum image of early Verdi; it was beautifully paced and shaped.

Recent CD Review

My review of a new disc of Szymanowski songs is here on MusicWeb International.
Slightly short playing time but displays Szymanowski in the best possible light. Highly recommended for those interested in exploring some fascinating vocal music. ...

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Handel's Operas, volume 2

We I have finally finished the 2nd volume in Winton Dean's amazing trawl through the complete Handel operas.
This 2nd volume is the one that people thought that Dean would never complete, after all he is over 90 and his collaborator in volume 1 has subsequently died.

This volume covers the 2nd half of the Academy operas (from the two divas rivalry) to the end. The format is essentially the same as volume 1 so the interested amateur has
a lot of information about libretti, editions, manuscripts to wade through. But even this esoterica is well worth the effort as, in the absence of definitive documentation about the performance of the works, it is the close reading of what information we have which gives us the context for the works.
Essentially we get a full summary of the plot, including all of the rubrics from the printed libretto, an aria by aria discussion grouped by character, something of the history of the work and its performances, details of manuscripts and printed libretti.
The inclusion of the comprehensive rubrics is useful as many later sources reduce these and the full scene descriptions give us a clearer idea of what was in the librettist and composer's head.
With the long gap (over 20 years) between the first and second book we have seen far more productions of Handel operas in main stream opera houses. Dean does not hesitate to comment on these, after all it is not that long ago that he was still writing opera reviews for Oper Magazine.
He is dubious about many of the productions, including ENO's seminal Xerxes.
In his review of the book in Opera magazine, Hugh Canning was not completely sympathetic with Dean's rather purist view of Handel opera production. But I find myself rather agreeing with Dean.
Whilst I can appreciate the clever mechanics of a production like Xerxes and can more than empathise with the way it has made Handel opera popular,
I think some how it does rather falsify the relationships of the characters.

Fundementally Dean regards Handel as a great dramatist; if the operas are treated sympathetically then the characters will be strongly and well drawn.
Productions which try to alter and improve things, the great majority I'm afraid, only suceed in bringing in an
element of falsity. I wish I was a little more sympathetic to contemporary Handel opera production, but again and again find myself agreeing with Dean.
When I do like aspects of a production, I find that often these are the aspects which are disliked by critics.
I remember when the Royal Opera's Orlando was first done, we both enjoyed the fluency with with Francisco Negrin staged it.
With the rotating set he managed to make the scenes flow into each other in a way that is not often done. Too often
we have big hold-ups between scenes which is not the way the productions were conceived in the first place. But this
aspect of Negrin's production was just the one which seemed to be overlooked or disliked by critics.

Dean's book give plenty of room for thought; especially in the areas where Handel's inspiration seemed to be inextricably linked
to the circumstances of an opera's first production. His sequence of operas for the twin divas have much admirable music, but the necessity of balancing the 2 soprano parts
seems to have robbed his creativity somewhat, perhaps the studied calculation necessary was alien to his compositional make up in some way.

Another fascinating thing is how he seems to have dissociated himself from an opera once written.
Operas that have faults almost never seem to have them corrected in revival, its as if he approaches the revival purely as an impresario and not as a composer revising his work.

There is much food for thought in the book and it seems to be essential on the Library shelves, along with volume 1 and Dean's volume on the oratorios.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

More from this month's Opera

Further gleanings from the July edition of opera.

Minnesota Opera have just produced a new operatic version of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath; not the most obvious subject for an opera but Ricky Ian Gordon's new piece seems to have gone down well. Let's add it to the list of new operas we won't see in the UK in a hurry - Dead Man Walking anyone? Meanwhile in San Francisco they've been reviving Lou Harrison's Young Caesar; billed in 1971 as the first gay puppet opera. Now there is a first!

Seattle Opera's Giulio Cesare seems to have suffered from the usual producer-itis; there was a ballet troupe to keep the proles happy and nearly a third of the opera was cut.

In London, Second Movement produced a programme of 1-act pieces including Shostakovich's completion of Benjamin Fleischmann's Rothschild's Violin. The young singers included Hanna Pedley who made a memorable Romeo at Nevill Holt recently.

We missed Handel's Imeneo when Cambridge Handel Opera Group did it in May, much to my profound annoyance. I've always had a curious fascination with this strange late Handel opera. Opera's reviewer seemed quite taken with the production, which makes missing it all the more annoying.

