Arcana at the Proms – Prom 59: Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique & Sir John Eliot Gardiner – Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini (1836-38)

Opera in two acts (four scenes)
Music by Hector Berlioz
Libretto by Léon de Wailly, Auguste Barbier and Alfred de Vigny
Semi-staged performance, sung in French with English surtitles

Benvenuto Cellini – Michael Spyres (tenor)
Teresa – Sophia Burgos (soprano)
Fieramosca – Lionel Lhote (baritone)
Ascanio – Adèle Charvet (mezzo-soprano)
Giacomo Balducci – Maurizio Muraro (bass)
Pope Clement VII – Tareq Nazmi (bass)
Pompeo – Alex Ashworth (bass)
Innkeeper – Peter Davoren (tenor)
Francesco – Vincent Delhoume (tenor)
Bernardino – Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
Perseus – Duncan Meadows (actor)

Stage director Noa Naamat
Lighting designer Rick Fisher
Costume designer Sarah Denise Cordery

Monteverdi Choir, Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (above)

Royal Albert Hall, Monday 2 September 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

The Proms has witnessed some memorable (and innovative) Berlioz performances – with this evening’s account of Benevento Cellini, itself the culmination of Sir John Eliot Gardiner‘s Berlioz project leading up to the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death, an undoubted highpoint.

Not a little of its success was the effectiveness of this ‘staged concert performance’ – directed by Noa Naamat so as to make resourceful use of the Royal Albert Hall platform (who would have thought that singers hiding behind – antiphonally divided – second violins made so deft a theatrical conceit?), with unfussy costumes from Sarah Denise Cordery in keeping with the late-Renaissance setting and lighting from Rick Fisher as vividly expanded on the latter-day Proms procedure of illuminating the stage area. A presentation serving the opera admirably.

At least as significant was Gardiner’s pragmatism over just how much of the opera to include. Even at its Paris premiere in 1838, what was heard of Benvenuto Cellini was already distinct from what Berlioz had written; an issue further complicated by versions presented at Weimar during 1852-6. Taking the Urtext published in the New Berlioz Edition, Gardiner has arrived at a compromise which encompasses all the music one would reasonably hope to hear while vindicating this opera as an overall dramatic concept. Recklessly ambitious in its technical demands as it may have been, Cellini was always practicable as a dramatic undertaking and – akin to Prokofiev’s War and Peace a century later – giving a convincing shape to this excess of material is at least half the battle in ensuring its theatrical as well as its musical success.

Not the least of those technical demands is on the singers, and this cast did not disappoint. As Cellini, Michael Spyres (above) evinced all the necessary panache without buckling under some stentorian vocal requirements. He was ideally complemented by Sophia Burgos as a pert yet never too coquettish Teresa; her naivety thrown into relief by the machinations of her suitor Fieramosca, given with suitably hollow bravado by Lionel Lhote, and cynicism of her father Balducci – tellingly rendered by Maurizio Muraro. Adele Charvet made for an appealing and sympathetic Ascanio, with Alex Ashworth exuding appropriate pomposity as Pompeo. Peter Davoren’s cameo as the unctuous Innkeeper was matched by that of Tareq Nazmi as the self-aggrandizing Pope. The Monteverdi Choir brought off its crucial contributions with aplomb.

Inevitably it is the orchestra which so often steals the limelight in a work by Berlioz, and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique accordingly rose to the challenge. Of course, any performance of this music on ‘authentic’ instruments must contend with his assertions that the development of instrument-making and instrumental practice (notably within Germanic territories) was a necessary one. That said, he may have been reconciled to those limitations had his work been rendered with such timbral brilliance and intonational accuracy as here.

In building an ensemble of such consistency Gardiner takes especial credit, the more so as his performance demonstrably channelled its authentic credentials towards the spontaneous and creative reassessment of a masterpiece now receiving its due – even if many decades too late.

BBC Proms 2017 – Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Lutheran cantatas by Bach

Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (above)

Schütz Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren, SWV 41; Nicht uns, Herr, sondern deinem Namen, SWV 43; Danket dem Herren, denn er ist freundlich, SWV 45 (all c1617)

J.S. Bach Cantata No.79, ‘Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild’ (1725); Cantata No.80, ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ (1716, revised 1720s-1735)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 2 August 2017 (late night)

After the earlier evening headiness of John AdamsNaïve and Sentimental Music from the Philharmonia, it was quite a stylistic shift to the night’s second Prom, which began with three canzonas / hymns of Heinrich Schütz, written some 400 years ago.

Yet as the ear gradually adjusted and the members of the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists quickly found their level, it was clear we were listening to something quite special. Under the fastidious but loving direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, an old hand at these scores, Schütz’s own minimalism came to light, helping the transition from first Prom to second. The choir were carefully positioned and instrumental soloists stood where possible for their contributions, an effective technique that spotlit them for the audience but also ensured the Royal Albert Hall acoustic was keenly observed.

Though the Schütz was very good, the two J.S. Bach cantatas took this late night concert to the next level. First was Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, where the vocal soloists Amy Carson (soprano), Reginald Mobley (alto) and Robert Davies (bass) were particularly fine, and the small continuo* (*accompanying) section negotiated their tricky lines with deceptive ease.

The second cantata, Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott, became the focus of the evening, Bach’s Lutheran cantata a cornerstone not just of his sacred compositions but of Baroque music and the Reformation in general. Gardiner took every opportunity to depict the ‘mighty fortress’, whether through the strength of the choral sound or the meaty orchestral textures, capped at the bottom end by the extraordinarily satisfying rasp on Stephen Saunders’ bass sackbut, an ancestor of the trombone. Brought to the front for the Prommers’ benefit, it was a wonderful thing to witness.

This was just the tip of the iceberg though. One of the great assets of the Monteverdi Choir is that its members are all potential soloists, making it a great team of individuals. Soprano Miriam Allan and bass Robert Davies dueted in the Aria and Chorale, and complemented each other very nicely, then tenor Hugo Hymas sang beautifully for the Recitative, while Mobley (above) once again impressed with his passionate and full-bodied tones in a duet with the tenor. The orchestra were once again on top form, though this time oboist Leo Duarte was keenly in focus, moving between the conventional wooden oboe, an oboe d’amore and an oboe di caccia (which looks rather like a banana!) with great dexterity and flair.

The chorus were impeccable with their diction and ensemble, and Bach’s music had that life-giving energy that comes across in successful performances such as this. Eliot Gardiner has written a whole book (Music In The Castle of Heaven) on his love of Bach’s music, and listening to his charges here was akin to standing on the turrets of that building, faces turned skywards. It really was that enlightening.

Ben Hogwood