Hector Berlioz had a complicated relationship with opera: Benvenuto Cellini flopped, a disaster after which his reputation at the Paris Opera never recovered; Béatrice et Bénédict, an opéra comique based on Shakespeare, failed to find a place in the repertoire; and the composer never saw his epic Les Troyens performed in its entirety. Sir John Eliot Gardiner has never conducted Béatrice et Bénédict, despite “loving it to bits”, although he fondly remembers playing violin under Sir Colin Davis for Chelsea Opera Group’s performance back in 1963. But Gardiner has conducted very successful productions of Troyens and Cellini, returning to the latter this summer. Between rehearsals with the London Symphony Orchestra, we met up to talk about these two very different operas, both of which he considers masterpieces of the operatic repertoire.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Gert Mothes
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Gert Mothes

Gardiner conducted Les Troyens in Paris for the Berlioz bicentenary in 2003. “I first heard the piece conducted by Colin Davis with the LSO at the Festival Hall when I was in my twenties,” he explains. “I’d always marked it as the piece that I’d really wanted to do. With Jean-Pierre Brossman, who was the director at the Châtelet at the time, we planned it over a five year period. We both of us knew that the French – particularly the Parisian – audiences were sceptical when it came to Berlioz so what we did, as it were, was to lead them by the ear by doing two Gluck operas first – Orphée et Euridice and Alceste – and then Oberon (Weber was another great hero to Berlioz).

“In 1990, the Opera Bastille opened with Troyens, but they cut whole chunks of it. We decided we were going to do every single note in the way that Berlioz himself never heard it.” The composer struggled to get Troyens on the stage, eventually allowing Acts 3 to 5 to be mounted as Les Troyens à Carthage, but even then it was cut to shreds while Berlioz lay on his sick bed. “It was a moment of terrible sadness and depression in his life,” Gardiner reflects, “but it is a masterpiece, no question about it. One of the most extraordinary things about it is how detailed and acute Berlioz’ ear was when it comes to the orchestration and the details of articulation within the band, without ever having heard it played.”

Gardiner recalls the terrific cast he gathered at the Châtelet, including Gregory Kunde as Aeneas, Susan Graham as Dido and Anna Caterina Antonacci as “the most amazing Cassandra”. Playing on period instruments with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique led to great revelations. “The thing that I found absolutely electrifying was the use of saxhorns in the Chasse royale and the Marche Troyenne because nobody bothers with them nowadays. They are such distinctive instruments. They’re haunting. I was so fortunate to be able to borrow a whole range of nine of them belonging to a charming private collector who worked for the French railways, Monsieur Bruno Kampmann. I’d tried at the conservatoires, both in Paris and Brussels, and got absolutely nowhere. I’ll never forget the sound of hearing them for the first time on stage in the Chasse royale. It just moved me to tears.”

The colours Berlioz finds in the orchestra are truly remarkable which makes me ponder what makes Berlioz sound like Berlioz? “Firstly, his acute ear for what he called timbre varié – he was so scrupulous and discriminating balancing within a woodwind section. To give you one example, which I find absolutely hypnotic, in the death of Dido, you have bass clarinet – which was a very unusual instrument at that stage – with horn, piccolo and flute. It’s just an extraordinary combination. It’s haunting and cavernous and heartrending all at the same time.

“That’s one aspect. The other is that he sees very little distinction, in my view, between voices and instruments so that, in a piece like Roméo et Juliette, he can write the characters of Romeo and Juliet as sung personages in the Love Scene and then remove them and leave the orchestra doing the characterisation of the two lovers without any loss of expressivity. It’s such a bold and courageous thing to do because he’s saying ‘Look, I have an orchestra which is as expressive as any singers can be or any chorus can be or any novelist or poet can be’. Because that’s the thing with Berlioz, he’s saying ‘I am a literary person’. He wrote wonderfully. If he’d never written a note of music, he’d still be worthy of recognition as a writer. But I believe that music was undervalued up until the time of Beethoven in terms of its power to express the whole gamut of human emotions by means of an orchestra.

© Public domain
© Public domain

“With period instruments, it’s one heck of a lot easier because they are of their own nature; they’re more distinctive from each other than a modern set up, so you’ve got a wider palette of colours anyway. Potentially, you’ve also got a wider range of dynamics because if you allow a modern orchestra loose fortissimo, you coagulate. The needle can go into the red zone with a period instrument orchestra without a feeling of congestion but with an incredible sense of excitement.”

With Cassandra, Dido, Anna and Ascanius in the Troyens roll call, I suggest that Berlioz was particularly in love with the mezzo voice. “Well, he was certainly in love at one stage with Pauline Viardot, who was a mezzo and a dramatic soprano as well. Berlioz writes especially well for mezzo, even in La Mort de Cléopâtre. He had a special thing for mezzos and high tenors.”