We missed Pelleas et Melisande at Covent Garden partly because I'd already read the Opera's reviews of the Salzburg original. Roger Parker's description of the costumes as 'prototypes for an ice-spectacular called Liberace Eats Pies in Space' seems to have been pretty near the mark as far as I can see.

There's been much discussion about the edition of Macbeth being used at Glyndebourne (basically 1865 with the addition of Macbeth's final aria). What no-one seems to really comment on is that this solution is essentially Fritz Busch's solution which was used, I think, in earlier Glyndebourne productions. Rodney Milnes does not think that the 1845 finale is as effective as the later one, but frankly I've always found the 1865 concluding chorus horribly trite and preferred the 1845 original's conclusion, ending just with Macbeth's death.

Michael Kennedy described Benjamin Paul Griffith's Tadzio, in ENO's Death in Venice as singularly unenticing; though he does have the grace to admit that he cannot speak with authority on the matter. I must confess that I thought he made rather an appealing, if mature, Tadzio.

We Hear that.. has the usual clutch of tantalising hints at the future. William Christie is conducting Herold's Zampa at the Opera Comique in March 2008 (I can remember playing the overture in the school orchestra, many, many years ago). David McVicar is continuing seeming like Scottish Opera's house producer, he's doing La Traviata there in 2008-09. Paul Rouders is doing an opera based on Lars von Trier's film Dancing in the Dark. Interesting indeed.
More bizarrely, Graham Vick's Verona production of La Traviata is being staged in Birmingham at the National Arena.

Oh, and the new slimline Deborah Voigt is doing Salome for Opera Pacific.

Striggio Prom

As predicted half the choristers in London were in the audience for Tuesday's Late Night Prom when the Tallis Scholars and the BBC Singers performed Striggio's 40-part motet, Tallis's 40-part motet and the newly discovered Striggio Mass.

The concert opened with the Striggio motet which sounded, frankly, rather soggy. I listened again on the BBC web-site and things sounded a lot better. Though the Albert Hall sounds a good idea for this type of music I'm sure that a smaller venue would be better. Still, it was good to hear the piece. Its less polyphonic than the Tallis, more polychoral in the Venetian manner.

The performers realised the cool-beauty of the Tallis though it was not as moving as some performances that I've heard. And rather oddly, occasional voices tended to stand out in a way that was not quite desirable. They sang the piece in the usual low pitch. Inevitable given the balance of forces for the other pieces, but frankly I prefer the Tallis sung high.

The best performance in the first half was Lassus's motet and magnificat, both for two 5-part choirs. The results show Lassus's mastery of the form and his confidently handling of many parts. This worked stunningly well in the Albert Hall with a clarity not possessed by the other pieces.

The Striggio mass is written for 4 basic choirs, with parts ranging from 18 to 40 part. Then for the final Agnus Dei the singers are joined by 20 more to create a 60 part texture. As with the motet the textures were mainly poly-choral chori spezzati type. The results seem to have more clarity than the Striggio motet and the mass is undoubtedly beautiful and impressive. The final Agnus Dei created a simple waterfall of sound. I'd love to hear it in a more sympathetic acoustic or perhaps somewhere were the singers could be placed in the round.

Recent CD Review

My review of the new disc of arrangements by Holst is here on MusicWeb International.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Recent CD Review

My review of the re-issue John Eliot Gardiner's account of Handel's Agrippina is here, on MusicWeb International.
Superbly sung and performed ... highly enjoyable although I would have liked a little more smile in the music. ...
Thursday's London Concord Singers concert went well. All we have to do now is perform the programme again in Basel in 2 weeks time.

We were away in East Anglia this weekend gone, but I did manage to catch the end of the broadcast of Beethoven's 9th Symphony from the Proms. My main impression was how uncomfortable the BBC Symphony Chorus and the Philharmonia Chorus looked. They were singing without scores and had obviously been instructed to stand with their hands at their sides. This the singers did, rigidly. They sounded engaged. They sounded magnificent, in fact. But they hardly looked like a chorus. Singing is a physical act and I always feel that a chorus should be allowed to express this, within reason of course.

