Colin Davis’ Excellent “Benvenuto Cellini”

Cellini 01

BERLIOZ: Benvenuto Cellini / Gregory Kunde, ten (Cellini); Laura Claycomb, sop (Teresa); Darren Jeffery, bs (Balducci); Peter Coleman-Wright, bar (Fieramosca); Andrew Kennedy, ten (Francesco); Isabelle Cals, sop (Ascanio); Jacques Imbrailo, bar (Pompeo); John Relyea, bs (Pope Clement VII); Andrew Foster-Williams, bs (Bernadino); Alasdair Elliott, ten (Cabaretier); London Symphony Chorus & Orch.; Sir Colin Davis, cond / LSO 0123D (live: London, June 26 & 29, 2007)

The late Colin Davis’ early Philips recordings of Berlioz’ operas are often considered classics, but to be honest, I never liked that early recording of Benvenuto Cellini. Tenor Nicolai Gedda was in such poor voice that he had to slow down the music so that he could negotiate it, and Christiane Eda-Pierre had, to my ears, a very ugly voice, but you know the Brits. Tradition is Forever, and they just loved that recording…and, for the most part, disliked this one.

Now, I freely admit that tenor Gregory Kunde’s voice is rather tight and dry in the high range, particular in his first ten minutes or so of singing. But you have to cut Kunde some slack: here was a tenor who was, through most of his career, the all-purpose Fill-In for Indisposed Tenors, regardless of repertoire. And he sang almost everything, from Mozart to Rossini and Donizetti to Verdi, Wagner, even Britten and Stravinsky. When you were really stuck for a professional tenor who could at least represent the character and the music faithfully, Kunde was your guy.

But more importantly, to my ears Davis’ conducting is not only better here than in his earlier recording of Cellini, it’s also better than even James Levine on the Met performance with Marcello Giordani and Isabel Bayrakdarian. Another interesting aspect of this performance that is different from the Met broadcast with Giordani is that it uses the Weimar production, which went back to Berlioz’ original concept of the work as an opéra-comique with spoken dialogue (the Levine performance uses the Paris Opéra score, in which Berlioz substituted sung recitatives). This not only shortens the opera by several minutes, but also gives a quicker impetus to the work, hurtling it headlong where previously the sung recits held things up. Of course, most non-French listeners really don’t like the opéra-comique versions of anything, which is why such versions of Gounod’s Faust and Bizet’s Carmen with spoken recits are rarely if ever performed nowadays.

By and large, this London cast is even better than the New York one. Laura Claycomb, a British soprano who never got the heavy push that Kate Royal did, had an absolutely creamy voice with a bit of squillo in the upper range, sort of a cross between Margaret Price and Heather Harper, and she is even more attractive to the ear than Bayrakdarian. Although Kunde occasionally evinces strain on his high notes, the beauty of his tone and his absolutely exquisite phrasing put him even above Giordani, and Andrew Foster-Williams, a bass-baritone who has since lost the control of his voice, sounds absolutely superb here. Only Isabelle Cals, in the subsidiary soprano role of Ascanio, is rather squally of voice.

But for me, the overriding reason why I love this performance is that it moves like greased lightning. I always thought of Levine as a good Berlioz conductor—and he was—but let’s face it, Davis had this music in his blood for a long, long time, and while I found his later Les Troyens to be peppy but lacking real feeling “behind the notes,” this Cellini literally sparkles and explodes from start to finish.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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