This page presents reviews of the performances that took place in 2019. We would like to express our gratitude to the authors for their invaluable contributions.
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Hector Berlioz - the Musical Outsider
A remarkable portrait of Berlioz, mingling song and spoken word, including the original version of Les Nuits d’été.
Hector Berlioz was the eternal outsider, never really achieving consistent success in France in his lifetime, his music somehow too idiosyncratic. Yet it is these very qualities which make Berlioz the genius he is. As part of the London Song Festival’s Outsiders series at Hinde Street Methodist Church on Thursday 14 November 2019, Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Michael Bell (tenor), Gabriel Woolf (speaker) and festival artistic director Nigel Foster (piano) presented the Musical Outsider, a portrait of Hector Berlioz which mixed Gabriel Woolf's spoken excerpts from Hector Berlioz’ memoirs (translated by David Cairns) with Berlioz’ songs including Les Nuits d’été (in its original piano version), songs from Irlande, La Mort d’Ophelie, Chant de Bonheur, La Captive and Zaïde.
Central to the evening was Gabriel Woolf's magnificent re-creation of Hector Berlioz’ own voice through his memoirs. Starting with Berlioz’ description of his birth, and ending with the gruesome image of the reinterment of Harriet Smithson and Berlioz’ envoi, Woolf's performance really brought the memoirs alive, and you could have well believed that it was the composer himself reminiscing. Berlioz’ was a full and active life, so we had little excerpts from it, and often music and text chimed together. Songs like Chant de Bonheur were explicitly described in the memoirs, whilst others provided more oblique musical commentary, some of the songs from Irlande for instance providing a musical commentary of Berlioz’ romantic obsession with Harriet Smithson. Frankly, I could have happy listened to Woolf reading from the memoirs all evening, but thankfully the musical side of the evening was equally engaging.
Berlioz wrote Les Nuits d’été originally in 1840-41, and it was billed as being for mezzo-soprano or tenor and piano, he then orchestrated it to create the version familiar today, but transposed some of the songs so that the cycle needed four different voices. The piano version that is generally heard today is a piano reduction of the orchestral version, but here Nigel Foster returned to Berlioz’ original piano version. The songs were not performed as a single group but spread around the evening, and shared between Nadine Benjamin and Michael Bell, with Benjamin getting the majority, Bell singing Sur les lagunes and the two singers joining together for Au Cimetière, the final item which was interspersed with Woolf’s final readings (Harriet Smithson’s reburial and the envoi).
Berlioz’ Irlande was his first song cycle, written in 1829 when he was 26 and setting translations of Thomas Moore (largely) by his friend Thomas Gounet. The cycle is a mixture of solo song, duet and chorus, and we heard the five solo numbers, all sung by Michael Bell.
Berlioz’ idiosyncratic music can be complex even when it appears to be simple, yet it often needs to sound effortless and natural, as if the performer had being doing it all their lives. Both Bell and Benjamin are, I think at the beginning of their journey through Berlioz and there were times when his music did not feel quite as natural as it should, you were too much aware of complexity and artifice. But both singers sang with an engaging freshness and in a highly communicative manner.
Singing with warm, vibrant tones, Nadine Benjamin brought a lovely sense of joy and delight to the songs from Les Nuits d’été, from the excitement and enthusiasm for the voyage in L’ile inconnue to the touching intensity of Absence. From the solo songs, Benjamin gave us an engagingly flirtatious Zaïde, an evocative La Captive (first verse only), and a haunting account of La mort d’Ophelie.
The Thomas More settings from Irlande were something of a surprise, eschewing the naive romantic lyricism of the original melodies for something rather more complex. Yes, there were occasional echoes of the salon, in the refrain of Adieu, Bessy! but Berlioz seemed incapable of writing something simple and straightforward. Michael Bell proved to be a highly communicative singer, giving touching performances of the various types of melancholy, love-lorn displayed in the songs. He has quite a high-tensile voice, and there were moments when the songs needed something more lyrically relaxed, but when Berlioz reached the peak of intensity in a song, then Bell delivered beautifully. Bell sang one of the solo songs, the delightful Chant de Bonheur (which has Berlioz’ own words), as well as giving us an intense and dark account of Sur les lagunes from Les Nuits d’été.
This evening added up to a remarkable portrait of Berlioz, thanks to the way Foster’s programme wove the music and the excerpts from the memoirs together into a seamless dramatic whole, linked and kept in focus by the remarkable portrait of Berlioz given by Gabriel Woolf.
BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, 2 September 2019
Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini is quite rarity on UK stages, Covent Garden last performed it in 1976 and English National Opera performed it for the first time in 2014 (in Terry Gilliam's riotous production), and yet the opera never quite goes away either. Chelsea Opera Group has performed it at least twice, Sir Colin Davis persuaded the London Symphony Orchestra to produce it in concert not once, but twice, and I am sure there are other performances I have missed. Counting stagings in Amsterdam (by Tim Albery in the 1990s) and Strasbourg, I have seen the opera eight times, not bad for such a rarity. The way that Benvenuto Cellini continues in the repertoire, in some form, is perhaps an indication of the affection with which the piece is held, despite the difficulty of the music and the craziness of the dramaturgy, the work’s sheer invention, imagination and energy carry you away. Sir John Eliot Gardiner continued the tradition by bringing his concert staging of Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini to the BBC Proms on Monday 2 September 2019. Michael Spyres sang Benvenuto Cellini, Sophia Burgos was Teresa, Maurizio Muraro was Balducci, Tareq Nazmi was Pope Clement VII, Vincent Delhoume was Francesco, Lionel Lhote was Fieramosca, Adèle Charvet was Ascanio, Ashley Riches was Bernardino, with the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The concert staging was directed by Noa Naamat.
Benvenuto Cellini has a complex textual history, Berlioz wrote it in 1836 and it was performed at the Paris Opera in 1838 but was not well received and only received five performances. From there it languished until Franz Liszt put the work on in Weimar in 1852 with Berlioz extensively revising it and Liszt suggesting cuts. From 1838 we can trace at least three versions, two of which are reconstructed and recorded, the opera as Berlioz first wrote it, before it went to the censors, the opera as first performed by the Paris Opera and the work as recorded in the Paris Opera archives after Berlioz' further cuts during its run at the Opera, as he tried to salvage what he could from a disastrous run. Another problem is that when producing the; Weimar version, Berlioz' revisions are mixed up with Liszt's swinging cuts designed to bring the running time into something acceptable. All this means that each performance takes its own route through the textual maze, the original version is full of good things which Berlioz later cut but is also a sprawling mess in dramatic terms.
In fact, there is one more version of the opera! Berlioz original plan was for an opera comique, but it was turned down so when approaching the Paris Opera with the idea the spoken dialogue had to be dropped. But the French vocal score was published with cues marking the dialogue, and a revival with dialogue, was planned at the Théâtre-Lyrique in l856 (though this did not happen).
At the BBC Proms, John Eliot Gardiner made his own selection (based on Hugh Macdonald’s critical edition), so what we heard was 1838 with some elements of 1852. The result was long and full of felicitous detail omitted in the 1852 version, and had moments which were truly delightful but which, frankly, held up the action. But then, if one wanted tight, focused drama one would not listen to Benvenuto Cellini, its charms are those of the sprawling, riotous carnival which it depicts at the end of Act One. Hugh Macdonald's 1966 article on the Hector Berlioz website aptly sums up the differences between the various versions.
The title role is impossible, the first Benvenuto Cellini, Gilbert Duprez (who created Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and who was the first tenor to use chest voice for Arnold’s top C in Rossini's Guillaume Tell) hated it. The role calls for flexibility, strength, stamina (the 1838 version is a long sing) and an ease in the high register, combined with a sense of comedy! No wonder opera companies shy away from it. The first Benvenuto Cellini in the revised, 1852 Weimar version, was the first Lohengrin which perhaps indicates the direction some of the 1852 changes were going.
At ENO in 2014 Michael Spyres had already shown that he is in many ways the ideal protagonist, he has sung a lot of early 19th century French opera, can cope with the devilish complexity of Berlioz’ writing and is an apt comedian. The whole of the first scene in Act One was delightful, as Spyres despatched Berlioz music with style, wooed Teresa with sly charm and was rather funny. His narration of his escape during the first scene of Act Two was equally fun, and you could appreciate Spyres attention to the words, always important in this work.
There were some profoundly beautiful moments too, notably Cellini's Act Two solo when he sings of the simple life, but in some later high passages we were also aware of Spyres managing his voice, this was his third performance in the role in five days (the production had been seen at the Festival Berlioz, La Côte-St-André on 29 August, and the Berliner Festspiele, Berlin on 31 August, and travels to the Opéra Royal, Palace of Versailles next Sunday. That is quite a punishing schedule for such a taxing opera.
The beauty of Spyres performance was that he wasn’t just a comedian, but also brought out Cellini as the serious artist as well, and he really made the most of the quite full version of the piece that we heard, making all the felicitous details count. We were really rooting for him, so that the final casting scene was edge of the seat stuff, in all the best ways.