On Saturday night we went to Blackthorpe Barn, at Rougham near Bury St. Edmunds. There, once a year, they have a chamber music festival, with some very high profile names. This year Freddy Kempf played 2 concerts. Next year the line up will include the Belcea Quartet.

We went to see members of the Razumovsky Academy. These are young professionals who have been coached by members of the Razumovsky Ensemble. The 4 string players (Anna Lisa Bezrodny, Florence Cooke, Maya Rasooly and Silver Ainomae) were joined by cellist Oleg Kogan from the Razumovsky Ensemble. The programme was beautifully structured. Kogan and Ainomae started with one of Jean Barriere's Sonatas for 2 Cellos. These were new to me. Barriere wrote a set of sonatas for 2 cellos in the 1730's and 1740's in Paris. The style is very galant and uses a logs of passages in thirds, double stopping etc. Kogan and Ainomae swapped parts between movements so that both had chance to display their virtuosity in the 1st cello part.

This was followed by the delightful Dvorak Terzetto for 2 violins and viola, thus giving the rest of the ensemble chance to shine. Bezrodny, Cooke and Rasooly gave a charming account of the piece.

Then all 5 players came together to play the Schubert Quintet in C (the 2 Cello quintet). The players gave a poised, rather classical account of the piece. Their virtues were ensemble and balance; the performance did have some passion but it was not over done. The barn's acoustics are pretty good but are not very forgiving, you can't hide behind reverb. This meant that one or two slips in ensemble were audible. But given that they do not play regularly together, the results were superb. The first 2 movements, were expansive, long breathed affairs; all the players played in paragraphs, this was real, joined up music making.

The heavenly length of Schubert's late works can prove challenging in the concert hall, even more so when sitting on plastic chairs in a draughty barn. But the members of the Razumovsky Academy gave a performance so enthralling, so beautifully judged, that it had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Music reviewer's log

My latest music reviewer's log has just appeared on Music Web International here; just in case you are curious about what goes through my head whilst reviewing CD's.

Review of Capuletti e Montecchi

My review of Grange Park Opera's production of Capuletti e Montecchi at Nevill Holt is here, on Music and Vision.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Proms ahoy

Today's Evening Standard has an article with different critics selecting their stand-out Proms from this year's season. And whilst there are some interesting things out there, I must confess that not many of this seasons concerts make me burn with a desire to be in the Albert Hall. Particularly when I've done a full day's work and could be sitting comfortably at home. Or am I just getting old?

Anyway, we are doing the Proms, well 3 of them! But July and August are generally so crammed with holidays, weekends away etc. that we usually miss the best Proms. On Tuesday 17th we're doing the late night prom with the newly discovered Striggio Mass amongst other things. Friends who have sung in the Striggio 40-part motet have commented that it is rather boring, so I will be very interested.

The following Tuesday we are seeing the Glyndebourne Prom, Verdi's Macbeth without the controversial production. Then later in the season we'll be hearing Elgar's The Apostles. One of those works that it's necessary to hear every 10 years or so. (Which means I've got a Bruckner symphony coming up soon!)

Last night we managed to listen again on the BBC website to Saturday's Early Music Show. I had caught the programme live, but not listened properly as I was busy finishing a piece of Music. (For those who wonder, I have the rather annoying habit of having the radio on in each room and playing the piano or playing back music from my PC.).

Rather fascinatingly the piece O Crux Fructus
taken from a disc by Ensemble Lucidarium, sounded a lot like one of the track's from Luc Arbogast's disc.

Almost worth the trip

The American Symphony Orchestra under Leon Botstein are giving the American premiere of Ethel Smyth's opera The Wreckers at Avery Fisher Hall in New York on September 30th. There is no information yet about casting. If it wasn't for the complicated security arrangements required for transatlantic travel I'd almost be tempted to go!

Monday, 9 July 2007

More on Capuletti e Montecchi

The role of Romeo in Bellini's Capuletti e Montecchi was originally written for the soprano, Giulietta Grisi. In 1832, when Maria Malibran essayed the role , Rossini suggested that she use a scene from Nicola Vaccai's opera Romeo e Giulietta as the penultimate scene of the score. Malibran had a voice of remarkable range, but this change made the role of Romeo more accessible to contraltos and it became a regular option for singers like Maria Alboni.

