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John Nelson seizes verve of Benvenuto Cellini

Maison de Radio France
12/08/2003 -  December 11
Hector Berlioz : Benvenuto Cellini

Gregory Kunde (Benvenuto Cellini), Patricia Ciofi (Teresa), Joyce DiDonato (Ascanio), Jean-François Lapointe (Fieramosa), Laurent Naouri (Balducci), Renaud Delaigue (le Pape), Eric Salha (Francesco), Marc Mauillon (Bernardino), Eric Huchet (le Cabaretier), Ronan Nédélec (Pompeo)
John Nelson (conductor), Orchestre National de France
Chœur de Radio France

It is an impetuous, exuberant work, a tribute to the artist-hero. Hector Berlioz’s first opera, Benvenuto Cellini, based on the allegedly self-aggrandizing autobiography of the Florentine sculptor, was nothing like its bel-canto predecessors. The unorthodox presence of an overture and thematic recall had its adversaries: following the disastrous premiere of Cellini in 1838, the music of Berlioz would never again be heard on the stage of the Opéra de Paris during his lifetime. “Pauvre homme de génie!” wrote Franz Liszt to his friend Victor Schoelcher, sensing the injustice. (Almost 15 years later, Liszt went on to revive a heavily adapted German version of Cellini in Weimar.)

Tonight in Paris, the original version of this French opera was nobly honored. John Nelson conducted the Orchestre National de France in an ambitious concert performance of this rarely-performed work, advancing his reputation as a world authority on Berlioz.

With words by Auguste Barbier and Léon Wally, the opera semiseria (it was rejected from the Opéra-Comique in its original comic form, before Berlioz removed the spoken recitative) is often deemed dramatically flawed, with radical skips and poetic shortcomings. For Berlioz, however, for whom music reigned supreme, the music is meant to contain the drama, and the musicians involved in this performance amplified the expressivity inherent in the score.

Rhythmically complicated with fast, uniquely inflected French, the piece is a weighty challenge for singers. Tonight’s cast handled it with finesse. Replacing Roberto Alagna following his disappointing withdrawal, the lyric tenor Gregory Kunde delivered a masterful performance. While his appearance as Enée at the Châtelet earlier this season left room for improvement, this run as Cellini was nothing short of pleasurable. With only momentary difficulty with the high C’s and slight signs of vocal fatigue near the end, Kunde negotiated the role with lightness and precision. Vocally, he paired well with his on-stage love interest Teresa, sung by Italian soprano Patricia Ciofi. While Ciofi provided a sweet, believable Teresa, her fluid voice was sometimes swallowed by the giant depth of the orchestral polyphony.

As Cellini’s apprentice Ascanio, American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato soared. In her playfully mocking, second-act aria, DiDonato used the language comically and convincingly. Without sacrificing projection, she adapted the strength of her voice to the others, blending especially well with Ciofi in their tender Act II-opening duet.

Aside from a somewhat swallowed tone, Jean-François Lapointe was an admirable Bernardino, and Laurent Naouri’s focused interpretation of Balducci, aside from some punchy entrances, was consistently good. The singing of the well-rehearsed chorus was marked by fluid movement and sustained intensity.

But the real power -- and risk -- of this piece lies with the orchestra, which Berlioz may have had have closest to mind while composing. Unlike many composers that rely on the piano to compose each orchestral line, Berlioz apparently thought in terms of the instrument itself, stretching the timbre and technical capacity of each. As John Nelson has said, ‘‘it’s a dream to conduct Berlioz... No other music is as interesting for a conductor.’’ Indeed, the sensory-awakening, fiery complexities of the music are nearly exhausting, and this appeared to take its toll on Nelson: At the end of Act I, he paused to regain his balance, visibly weakened and red-faced. He conducted the remainder of the performance sitting down, but no less passionately, infusing the score with energy and expertise throughout, even upholding the daring tempo markings in Act II.

Berlioz, a romantic hero, may have been as much a Renaissance man as his subject. Critic, composer, conductor, voyager, and as Strauss said, “inventor of the modern orchestra,” Berlioz and his music deserve the growing prominence that they have enjoyed during the past three decades.

In this year of Berlioz revivals to celebrate the bicentennial of his birth, including a full staging of Benvenuto Cellini at the Metropolitan Opera that opened last week, this rendering of Berlioz’s first realized lyric work may be one of the season’s finest tributes to an underappreciated composer.

(The second and final concert version of Benvenuto Cellini will be performed in the Salle Olivier Messiaen at the Maison de Radio-France on the composer’s 200th birthday, December 11.)

Alexandra Day



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