BERLIN – The opera season here doesn’t begin until next month, but the Musikfest opened on Aug. 30 with a semi-staged performance of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini that easily outshines many a production in the German capital’s theaters. On tour to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death, John Eliot Gardiner brought the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR), Monteverdi Choir, and a troupe of soloists to the Philharmonie for a single stop in Germany before continuing on to the BBC Proms on Sept. 2 and the Palace of Versailles on Sept. 8.
The opéra semi-seria in two acts about the 16th-century Italian sculptor and rebel Benvenuto Cellini, who struggles to cast a bronze sculpture of Perseus, is not performed with great frequency, perhaps because of what the composer himself acknowledged to be a clumsy libretto by Léon Wally and Henri-August Barbier. Gardiner is an ardent champion, however, having discovered the work as a student at Cambridge and gone on to make Berlioz a cause for the 19th- and 20th-century period ensemble ORR when he founded it in 1989. He has cobbled together his own version of the score based on the three available editions (the original, the version premiered in Paris in 1838, and the 1852 “Weimar” revision by Liszt).
The new production brings a combination of authenticity, elegance, and humor that is rare to find in fully staged performances. Not unlike Gardiner’s tour celebrating Monteverdi’s 450th anniversary in 2017, musical gesture and instrumental color hold center-stage, while tasteful costumes, lighting, and characterizations heighten the drama.
The original brass instruments deployed by the ORR – including, notably, the ophicleide (a keyed instrument resembling the tuba) – are striking for their sheer volume, which at times caused balance issues for the singers performing solo downstage. The instruments’ raw power had conjured the opera’s carnival atmosphere already in the overture, however, and the orchestra’s clean articulation and singing lines otherwise provided ideal accompaniment.
Given the number of players assembled onstage, it is all the more impressive how the director Noa Naamat integrates the singers and adds effects without detracting from the music. The soloists mostly stand in front of the orchestra but also intermingle with the musicians: Cellini’s rival, Fieramosca, lurks from within the woodwinds, while the title character and Teresa have a romantic exchange in the third scene and Pope Clemens VII rests his head on Gardiner’s shoulder after entering in the second act.
In the carnival scene that closes Act 1, the ophicleide player (Marc Girardot) becomes a character in the Pantomime of King Midas. And in a bold touch, the sculpture of Perseus that Cellini manages to finish emerges in the flesh from within the male chorus of foundry workers as a gilded, muscular body (the actor Duncan Meadows).
Costumes by Sarah Denise Cordery are essentially period-style, with elegant silk attire for Teresa, her father, Balducci, and Fieramosca and coarser, realist garb for the pope and monks of the carnival scene. Lighting by Rick Fisher turns to red as the workers mime throwing metals into the furnace for Cellini’s sculpture, blue as they sing of sailors, green as the artist dreams of being a “simple shepherd in the wildest mountains.”
The tenor Michael Spyres, despite having been a member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s ensemble, does not sing often enough here, so it was a treat to hear him in the title role. His ability to combine supple coloratura and spinto power – not to mention his impeccable French diction – makes him an ideal interpreter of Berlioz. In the slow aria “Seul pour lutter avec mon courage!,” he produced a round but penetrating tone and mastered every messa di voce.
The soprano Sophia Burgos, as Teresa, did not rise to the same standards in her cavatina “Entre l’amour de le devoir” – her sound was at times pinched and her intonation not always ideal – but she communicated beautifully with the audience and warmed up to hold her own with poise in challenging ensemble scenes. Lionel Lhote brought a powerful, seductive baritone and genial dose of comedy as the villainous Fieramosca.
Maurizio Muraro, stepping in to replace Matthew Rose as Balducci, added a true basso profondo, while Adèle Charvet brought to life the role of Cellini’s apprentice, Ascanio, with a creamy mezzo-soprano and dynamic presence. The bass Tareq Nazmi created a believable caricature as the Pope.
The Monteverdi Choir (like the ORR, a child of Gardiner) was a star in its own right, in particular the male chorus, producing an immaculately homogeneous tone while evoking the raucous fervor of rebellious workers. As they waved their fists in the air and extolled the honor of the artist at all costs in the final number (“Honneur aux maîtres ciseleurs!”), one could not help but become caught up in a spirit of revolution.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.