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Recordings

Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini
21 May 2011

Benvenuto Cellini

Philipp Stölzl’s production of Benvenuto Cellini, from the 2007 Salzburg Festival, is weird almost beyond belief.

Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini

Benvenuto Cellini: Burkhard Fritz; Teresa: Maija Kovalevska; Fieramosca: Laurent Naouri; Giacomo Balducci: Brindley Sherratt; Pope Clemens VII: Mikhail Petrenko; Ascanio: Kate Aldrich; Francesco: Xavier Mas; Bernardino: Roberto Tagliavini; Pompeo: Adam Plachetka; Innkeeper: Sung-Keun Park. Vienna State Opera Chorus. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (chorus master: Andreas Schüller). Valery Gergiev, conductor. Philipp Stölzl, stage director and stage designer. Kathi Maurer, costume design. Duane Schuler, lighting design. Mara Kurotschka, choreographer. Filmed at the Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 5, 10 and 15 August 2007.

Naxos NBD0006 [Blu-Ray]

$39.99  Click to buy

When the curtain rises we see a modern city at night: the heroine Teresa (who loves the great sculptor Cellini, and despises the poor sculptor Fieramosca, whom her father, the papal treasurer, wishes her to marry) has a perfume advertisement in front of her face; this ad turns out to be the back of Paris Match magazine, whose cover speculates that Cellini is a drug abuser. It seems that the opera is going to concern product placement, though this turns out not to be quite true. Then Teresa’s (mute) servants enter: the male servant is a robot that seems made of a refrigerator case into which two auto headlights are set for eyes, and a radiator grill set for a mouth; the female servant is a pink metal contraption with a conical head. As Teresa sings her lovesick aria, the female servant paints Teresa’s nails and shaves her armpits while the male servant turns out to be a huge vacuum cleaner. After her father glowers at her with a shotgun, Cellini, a charismatic tattooed fellow in jeans and a leather jacket, steps off a helicopter onto the roof. Only a few minutes have yet gone by.

A review printed on the back of the DVD notes, correctly, the resemblances to Batman and to Metropolis. The Metropolis suggestion is quite overt, since Ascanio, Cellini’s henchman and assistant, is a gold gynoid (or android—sex is ambiguous here) straight out of Fritz Lang’s movie, although with a few up-to-date touches—the back of his head is full of transistors and wires. But I think that the range of reference is far cheesier than the reviewer suggests. The pink conehead maid is straight out of Judy Jetson’s household; the male servant alludes to low-budget science fiction, on the order of the TV show Lost in Space. In the carnival scene, there are everywhere allusions to cartoons: we see costumes that suggest Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck and Donald’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. A big dynamite detonator is so clearly derived from Roadrunner cartoons that it might as well have The Acme Company printed on it. Zippy the Pinhead seems to inspire certain details, but I’m not sure that Stölzl is likely to know this semi-underground cartoon.

But despite all the sci-fi paraphernalia, even including ray-guns, there is a distinct retro look. Riveted girders are on display; the popemobile is a 1930s roadster with a big glowing cross as the hood ornament. Smokestacks continually emit steam, and indeed this may be the first steampunk opera production.

It is easy to ridicule this—Stölzl certainly intends this ridiculous production to be ridiculed. But almost in spite of myself I enjoyed it, and I think I know why. This is an opera about creativity: the drama concerns Cellini’s difficulties in forging his great statue of Perseus; Berlioz tried hard to limn the artistic personality—reckless, sexy, dangerous to the point of committing murder—that could create such a masterpiece. I suspect that Stölzl tried to imitate this sort of reckless, sexy, dangerous creativity, though the results are usually diffuse. Most focused is his treatment of the robot Ascanio, who becomes a sort of Galatea to Pygmalion-Cellini. Stölzl has Cellini give him (her) a passionate kiss, in defiance of the rules of trousers roles, but here not just a transvestism of the sexes, but a transvestism between the quick and the dead. At one point Ascanio’s severed head sings an aria, as his headless body dances around, as if he were a kind of avatar of Cellini, in danger of being hanged; and, during the casting of the Perseus, Ascanio tosses part of his body into the furnace, to contribute metal to the dangerously low supply. The sexual element is strong: Cellini fondles Teresa’s breasts; some servants spray Fieramosca’s groin with a fire extinguisher; in the satirical carnival show, the puppet representing the nitwit ninny Fieramosca has a huge balloon phallus, finally popped by one of the revelers. Berlioz himself was a kind of steampunk composer, whose harmonic daring and avant-garde urgency of expression was combined with certain (sometimes ironically) retrograde elements, such as the division of the action into set numbers, in some sense a throwback to a pre-Gluckian way of constructing an opera.

The conductor, Valery Gergiev, is about perfect, all impetuousness and finesse and control. The singing is a little less good: best is Maija Kovaleska, the Teresa, a flashy and, despite her mugging, a compelling actress, with a clear vibrant voice that can be caressing but tends to a slight blowsiness; Burkhard Fritz, the Cellini, has a potent stage presence, but an inelegant and uningratiating voice. Even the Fieramosca, Laurent Naouri, who knows everything about French classical style, is guilty of some lunging, as if the fake meretriciousness (if meretriciousness can be faked) had entered his soul. But I suspect that everyone involved had a great deal of fun.

Daniel Albright

 

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