Sophia Burgos made a delightful Teresa, perhaps her voice was slightly small for the Royal Albert Hall, but then this is hardly the best venue for Berlioz’ serio-comic opera. Burgos combined dextrous facility in the vocal writing with immense charm, and a strong sense of character which made her anything but a passive victim. She and Spyres made a fine pairing, particularly in the Act One love duet, and her solo in Act Two (when, in Cellini's absence Teresa has to cope with the workmen going on strike) showed Burgos' real metal. This is not an easy role to sing, and the great virtue of Burgos' performance was that we forgot the difficulty of the music and simply enjoyed her warmth and charm. Technically a comic role, he is perpetually the butt of Cellini’s manoeuvrings and always seems to come of worse. I have always loved the Act One trio, where Cellini instructs Teresa about the plans for tomorrow's carnival, and then when they repeat them, Berlioz adds a third line for Fierramosca who is now listening. It is very funny, and dazzling musically, and perhaps sums up Benvenuto Cellini. Lionel Lhote made Fierramosca a wonderfully funny character, a hapless schemer who always failed, but he brought rumpled charm to the role and had the right sort of presence to be threatening too, and he sang very finely indeed. This was no buffo bumbling, but Berlioz’ high baritone line beautifully and dextrously sung.
The smaller roles are also highly important in this opera, and there is a strong ensemble element to the piece requiring a well-balanced cast. At the Royal Albert Hall we had a series of well drawn characters, but also a sense of ensemble too.
Adèle Charvet was a charming Ascanio, complete with a fine youthful swagger. Ascanio is not a huge role, but Charvet gave the young man strong personality, and she made the most of her delightful (yet dramatically redundant) Act Two aria. Maurizio Muraro was a finely comic, very buffo Balducci (Muraro was a last minute replacement for Matthew Rose). Tareq Nazmi was very funny indeed as the Pope, here a frankly comic character prone to falling asleep. Ashley Riches and Vincent Delhoume (repacing Krystian Adam) were Cellini's co-workers Bernardino and Francesco, always popping up and contributing much by their double act. Peter Davoren and Alex Ashworth (both from the Monteverdi Choir) provided finely comic cameos as the Innkeeper and Pompeo.
The staging by Noa Naamat was simple but effective, and she did not shy away from any of the librettos requirements, so we had a carnival scene, and we had the casting of Perseus (though embodying the statue on stage in the person of Duncan Meadows was perhaps unnecessary). Essential to this was the Monteverdi Choir which sang with focused dexterity and power, yet also entered with a will into the whole of the action, erupting on stage during the carnival.
The whole performance had a rhythmic tightness and brilliance which belied the music's complexity and Gardiner’s speeds certainly took no prisoners so that the Carnival scene was completely dazzling in many ways as choir, soloists and orchestra articulated Berlioz’ busy and complex rhythms whilst keeping the whole sparkling and fun. The finale, with the casting of Perseus, was equally devastating.
It was here and in other moments that we could really appreciate the period instruments. The narrow bore brass, including cornets as well as trumpets, and an ophecleide (!) made a strongly characterful impression without overbalancing in the way can happen with modern instruments and the period wind (with four bassoons) were similarly characterful and colourful. And it was this sense of a wider range of colour that we took away from the performance, something that Gardiner seemed to relish. The period strings were lighter in colour and far less dominant in the busy passages, making the whole full of lovely detail, which meant we could appreciate the sheer skill of all the performers.
This was a performance which positively sped by, the sprawling drama overflowed the whole Royal Albert Hall stage and erupted in a carnival of delightful moments, but Sir John Eliot Gardiner kept things flowing and moving, always aware of the need for pacing and the importance of making the details build into something greater. Whilst Michael Spyres charming rogue was at the centre, this was a finely balanced ensemble cast which made this most tricky yet engaging a complete delight.
The 2019 production at the Paris Opera Bastille of Berlioz’s great Virgil-inspired account of the Trojan War and Aeneas’s dalliance with Dido the Carthaginian queen is the fourth the city has seen in the last 30 years. The 1990 production, by Pierre Luigi Pizi, celebrated the opening of the new Bastille opera house. A fine production by Yannis Kokkos under John Eliot Gardner’s musical direction was given at the Chatelet theatre in 2003. In 2006 Herbert Warnicke’s Salzburg version was repeated at the Paris Opera with Sylvain Cambreling conducting.
The most recent has stage direction by the Russian Dmitri Tcherniakov with the Opera’s music director Phillipe Jordan on the podium. It marks the 350th anniversary of the Paris Opera, the 30th of its home at the Bastille, and the 150th of the composer’s death.
The staging has excited controversy and the singing and playing admiration. Tcherniakov gives the work contemporary settings. The first part – the conquest of Troy by the Greeks after the Trojans thought they had won – takes place in a modern badly war- damaged environment suggesting recent Balkan or Near-Eastern conflicts. This was generally effective and provided a convincing setting for an absolutely stunning singing and acting performance by Stephanie d’Oustrac as the unbelieved prophetess of doom Cassandra (graduating from the part of Ascanius which she had sung in the John Eliot Gardner performances). Stephane Degout as her lover Chorebus contributed another outstanding performance amongst a generally fine cast matched by formidable singing and acting from the chorus.
