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Portrait of Benvenuto Cellini 1822
06 Jun 2014

Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini

First, a sigh of relief: in almost every respect, this new ENO staging of Benvenuto Cellini marks a significant improvement

Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Portrait of Benvenuto Cellini 1822


upon Terry Gilliam’s ‘Springtime for Hitler’ Damnation of Faust. If that sounds like faint praise, for beating a ‘Holocaust as entertainment’ travesty is perhaps setting the bar unreasonably low, then such is not entirely the intention. Gilliam’s Cellini has its virtues, though for me they are considerably fewer than they seemed to be for the audience at large. It is far from unreasonable to depict anarchy and ribaldry in the Carnival, and indeed during the ‘carnival’ overture — though Gilliam’s reported remark that ten minutes of music are ‘too long for the audience to sit through waiting for the show to begin’ are unworthy of anyone working in opera. There is nothing wrong in principle with ‘staging’ an overture, but the reason should be better than that; if the results are a little over the top, they are certainly superior to the justification.

And yet… here and in the Carnival itself we also experience the main problem: Gilliam’s seeming inability to trust Berlioz’s opera, an infinitely more successful work than ignorant ‘criticism’ will suggest. Yes, there is excess, even at times an excess of excess, in Berlioz’s work, but what I suspect Gilliam’s fans will applaud as ‘wackiness’, be it the director’s or the composer’s, is far from the only or indeed the most important facet of the opera. Despite the handsome, splendidly adaptable Piranesi-inspired designs, the plentiful coups de théâtre, the impressive collaboration of set design and video for the forging, etc., etc., what matters most of all — Berlioz’s score and, more broadly, his musical drama — often seems forgotten. Perhaps that also explains the unaccountable cuts, which serve to exacerbate alleged ‘weaknesses’ — many of which turn out to be deviations from the operatic norm — instead of mitigating them.

Matters improve considerably after the interval, and there is a genuine sense of dark, nocturnal desperation to the foundry and surroundings at dawn on Ash Wednesday (though there was, admittedly, little sense of the significance or even the coming of that day of mortification). Much of the first act, by contrast, is overbearing and in serious need of clarification. Yes, by all means harness spectacle as a tool of drama, but too often it runs riot in an unhelpful sense; it also encourages a large section of the audience to guffaw, applaud, chatter, make other, apparently unclassifiable, noises, often to the extent that one cannot hear the music. I could not help but think that a smaller budget would have removed a good number of excessive temptations and resulted in something less perilously close to a West End musical. There are the germs, and sometimes rather more than that, of something much better here, but those ‘editing’ Berlioz perhaps themselves stand in need of an editor. The updating to what would appear to be more or less the time of composition, perhaps a little later, does no harm; indeed, it proves generally convincing.

Edward Gardner’s conducting of the first act was disappointing, the Overture, insofar as it could be heard, setting out the conductor’s stall unfortunately: excessive drive followed by excessive relaxation. Wild contrasts are part of what Berlioz’s music demands, of course, but there still needs to be something that connects. Throughout, there were many occasions once again to mourn the loss of Sir Colin Davis, whose 2007 LSO concert performance of this work was simply outstanding. The orchestra proved impressively responsive, though, and, once both Gardner and Gilliam had somewhat calmed down, truly came into its own, sounding as the fine ensemble that it undoubtedly is. Gardner is rarely a conductor to probe beneath the surface, but as musical execution, there was a good deal to savour following the (protracted) interval. Choral singing — and blocking — were more or less beyond reproach, a credit to chorus master Nicholas Jenkins and Gilliam’s team alike, as well of course as to the singers themselves.

Michael Spyres performed impressively in the sadistically difficult title role, there being but a single example, quickly enough corrected, of coming vocally unstuck. His stage swagger seemed true to Gilliam’s conception, and his vocal style — insofar as one can tell, in English translation — was keenly attuned to that of Berlioz. A few ‘veiled’ moments notwithstanding, especially later on in the first act, Corinne Winters impressed equally as Teresa. ‘Entre l’amour et le devoir’ could hardly have been more cleanly sung in the most exacting of aural imaginations. Nicholas Pallesen revealed himself to be a thoughtful and at times impassioned baritone as Fieramosca, though Pavlo Hunka’s Balducci sounded thin and generally out of sorts. Despite Willard White’s undeniable stage presence, his appearance as the Pope did little to dispel suspicions that, sadly, his voice is now increasingly fallible. Paula Murrihy, however, proved an excellent Ascanio: characterful and attractive of tone in equal measure. There were few grounds for complaint from the ‘smaller’ roles either.

ENO’s description of this opéra semi-seria as a ‘romantic comedy’ is puzzling. It is, to be fair fair to Gilliam and all those involved, a description that stands at some distance from their vision too. An opéra comique was originally Berlioz’s conception, but that is a matter of form rather than of sentimentality. We should doubtless be grateful that we were spared a ‘heart-warming’ Richard Curtis version. Nor does it help, of course, that we are subjected to an English translation, which inevitably sounds ‘wrong’ for Berlioz, especially when so apparently deaf to musical line and cadence as this present version. If only ENO would reconsider its stance on a once vexed question, now resolved by the use of surtitles, it could truly transform its fortunes.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Benvenuto Cellini: Michael Spyres; Giacomo Balducci: Pavlo Hunka; Teresa: Corinne Winters; Fieramosca: Nicholas Pallesen; Pope Clement VII: Sir Willard White; Ascanio: Paula Murrihy; Francesco: Nicky Spence; Bernardino: David Soar; Pompeo: Morgan Pearse; Innkeeper: Anton Rich. Director: Terry Gilliam; Co-director, movement: Leah Hausmann ; Set designs: Terry Gilliam and Aaron Marsden; Costumes: Katrina Lindsay; Video: Finn Ross. Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Nicholas Jenkins)/Orchestra of the English National Opera/Edward Gardner (conductor). Coliseum, London, Thursday 5 June 2014.

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