A high counter-tenor friend, who had sung scenes from Bellini's opera, once opined that if the Vaccai ending was used he would be able to sing the whole role. I am not aware that anyone has actually tried this out yet.

Vaccai had been an older contemporary of Bellini's who had had a degree of success, in fact Romeo e Giulietta was his most popular opera, one of the few to receive performances outside Italy. Unfortunately it was eclipsed by Bellini's opera; Bellini probably chose the subject because his librettist, Felice Romani was embroiled in a financial dispute with Vaccai.

London Concord Singers Concert


This Thursday at St. Cyprian's Church, Glentworth Street, London NW1 I will be singing in the London Concord Singers summer concert. We're presenting a programme whose main works are Walton's Cantico del Sole, Rheinberger's Mass in E flat and Howells's Requiem. The programme will also form the basis for our concert tour to Basel, Switzerland, at the beginning of August when we will be performing 2 concerts in the Basler Münster and singing Mass at Mariastein Monastery.

Review of Semele

My review of Semele at Grange Park last weekend is here, on Music and Vision.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Capuletti e Montecchi

Last night we went to hear Grange Park Opera at their outpost at Nevill Holt in Leicestershire. Nevill Holt is a rambling old (v. old) mansion owned by David Ross and he has built a very permanent temporary theatre in the courtyard of the stables.

Unlike Northington Grange, Grange Park Opera's main home, Nevill Holt is occupied so all of the audience facilities are in tents. As David Ross has guests for the opera you get a stream of people going into the house before the opera, some of them arriving in helicopters (not allowed at Northington Grange). Ross has had the house and the gardens restored and before the opera there is the chance to have a wander around the fabulous walled gardens.

My review of the opera itself will appear in due course, but the performance was entrancing.

Sills and Crespin

There have been obituaries in the recent days for Beverley Sills and for Regine Crespin. Sills was a singer who I never heard live. Though she was in my thoughts recently because last night we went to see Bellini's Capuletti e Montecchi at Nevill Holt and Sills recorded it with Janet Baker as Romeo. The recording never did really get fabulous reviews but it remains in my memory as one of Baker's rare excursions into Italian early 19th century opera. I'm not sure whether its still available, but it is certainly a recording I'd like to acquire.

Crespin I saw twice. The first time was in recital in Scotland at the Usher Hall (I think) with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. She did a lighter recital, the most serious piece being an extract from Massenet's Manon. The encores included an item from the Chocolate Soldier, I seem to remember, and the drinking song from Offenbach's La Perichole. The most remarkable thing about the recital was her pink jersey dress trimmed at the bottom with ostrich feathers!

Later on, in the 1980's I think, I saw her performance as the Old Prioress in the Covent Garden revival of Poulenc's Carmelites (with amongst others Pauline Tinsely, Marie McLaughlin, Eiddwen Harrhy and Valerie Masterson). Crespin's was a fabulous performance that stood out amongst many other fine performances.

But I really came to love Crespin's voice from disc. Her recording of extracts from Les Troyens; her early recital of French romantic opera including the excerpt from Reyer's Sigurd (now that's an opera I'd like to hear)and her live Gluck from South America (not brilliant recordings, but what a performance).

Monday, 2 July 2007

Gleanings from this Month's opera magazine (I)

Some jottings from the July edition of Opera Magazine

The opening editorial is about age-ism and the editor quotes Yvonne Kenny who said in an interview with the magazine in 1992 that Fiordiligi is so gruelling a sing that it takes a 40-ish soprano to illuminate it. The editor then speculates about a director bringing us a mid-life crisis version of Cosi !

The interview this month is with the young Scottish director, Paul Curran. Young being a relative term, he's 42. It is curious how some people seem to have lives that are intertwined even though they don't meet, and the intertwinings are ultimately rather meaningless.. As a young man Curran had a number of key experiences of theatre at the Citizens in the late 70's when I was in Scotland and went there as well. He saw the 1980 Wozzeck at Scottish Opera, as did I. Later in London he saw Christa Ludwig as Klytemnestra, as did I. He studied at the London Studio Centre, where a friend of mine works. And he went on to dance with Scottish Ballet, I troupe that I enjoyed immensely.

