When Sir Colin Davis conducts Berlioz, the result is a carnival of vibrant lights, colours and sounds.
Appropriately so in the case of Benvenuto Cellini, which has the Shrove Tuesday Roman carnival as its background. Sir Colin led a cast of distinguished soloists, the ever-magnificent London Symphony Chorus and the London Symphony Orchestra in a life-affirming performance of the first of Berlioz's three operas and, for me, the highlight of the classical music season in London since Christmas.
Cellini has everything. By writing an opéra semi-seria, the composer could add some serious elements to a comic plot and intimacy to a large-scale drama, and it is rather Shakespearean in this sense. The way Berlioz manipulates the musical forms is astoundingly inventive. Teresa's coloratura aria is the ideal expression of a young girl in love; the elopement trio - somewhat reminiscent of the situation in the opening act of Le nozze di Figaro - features two voices (Cellini and Teresa) singing a lyric duet with staccato asides from Fieramosca; the latter's monologue is an apt expression of his self-delusion; the first-act finale is a whirlwind concertato of extraordinary energy, almost unrivalled in the history of French opera; Ascanio's soliloquy provides a virtuoso showcase, while Cellini's is a wistful reflection on the desirability of being a free shepherd (complete with Beethovenian pastoral references in the orchestration); the foundrymen's sea shanty underpins a parlando dialogue between Ascanio and Cellini; and the theme of the casting of the statue is a vivid expression of the workmen's activity. Every single ingredient is carefully put together and there is not a boring moment in the entire piece. Berlioz thought it was his most brilliantly original work, and I find it hard to disagree.
One thing is for sure: it is one of the most technically demanding opera scores ever written. That makes the LSO's achievement in this performance all the more striking. Everyone - performers and orchestra alike - was exhausted by the end, but not once did the tension and excitement let up.
Of the many excellent singers, Laura Claycomb stood out for me as the most completely satisfying. It is rare to find a coloratura soprano with such a full tone nowadays, and the extraordinarily taxing cadenza to her opening aria was both technically perfect and entertaining. Her acting was more vivid than some of the other singers, which is why she captured the imagination slightly more than others in the cast.
Gregory Kunde had the odd raw moment vocally but otherwise this was an astonishing and moving performance. He rose above the combined orchestra and chorus in the big moments and maintained his poise throughout. The pastoral monologue was especially lovely, plumbing the depths of the character's psyche with great poignancy. In particular, one had a sense of a maverick artist struggling in a society of enemies, something that could not have been more vivid in a fully staged performance.
As Balducci, Darren Jeffrey (who, like Kunde, had taken on the role late in the day) was perhaps a little youthful and did not have vocal power in the opening scene, but on the whole he had presence. However, the singer with the greatest presence was Peter Coleman-Wright, who acutely characterised Fieramosca. This was a fabulous performance from him, not only because of his stylish singing but also because he trod the fine line between farcical caricature and tortured human being impeccably.
It was a shame that Jacques Imbrailo - like Darren Jeffrey a Young Artist at the Royal Opera, star of their recent Owen Wingrave and Audience Prize Winner at Cardiff Singer of the World - had such a small role, but he made what he could of Pompeo, while Andrew Kennedy (also an ROH Young Artist) acted and sang colourfully as Francesco.
One of the revelations of the evening for me was Isabelle Cals as Ascanio. She has a rich mezzo voice and a secure coloratura, a remarkable combination that indicates she may be a star of the future. Andrew Foster-Williams gave solid support as Bernardino and Alasdair Elliott was a witty Cabaretier, stealing the scene in his single appearance.
I was delighted with the contributions of the chorus, who have some phenomenally difficult parts to sing, especially the hyper-fast Act One finale. Their secure, even tone, clear articulation and co-ordinated diction were almost beyond belief. Indeed I believe that both technically and expressively, this amateur (but never amateurish) choir exceeded the efforts of the Chorus of the Royal Opera House in Colin Davis' earlier recording.
Which leads to the great man himself. It never fails to astonish me that at nearly eighty years of age, Sir Colin continues to take on such lengthy, difficult and exhausting opera performances. His middle name is Rex, which is the Latin for 'king', and there's no doubt that he was the monarch on this occasion. He allowed the soloists full rein to express their inner emotions whilst ensuring momentum in the crowd scenes.
The London Symphony Orchestra gave their President every last ounce of sweat in this performance, which felt like a matter of life or death. It would be unfair to single out any of the instrumentalists because they were all so distinguished. It really was a mind-blowing experience.
One of the great nights.