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A Tale of Three Cities

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Hector Berlioz. Today, the opera whose 'verve, impetus and brilliance' Berlioz feared he would never again equal: Benvenuto Cellini.

Donald Macleod explores the life and music of Hector Berlioz. Today, the opera whose “verve, impetus and brilliance” Berlioz feared he would never again equal.

Benvenuto Cellini is loosely based on the autobiography of the eponymous Italian sculptor. The first of Berlioz’s three completed operas, it held a special place in his affections. “This dear score of Benvenuto”, he called it; “it is more lively, fresh, and novel (that is one of its great faults) than any of my other works.” Yet it’s had a chequered history. Its opening run at the Paris Opéra was little short of disastrous – unappreciated by the public and savaged by the critics. Then there was a revival in Weimar, with none other than Franz Liszt at the helm; it was well-received, but only in a version with major cuts that made a nonsense of the opera’s taut construction. After that, the only other staging during the composer’s lifetime was at London’s Covent Garden. According to Berlioz, the auguries looked promising – “a superb orchestra, an excellent chorus, and an ‘adequate’ conductor – I am conducting myself” – but in the event, the production was pulled after a single night, sabotaged by a hostile cabal. Benvenuto had to wait more than a century for its next Covent Garden outing, and even today, it’s a rare visitor to the operatic stage. As Berlioz said of it, it “deserved a better fate”.

Le carnaval romain, Op 9
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Munch, conductor

Benvenuto Cellini, Op 23 (Act 1, Tableau 1, Scene 3, extract)
Laura Claycomb, soprano (Teresa)
Gregory Kunde, tenor (Cellini)
Peter Coleman-Wright, baritone (Fieramosca)
London Symphony Orchestra
Colin Davis, conductor

Benvenuto Cellini, Op 23 (Act 2, Tableau 2, Scene 13, Conclusion)
Darren Jeffery, bass (Balducci)
Laura Claycomb, soprano (Teresa)
Peter Coleman-Wright, baritone (Fieramosca)
Gregory Kunde, tenor (Cellini)
Jacques Imbrailo, baritone (Pompeo)
Isabelle Cals, soprano (Ascanio)
Andrew Kennedy, tenor (Francesco)
Andrew Foster-Williams, bass (Bernardino)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Colin Davis, conductor

Benvenuto Cellini, Op 23 (Act 2, Tableau 2, Scenes 1–4)
Laura Claycomb, soprano (Teresa)
Isabelle Cals, soprano (Ascanio)
Gregory Kunde, tenor (Cellini)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Colin Davis, conductor

Benvenuto Cellini, Op 23 (Act 2, Tableau 4, Scene 19)
Peter Coleman-Wright, baritone (Fieramosca)
Gregory Kunde, tenor (Cellini)
Darren Jeffery, bass (Balducci)
Laura Claycomb, soprano (Teresa)
Isabelle Cals, soprano (Ascanio)
John Relyea, bass (Pope Clement VII)
Andrew Kennedy, tenor (Francesco)
Andrew Foster-Williams, bass (Bernardino)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Colin Davis, conductor

Produced by Chris Barstow for BBC Wales

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