Arts: Classical: A Berlioz triumph

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WHEN SIR Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded their ground-breaking Berlioz Edition a quarter-century ago, they had a cause to fight. Many musicians and listeners put the composer down as an oddball, writing noisy music that broke all the rules. On Sunday conductor and orchestra started to revisit their labours in a year-long Berlioz Odyssey, and won ovations from a packed hall for the first of three concert performances of his opera Benvenuto Cellini.

England always led the way in support for Berlioz, as if returning the Frenchman's love for Shakespeare. This triumph was a sweet reward for the persistence of Davis and Beecham and Gibson and the other conducting champions.

The dazzling outburst of musical colour and vitality that makes up Benvenuto Cellini's opening act can sweep all before it when performed with the pace, precision and passion that the LSO and assorted cast gave it. While in Germanic repertoire Davis's way has grown more ponderous with the years, here he seemed to be daring a much younger cast to keep up with him. Treated like this, the score releases a non- stop sequence of brilliant orchestral invention and astute characterisation through soaring melodic lines - some familiar from Berlioz's Roman Carnival overture, others just as alluring.

The opera's intensity peaks early in its headlong carnival scene, and from then on music and action diverge terminally to reach the end of the act in a state of sonic thrills and dramatic chaos. But after the interval the heat never comes on again. The major woman's role, Teresa, turns into a cipher, and a Pope keeps wandering in with all the flair of Boris Yeltsin. Apart from one violent explosion, the end is an anticlimax.

Still, the electricity of the first half kept the evening on a high. Elizabeth Futral, having to seize her moments as Teresa early, made the bold adolescent a sensuous and spirited lover, phrasing ardently and attacking her high notes with aplomb. Giuseppe Sabbatini's Cellini matched her for power and feeling, in his more strenuous and Italianate way, and Laurent Naouri emerged from the underdog role of Cellini's rival Fieramosa with some fine moments of power and idiomatic feeling, as did Isabelle Cals in presenting the stereotyped apprentice Ascanio.

But this was above all Davis and the orchestra's occasion, and the smiles after he swept Act One to its rousing conclusion - part relish, part relief - said all you needed to know about risks taken and vindicated.

Robert Maycock

Further performances at the Barbican Hall (0171-638 8891) on 8 & 11 Dec; Radio 3 broadcast, 9 Dec