“Concert performance” the Proms Guide had announced, primly underselling what turned out to be an exuberant “production” – fully costumed, if without many actual props – of Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini. This opera semiseria, a fictionalised account of the wild escapades of the Renaissance sculptor, shifting the action from Florence to Rome and culminating in the forging of his great masterpiece, Perseus with the Head of Medusa. With fiery red lighting and smoke effects, Duncan Meadows – sporting a bronze spray tan and not much else – appeared as the statue, crowning Noa Naamat’s effective staging.

Duncan Meadows as the statue of Perseus © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Duncan Meadows as the statue of Perseus
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, bringing his five-year Berlioz odyssey at the BBC Proms to a close in the year marking the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death, conducted his own composite version of the score, drawing on the Weimar and both Paris versions. As is Gardiner’s fashion, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique played the overture standing, providing the requisite zing to kick off the evening. So much energy oozes from the ORR, it’s difficult to know where to begin, but the tangy, ripe woodwinds deserve prime billing. The quartet of grumbling bassoons to accompany Maurizio Muraro’s curmudgeonly Balducci deserve mention, as does the lilting, curvaceous cor anglais solo, a plangent pause in the otherwise ebullient “Roman Carnival” finale to Act 1. The lithe ORR strings danced and wove through Berlioz’ silvery writing, while the narrow-bore trombones gave the brass meticulous precision, without sacrificing power. And kudos to ophicleide player Marc Girardot, playing the donkey with relish in the pantomime episode of King Midas.

“King Midas and the Ass' Ears” © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
“King Midas and the Ass' Ears”
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Naamat’s staging has already played at the Berlioz Festival in the composer’s birthplace of La Côte-Saint-André, and at the Musikfest Berlin, so the singers – despite a couple of previously unadvertised “short notice” replacements – were well inside their roles. The business of the staging, using a wide apron in front of the orchestra and a roomy platform at the rear, meant that voices were not always audible, but such are the hazards of the Royal Albert Hall.

Michael Spyres (Cellini) and Sophia Birgos (Teresa) © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Michael Spyres (Cellini) and Sophia Birgos (Teresa)
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

American tenor Michael Spyres is the Berlioz tenor de nos jours and performed the role – memorably – in Terry Gilliam’s larger-than-life ENO staging, a production so lavish that a revival to mark the anniversary this season was ruled out on expense terms alone. Spyres’ interpretation is exhilarating, high on energy with heady top notes – not all of which pinged effortlessly but the intent was wholly admirable. He delights in the comedy, especially the witty trio where he serenades Sophia Burgos’ sweet Teresa whilst his jealous rival Fieramosca spies on them.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner with Tareq Nazmi (Clement VII) and the ORR © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Sir John Eliot Gardiner with Tareq Nazmi (Clement VII) and the ORR
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Burgos, recently Maria in Gardiner’s West Side Story at the Edinburgh Festival, sang a charming Teresa, her limpid soprano caressing the lines of her aria well, if a little fluttery at the top. Lionel Lhote was a terrific Fieramosca, perfectly blending snarling baritone with buffo antics. Maurizio Muraro’s Balducci was gruff and woolly, but it suited the role. Adèle Charvet's pale mezzo slightly underwhelmed as Ascanio, but Tareq Nazmi was a richly resonant Pope Clement VII – commissioner of Perseus – presented as a sleepy cleric, resting on Gardiner’s shoulder for a gentle snooze.

Best of all were the high energy antics of The Monteverdi Choir, racing around the stage, dispatching the complex choruses with élan, chattering and whooping through the Act 1 finale, which Berlioz effectively recast for orchestra as his Roman Carnival Overture. For sheer joy, it’s difficult to beat.

****1