Prom 39: Benvenuto Cellini, Royal Albert Hall, London/Radio 3

Brilliant music, shame about the audience
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Berlioz's opera on the life of the Florentine goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini contains some of the most thrilling music he ever composed. Yet it killed his career at the Paris Opéra, and it has never gone far in the general repertoire or with the public. The catalogue of bad luck continued with Sunday's concert performance, which, from its line-up conducted by Sir Roger Norrington, looked unmissable, and on the night proved brilliant, but played to an alarmingly empty-looking Albert Hall.

Why that should be is quite easy to see. It's nothing to do with the "advanced" style of the music, as some of the composer's apologists think, as though he were some 19th-century modernist. If this had been his epic, Les Troyens, the place would have been packed. True, the score goes seriously off the boil in the final hour, even in the cut version that Berlioz made on the advice of Liszt. True, with its confusing disguises and its demands to portray an exploding metal foundry, it's hard work to stage, though that was not an issue here.

But there's a basic issue of character - not one is sympathetic. Cellini is reduced to a murderous lager lout, his sculpture all but forgotten until the Pope threatens to take away a plum job. You can't quite forget about the unsavoury glossing-over of Cellini's violence when the opera doesn't know whether to be comic or serious. The soprano lead is standard love object, her father conventionally obstructive, and the rest are lads and ciphers, among them a racist portrayal of a Jewish innkeeper, shamelessly played up on this occasion.

Most of the time you can try just listening to Berlioz's spectacular use of orchestra and singers, and as Sir Colin Davis has shown before, the music has so much momentum that if there is enough conviction in the performance it will carry an audience along in amazement. Norrington's way is different. Speeds and dynamics go to extremes, and the prevailing sound is lighter. He has trained the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he is principal conductor, in a potent mix of period and present-day instrumental techniques that allow some uncommonly quick and quiet articulation.

The mix suited Berlioz perfectly. Time and again, passages of intricate accompaniment were clarified as never before, yet without drawing attention to themselves. Against them, the sudden onslaughts of brass and percussion made a devastating impact. The Choir of MDR Leipzig managed to do fast and subtle things that groups of singing humans aren't supposed to, and still had the power and unanimity of an opera-house chorus.

If the music built up by its contrasts and surprises rather than cumulative energy, it was just as effective as in Davis's broader-spanned perspective, and it was carried by a top-rank cast. Laura Claycomb was prime among them, soaring brightly through high-soprano territory in idiomatic style. Bruce Ford as Cellini also handled the high range with aplomb, and had extra reserves of dramatic intensity on which to draw at do-or-die time, while Franz Hawlata's substantial but mobile bass gave the heavy father something suspiciously close to a personality.