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Notes and Editorial Reviews
Were I inclined to study and report on the performance history of this opera--during Berlioz's lifetime alone--it would take far too long and not be all that enlightening. Suffice it to say that every one of the dozen-or-so times it was presented, some change or other was demanded either by the opera house, a singer, or Berlioz's own sense of what was "right". As a truly superficial overview, however, we can cite the "original" score, that is, the first version set down on paper in 1838, as "Paris 1"; another score exists that reflects the changes made by the time the Paris Opéra gave it late in 1839, referred to as "Paris 2"; and then there's the
"Weimar version" of 1852, which includes alterations by Liszt and von Bulow, and that also divides the opera into three acts. Other minor additions and subtractions also exist.
What we have on this recording, made either at or around performances given during December, 2003 at Radio France, is an edition put together by conductor John Nelson. For the most part it is the "Paris 1" version, which includes a different ending to the famous overture, an aria for Teresa near the opera's start that was later replaced (by a less simple, more florid one), an aria for Balducci, and some choral work. But from later versions, Nelson has added some orchestral passages, Ascanio's stunning aria, and a few other bits of music. Teresa's more familiar aria and one later added for Cellini are included as an appendix at the end of the third CD. Nelson's is an edition not to be argued with: it certainly works as well as or better than that used by Colin Davis in his remarkable 30-year-old recording on Philips.
Comparing this new set with Davis', you notice Davis' smoothness as it contrasts with Nelson's jumpier, underlined rhythmic oddnesses. I prefer Nelson's approach: not only are Berlioz's rhythms his calling cards, but in this opera, particularly in the comic and Carnival scenes (the Cellini/Teresa/Fieramosca trio in the first tableau is uniquely funny, the musical equivalent of a Marx Brothers skit), they help define the action. Davis seems more interested in orchestral detail, but Nelson's energy and forward propulsion, which sometimes doesn't allow for that attention to detail, is infectious. There is something unwieldy about this opera, but Nelson makes that unwieldiness appealing. The situations are grand, busy, and complicated, and Nelson invites us in.
The cast meets the standards of--and in a case or two, surpasses--that of the Davis recording. Patrizia Ciofi here easily outsings and outcharms Christiane Eda-Pierre. Ciofi's voice is bright, delicate, and young-sounding, her rarely needed coloratura is impeccable, her ensemble work professional and well-integrated. Her French pronunciation is excellent. The American tenor Gregory Kunde, under-recorded 10-and-more years ago when he was a superb, agile, clear-voiced Rossinian (an exception is an Armida on Sony from '94), stunningly fills in for Roberto Alagna, who was supposed to sing Cellini. He scrupulously obeys Berlioz's dynamic markings, even when they seem outlandish--phrases floating pianissimo up to and around high B-flats and higher--and his French style and class are on a par with Nicolai Gedda's: quite a compliment. An occasional rawness enters his tone, but the operative word is "occasional"; his Cellini is of the highest order. The duet for Cellini and Teresa in the third tableau is ravishing. Mezzo Joyce DiDonato sings Ascanio with an enthusiasm that ideally characterizes Cellini's apprentice: she nearly dominates every scene she's in.
The rest of the cast are equally "in" their roles, from the superbly loud-mouthed Fieramosca of Jean-François Lapointe to the nagging Balducci of Laurent Naouri. These and the smaller roles are all taken by native French speakers, and they are ideally rehearsed and characterized. As suggested, Nelson's conducting is rambunctious without ever being sloppy and the chorus and orchestra of Radio France are at their most polished. This show is a grand experience, and in all it makes sense of this rambling, complex work in a way that even Davis doesn't. There's more life in the new set--and at 3 discs for the price of 2, it's even better value. [2/5/2005]
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
Benvenuto Cellini by Hector Berlioz
Laurent Naouri (Baritone),
Renaud Delaigues (Bass),
Eric Salha (Tenor),
Eric Huchet (Tenor),
Marc Mauillon (Baritone),
Ronan Nédélec (Baritone),
Patrizia Ciofi (Soprano),
Gregory Kunde (Tenor),
Jean-François Lapointe (Baritone),
Joyce DiDonato (Mezzo Soprano)
French National Radio Orchestra,
French National Radio Chorus
Written: 1834-1837; France
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Superb January 11, 2014
By Henry S. (Springfield, VA) See All My Reviews
"This is an excellent recording Berlioz's large-scale operatic account of 16th century Rome and represents a powerful artistic achievement. The singing of the entire cast is top notch, the chorus of Radio France supplies consistently brilliant support, and above all, conductor John Nelson leads the National Orchestra of France in a vibrant, glowing reading of Berlioz's magnificent romantic musical score. Benvenuto Cellini may not be particularly well known, but this version definitely provides the serious opera lover with everything that could be desired. An interesting note is the CD booklet's extended discussion of Berlioz's difficulties in getting Benvenuto Cellini accepted for performance some 170 years ago. Although he eventually succeeded, it wasn't without major revisions and cuts. This recording presents Benvenuto Cellini in Berlioz's original scoring, thus making it an historically significant musical event. I think you will be highly impressed with this excellent recording- it is vintage Berlioz without the over-the-top bombast found in many of his other works. Very much recommended."