More importantly, the interview sheds light on Curran's formative experiences. At the age of 16 he fell in love with a (male) dancer and was thrown out by his parents. This is the sort of important detail which is glossed over in such interviews and it is all to Curran, and Opera Magazine's credit that they include such important details.

Curran was in London in the 1980's when ENO was run by Lord Harewood. He makes the important point that Harewood had a mix of styles. David Alden and David Pountney, as well as John Cox, Joh Dexter, John Copley and some 1960's productions. It was this balance that was lost when the PowerHouse took over. 'I don't want every show I do to have the same look, because not every story can be told the same way. Harewood's ENO nurtured that philosophy'. Later on he quotes David Pountney's interesting dictum about 'the danger, when you take something out of its era, of creating more of a monster than a meaningful interpretation'. Hmm, how many recent productions could I apply that to!!

There is a feature article on Montemezzi's opera, L'amore dei tre re, described in a 1947 history of opera as 'the greatest tragic opera since Verdi's Otello'. Oh yes? The leading lady was a favourite role of Mary Garden's, in fact it was one of the few roles she did in Italian (she even did Tosca in French).

Another interview, this time with Francis Egerton who has been on my operatic radar since I started seeing operas at Covent Garden. He has been singing there since 1972. We saw one of his last appearances, in La Fanciulla del West.

Hugh Canning's review of Winton Dean's 2nd volume on Handel's Opera is really hardly a review at all. After all, the book is so masterly that much is beyond criticism. Still, Dean does manage to include quite a lot of comment about contemporary opera production and Canning manages to have an interesting dialogue with that.

Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du Regiment has landed in Vienna. Still with Florez and Dessay but with Monsterrat Caballe as the Duchess; now that I would like to have seen. Over in Buenos Aires, the Colon mounted a production of Wozzeck entirely with a Latin cast, no small feat; it is amazing how many performances of German operas you read about in Latin or Latin American countries only to find the cast has been body shopped from Germany. More power to the Colon's elbow, so to speak.

A new opera in Brussels, Benoit Mernier's opera based on Spring Awakening. It sounds a remarkable show but I don't suppose we'll get to see it any time soon. Also in Brussels, but soon to come to Covent Garden (and Madrid and San Francisco and Lyons) is Robert LePage's 1950's Hollywood setting for Rakes Progress. It sounds fascinating and beautifully done, but you wonder why. And of course, Pountney's dictum starts to spring to mind.

I had not realised that the 1881 revised version of Simon Boccanegra started Tamagno (the first Otello) as Gabriele Adorno. Given Tamagno's huge voice, this puts a remarkably slant on the balance of the revised piece. The comment about it in opera was made in the context of a lyric tenor singing the role.

In Berlin Iphigenie en Tauride cropped up. The producer Barrie Kosky evidently said in interview that the opera's real love interest was between Oreste and Pylade, which seems to me to be a very interesting point. The reviewer, Carlos Maria Solare, simply comments 'Mercifully the ... point wasn't unduly harped on'. Well? And why not please?

Another travelling show is the Villazon/Netrebko Manon, it sounds interesting enough but I gather that much material not involving the leading couple has been cut. Surely not a good basis for a musical edition for a production.


In Trieste they did a production of La Sonnambula borrowed from Verona. How on earth do you fit a production designed for the arena into an ordinary theatre?

John Allison reviews the première of Jonathan Harvey's new opera, Wagner Dream, premièred in Luxembourg. The libretto, in English, is by Jean-Claude Carriere and though the philosophy sounds distinguished, his English writing does not. Great shame. Seems like there are just too many 'Pass the Mustard' type moments. Always a difficult one in librettos. Also, some of the big parts are spoken. So I'll have to reserve judgement until I hear it, if I ever do.

Over in New York, the Met. has revived Giulio Cesare with David Daniels and Ruth Ann Swenson in John Copley's production which was new, for ENO, in 1979; it first appeared in New York in 1988. Now that is longevity. Their latest production, Puccini's Il Trittico is billed as 'the largest production in the company's history' - now is that a good thing or a bad thing?

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.

Recent CD Review

My review of the re-issue of the Sutherland/Pavarotti/Bonynge Il Trovatore is here, on MusicWeb International.
Many incidental beauties, but your attitude will depend on how much you like Sutherland’s technique and Bonynge’s rather limp conducting. ...