Sir John Eliot Gardiner © Gert Mothes
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Gert Mothes

Berlioz was particularly cruel to his tenors, with many roles sitting in a challenging, high tessitura. Gardiner remembers how Kunde did “a remarkable job” in Troyens. The American tenor was also his Cellini at Zurich Opera the previous year in David Pountney’s production. Today’s leading tenor in Berlioz roles is another American, Michael Spyres, a superb Énee in Strasbourg two years ago, and an exuberant Cellini in Terry Gilliam’s wacky staging at English National Opera.

Benvenuto Cellini tells the (largely fictional) escapades of the Florentine sculptor, specifically the casting of the statue of Perseus during the carnival season in Rome, 1532. It’s a riot of an opera, yet its 1838 premiere was very badly received. Berlioz later wrote in his memoirs: “At that time Duponchel was the director of the Opéra; he regarded me as a kind of lunatic whose music could not fail to be anything but a tissue of extravagances.”

Nul n'est prophète en son pays,” Gardiner shrugs. “But I’m convinced there’s an absolute masterpiece in there that has to be dug out like a pearl from an oyster. I think it’s the most exuberant, over-the-top piece that he ever wrote.

Bust of Hector Berlioz at the Palais Garnier © Mark Pullinger
Bust of Hector Berlioz at the Palais Garnier
© Mark Pullinger

“You can tell that Berlioz is identifying wholly with his protagonist. Berlioz dreamt of being a brigand, of being a corsair, of being an outlaw – he would even walk around with pistols! There’s this constant dichotomy in Berlioz between this beautifully well-educated classical person who knew his Shakespeare, knew his Homer, knew his Goethe, knew his Virgil and yet he was a rebel and a rule-breaker… but not a hooligan! I used to talk to Pierre Boulez about this because Pierre, on one side of his personality, loved Berlioz and on another side, as a composer, he was irked by what he regarded as his infelicities of harmony which, to me, misses the point. Berlioz’ harmonic language is not that of the classically trained German school. He wasn’t a pianist. His sense of spacing of chords comes from a different aural background – he played the flute a little and the guitar – and he had a different idea of the harmonic structure and the harmonic rhythm of pieces. They don’t always fit into four- and eight-bar structures. So bold, so daring.”

So why did Cellini fail? “Firstly, because of the hostility of the Paris Opera management and the French public towards Berlioz. They didn’t forgive him that he was a critic as well as a composer. Secondly, it was beyond the technical capacity of the singers and the orchestral players – they just found it ‘bizarre’. As someone who’s played viola in the back desks of French orchestras when I was a student, I know about their attitudes to Berlioz!”

Gilbert Duprez, the leading tenor, cancelled after the third performance. The show closed after the fourth. In 1852, Liszt mounted his own version in Weimar, while a second Paris version was “a non-event”. Gardiner believes that London would have been the ideal place to have mounted Cellini, but “there was a cabal against Berlioz here who were pro Italian operas.”

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Berlioz at the BBC Proms © BBC | Chris Christodoulou (2018)
Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Berlioz at the BBC Proms
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou (2018)

“One of my most prized documents,” says Gardiner, “is a contract between Berlioz and Louis-Antoine Jullien, who was the impresario at the Drury Lane Theatre here in Covent Garden. Berlioz was allowed to write out his own contract in which it was stated he was going to compose and perform four operas here. But Jullien went bust, so there was all sorts of happenstance why it didn’t work.”

The version Gardiner will conduct this summer is one he knitted together for Zurich, combining Paris 1, Paris 2 and Weimar versions. “I think that Berlioz was never satisfied with any version so I’m taking that as license to do my own.”

It’s clear that Gardiner has total belief in the opera. “Teresa is a wonderful role – coloratura soprano plus sexy agent provocatrice. Then there’s the denouement and the tension that builds up. Cellini is on the run for murder, for abduction, for late delivery of his contracts… it’s shit-or-bust! He’s got this statue of Perseus in the furnace, his workers are on strike because he hasn’t paid them for weeks and he’s throwing all his best pieces in there to make sure the furnace doesn't crack, so it’s touch-and-go until the very end. Berlioz brings it off brilliantly. The Carnaval romain – not the overture, but the actual carnival scene itself – is a masterpiece because you’ve got two or three different rhythms going on, the chorus on stage, it’s organised chaos. You’ve got two people dressed up as Capuchin monks – Cellini and Fieramosca – so Teresa doesn’t know which one to turn to. In terms of high energy and in terms of fantasy there’s nothing to touch it. There is no other opera like Cellini!”