Benvenuto Cellini - LSO/Sir Colin Davis - Barbican, 29 June 2007
Benvenuto Cellini is Berlioz at his most witty and exuberant, and the LSO gave it a blistering run through at the Barbican last night. Even the forced cast changes couldn't derail it. One of the late draft, Kenneth Branagh lookylikey Gregory Kunde was lively and assured in the title role. His voice is not especially graceful, but boy is it loud, with a resonance that cut through the supersized orchestra assembled as per Berlioz's specifications. The other replacement, Darren Jeffery as stern paterfamilias Balducci, didn't fit in quite as well. His youthful and rather small sound would no doubt be better suited to the role of the apprentice Bernardino that he was originally slated to play.
Peter Coleman-Wright proved himself a natural bad guy as the villain of the piece, Fieramosca, with a dark edge to his rich baritone at his most dastardly moments, and a full boo-hiss milking of every possible comic moment, of which Berlioz provided many.
Balducci's young daughter Theresa, fought over by Cellini and Fieramosca, is hardly an exciting role dramatically, but Berlioz provides her with plenty of beautiful music, especially in the first act. Laura Claycomb gave us not only sweetness, light, laser-accurate coloratura and the most fabulous red hair, but also managed to unearth a sly, knowing wit that filled out her character and made her far more interesting to watch.
The other soprano, Isabelle Cals as the boy Ascanio, was the only native French singer on stage. Despite this, her liquid diction meant she was the only singer who had me glancing up at the surtitles. John Relyea, a darkly authoritative Pope despite his surfer-dude looks, and Alasdair Elliot as a comic barkeeper were irreproachably splendid in their smaller parts. Credit must also go to Andrew Kennedy and Andrew Foster-Williams as Cellini's assistants. Although they had barely a line between them, they led the chorus on magnificently and proved an unexpectedly apposite visual pairing.
In a confined stage front area barricaded with music stands it was always going to be tough to get any visual enaction going, but all the singers did their utmost best, and it really helped in following this story, not all of which is explicit in the libretto. This is an aspect of concert performances in general that's not always adequately addressed, but the difference between doing it like this and just standing there reading makes an enormous difference to how well the audience's attention is held, however musically literate they are.
But of course the real stars of the evening were the LSO and LSC. This is challenging and often simply very fast music and needs a huge reservoir of energy to pull it along. From the first few bars of the overture alone it was clear that the orchestra were playing as if their lives depended on it. Berlioz provides plenty of beautifully crafted comic orchestral moments - a tuba solo, a pseudo-folksong, an explosion - and these were a welcome relief from the general intensity. No surprise that Sir Colin looked quite worn out at the end - he'd wrung so much drama and passion out of the score.
This performance and the one two nights ago were recorded for CD release, and I think must be destined to become a benchmark recording in the spirit of last year's LSO Fidelio.