Berlioz – Benvenuto Cellini
Benvenuto Cellini – Michael Spyers
Balducci – Pavlo Hunka
Teresa – Corinne Winters
Fieramosca – Nicholas Pallesen
Pape Clément VII – Willard White
Ascanio – Paula Murrihy
Pompeo – Morgan Pearse
Francesco – Nicky Spence
Bernardino – David Soar
Chorus of English National Opera, Orchestra of English National Opera / Edward Gardner.
Stage director – Terry Gilliam
English National Opera, Coliseum, London. Thursday, June 12th, 2014.
Surprisingly, given that I grew up listening to Berlioz and that Charles Dutoit’s performances with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal were my musical education as I first came to love the art form, this was only the second time I had heard Cellini live. The previous occasion was just over a year ago in a concert performance in Paris by Mariinsky forces. I got to learn this particular work through John Nelson’s Paris recording, spectacularly cast and well worth listening to.
Cellini has some really wonderful moments – the Roman carnival scene, the finale, Teresa’s glorious aria ‘quand j’aurai votre âge’ and Cellini’s fiendishly difficult yet wonderfully rewarding ‘sur les monts les plus sauvages’. Yet there are also moments where the inspiration falters in some overly dragged out arias & duets and they certainly felt that way tonight. Sadly, despite some spectacular crowd scenes and some innovative stage pictures there was a fait bit of standing and delivering at precisely the point where the music needed a little extra help, especially in the first act. Charles Hart’s translation didn’t help either. It was horribly glib and sounded frequently amateurish. On several occasions it went against the music, the stresses of the English contradicting the stresses of the melodies (especially noticeable in Ascanio’s aria although wonderfully sung by Paula Murrihy). It is at times like this that I regret ENO’s language policy and wish that they would follow the example of the Komische in Berlin and do some shows in English and others in the original. Edward Gardner’s conducting was also a disappointment – some passages were driven a little too hard yet seemed to have no rhythmic propulsion. Indeed, there seemed to be a rhythmic stodginess there and an unwillingness to revel in quirkiness of Berlioz’ sound world. Despite this, the orchestra played superbly and the ENO Chorus were on terrific form.
With the negative aspects out of the way, there was so much that was wonderful about this show and it was one of those evenings where one leaves the theatre happy and uplifted. Terry Gilliam’s production really excelled in those big moments. The Carnival scene was spectacularly staged, the stage full of participants giving a real visual overload and Cellini’s escape deftly handled. The final scene was also visually stunning, the statue towering over the stage. We were rewarded by incredibly energetic performances from a superb cast. Michael Spyers cemented his reputation tonight as one of the finest tenors in the French repertoire around. The voice fearlessly produced and just when you thought he had given everything, he opened up the voice even further with sound of incredible amplitude. He made the challenging tessitura sound effortless. Yes one could say that the registers are not wholly integrated but the line, the sound, it’s all there. Really impressive.
Corinne Winters is the owner of a fabulous instrument. The sound itself is rich and carries well. She is also a really engaging stage presence. At the same time, the diction, while being reasonably comprehensible, was often cloudy. She is an exciting artist indeed but perhaps not quite yet a finished one. Nicholas Pallesen on the other had is an exciting artist and very much the real thing. He is the owner of an easily-produced, well-rounded baritone of a good size and impeccable diction. The line was elegant and he gamely entered into the spirit of the production. An artist I would definitely like to hear again.
As I mentioned above Paula Murrihy dispatched Ascanio’s aria with wonderful abandon, the voice seemingly without limits of tessitura, free and easy. The role of Balducci lies a little on the low side for Pavlo Hunka sadly. He was frequently inaudible and didn’t quite dominate the stage in the way that he should have. Willard White on the other hand totally dominated every scene he appeared in. The man is a legend, the voice still easily produced and wonderfully rich, with crystal-clear diction and a presence of voice and stage that was simply magnificent. The remaining roles were well sung, especially so in the case of David Soar’s Bernadino.
This was a fabulously riotous evening in the theatre that was wonderfully served by a superb cast. It travels to the Nederlandse Opera next spring and is certainly worth travelling to see simply to have the opportunity to hear the original libretto. If only they had performed it in the original or had a stronger translation this would have been a winning evening. Still, it’s likely to be a long time before we get to see Cellini again and this definitely showed the ENO forces at their best.