Some features of Tcherniakov’s interpretation were more questionable. King Priam of Troy and his family are shown on a separate corner of the stage in a protected regal environment and introduced one by one in a dumb show before the real opera begins. A video suggests that Cassandra’s contrarian attitude stems not from a power of prophecy but rebellion against her father the King because he sexually abused her as a child. Aeneas is portrayed as being secretly in league with the attacking Greeks. These notions might be intriguing if found in a fantasising modern playwright’s revisionist interpretation of the Trojan legend, but they have no basis in or consistency with either Virgil’s or Berlioz’s versions.
Overall, however, they were not important or obtrusive enough to undermine the power and vividness of Tcherniakov’s presentation of the first two acts of the opera and the conviction with which the performers conveyed it.
Sadly the same cannot be said of his directorial intrusions into the three Carthage acts. These are not set as Berlioz specified in Dido’s royal park, then a forest, and finally the Trojans’ camp near the port from which they leave for Rome but occur throughout in the communal meeting hall of a “Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Traumatised War Victims”. The cast initially takes not the parts attributed to them by Berlioz but are all either residents or care staff who in supposedly therapeutic amateur dramatics act out the roles of Dido, Aeneas etc, Carthaginians and Trojans.
All the scenes are accompanied by normal features of a modern care clinic – stretching classes and a television set constantly showing up-to-date news programmes which in the 6 February performance which I saw included (fortunately silent) pictures of President Trump delivering the State of the Union address and a headline announcing “Renegotiation du Brexit”. Some of the time there was a ping-pong game.
Of course both Trojans and Carthaginians were refugees from brutal conflicts but so narrowly enclosing Berlioz’s profound and complex vision of their sufferings and heroism could not fail to undermine it. It is hard to see how Iopas’s beautiful song to the fertility of the land or the wonderful quintet “Tout conspire a vaincre mes remords …” in which Dido shifts from loyalty to the memory of her murdered spouse to love of Aeneas could possibly be enhanced by such distracting goings on.
There were also cuts. None of the ballet music in the Carthage acts was performed. We did get the “Combat de Ceste” in the first Troy act but, weirdly for such exuberant music, it accompanied not a celebratory dance by the Trojan wrestling squad but the whole Trojan community in a protracted stance of frozen grief for their dead war heroes.
Leaving out the ballet episodes is not without precedent - to my recollection they were all omitted from the 2006 Wernicke staging. Though superb music they can admittedly present a staging problem – for example the three ballets of sailors, builders and farmers which illustrate Dido’s pride in the achievements of the young Carthaginian state can sometimes rather improbably suggest that she had contracted out the development of its infrastructure to a ballet company. Skilful staging can overcome such risks, as was shown by Patrice Caurier’s and Moshe Leiser’s in 1987 for the Lyons Berlioz Festival which in this and other respects demonstrated how imaginative innovation can refresh and enhance without undermining the composer’s vision.
Still more serious was the omission of the Shakespearian scene in which two Trojan soldiers in the final act moan about being forced to leave their obliging Carthaginian lovers for a tiresome expedition to Italy which they will probably fail to survive. The care home amateur actors would have had fun impersonating them, and along with the ballet episodes they illustrate Berlioz’s greater interest in and empathy for the Trojan and Carthaginian communities than can be found in Virgil who concentrates more on gods and heroes.
Unlike on the opening night when Dmitiri Tcherniakov’s presence during the bows apparently elicited some loud hostility, the 6 February performance was greeted with great and unadulterated acclaim by its audience. This was deservedly directed at the performers who collectively gave a very fine account of the opera. In their hugely challenging roles Ekaterina Semenchuk rose to great heights in Dido’s final scenes and Brandon Jovanovich convincingly delivered the rather brutal vision of Aeneas the staging seemed to demand. There was much excellent quality and scarcely any weakness in the rest of the large cast.
The chorus were rightly greeted with enormous enthusiasm along with their chorus masters Jose Luis Basso and Alessandro di Stefano. No opera has a more important role for chorus. Their singing was throughout at a level very rarely encountered as was their acting for which presumably Mr Tcherniakov and those working with him should be given credit whatever view is taken of his overall staging concept.
Equal enthusiasm deservedly greeted the splendid orchestra and Philippe Jordan for their thrilling musical rendering of Berlioz’s still astonishing score.
This is the ninth production of the opera I have been privileged to see. It was – to put it mildly - a mixed evening but I am glad not have missed it.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; Reviews of live performances page created in 1999; completely reorganised on 25 December 2008.
© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.
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