sun 21/07/2024

Benvenuto Cellini, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Benvenuto Cellini, English National Opera

Benvenuto Cellini, English National Opera

Gilliam outdoes his first opera with the sheer gleeful excess of his second

A cast of grotesques frolic in Terry Gilliam's manic masqueradeRichard Hubert Smith

Tumblers, confetti, stiltwalkers, flags, crowds, a giant skull, and that’s just the overture. If anyone thought that Terry Gilliam might struggle to match the scope, scale or impact of 2011’s Damnation of Faust with his follow-up then they’re probably feeling rather foolish right about now.

Gilliam’s Benvenuto Cellini is one of the most expensive productions ever seen at English National Opera. It’s also a notoriously challenging, rarely-staged hybrid of a work that failed (repeatedly) during the composer’s lifetime, and has since been largely consigned to the concert hall. So was it all worth it? Can all that glitter really translate to operatic gold?

It doesn’t get much grander or more fatally flawed than Benvenuto Cellini

It doesn’t take a long look at Terry Gilliam’s CV – the sprawling Brazil, the ill-fated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – to realise that the director has a fondness for noble failures and grand, doomed schemes. It doesn’t get much grander or more fatally flawed than Benvenuto Cellini – a work even the composer himself acknowledged “lack[s] the essential ingredients of what is known as well-made drama”.

Berlioz’s debut opera started life as a comic opera, was rewritten as a serious drama and ended up settling somewhere between the two as an “opera semi-seria”. In Gilliam’s vision it’s more opera barely-seria – a giddy, naughty, baroque fantasy of itself, always poised right at the brink of theatrical hysteria. Author of one of the most vivid autobiographies of his day, Benvenuto Cellini was a self-dramatising master of semi-fiction. This is the story of the rebellious Renaissance goldsmith/ murderer/ rebel/ Casanova/ genius as the artist himself might have told it.

Gilliam trades 16th-century Rome for a gleefully anachronistic Victorian anyplace, peopled with masked revellers, troglodytic foundry workers and extraordinary Church officials. Cellini (Michael Spyres) becomes a rapacious Bohemian in a sweat-stained wife-beater, while his beloved Teresa (Corinne Winters) is a curled and corseted Disney princess in her tower, oppressed by her overbearing father, but still perky enough to sing a pretty little cavatina and pout her way to true love with the man of her (rather limited) dreams.

A plot too convoluted to bother untangling drifts between artistic ideals (Cellini must cast the mighty statue of Perseus for the Pope or else face death) and a token love story, but actually it’s everything swirling around these two strands that is most interesting. Prescient orchestral writing casts the instruments as commentators and narrators rather than accompanists – a detail not lost on Gilliam who gets some of his biggest laughs by flagging up these sardonic little comments in his affectionate direction. Just occasionally, however, he risks dulling their sotto voce wit by narrating them visually fortissimo.

Berlioz’s triumphs in Cellini are the set-pieces: the carnival; the casting of the statue; the arrival of the Pope. The former sweeps through the opera house, dangling from boxes, cartwheeling down aisles and waving an oversized cucumber phallus round the stage. Gilliam revels in the teeming details, though wisely makes little attempt to yoke this orgiastic frolic to any serious subtext.

Breaking through the frenzy and its aftershocks, Willard White’s worldly Pope Clement VII (as inevitable and right a bit of casting as Morgan Freeman playing God) glides in on a pimped-up Popemobile accompanied by some scene-stealing acolytes who see his camp and match it with their sci-fi-bondage clerical chic. White sings better than we’ve heard him for ages, and has a ball with this absurd creation.

Spyres (pictured left), so excellent in the Royal Opera’s recent Donna del Lago, vaunts and vaults his way around Berlioz’s extreme writing, lovely even in the highest registers. Vocally less poised than her Violetta, Winters’s Theresa nevertheless brims with personality and blooms into some impassioned highlights, which make up for a little early strain. Both meet the challenge of Edward Gardner’s ferociously swift speeds, as do the swollen ENO Chorus who must chatter and chew their way through Charles Hart’s wordy libretto.

A miracle of wit and invention, Hart’s freely-translated rhymes are one embellishment too far here. Jerking us out of the drama to marvel at verbal contortions (while acrobats perform gymnastic ones for our visual benefit), Hart misses the opportunity to offer a white wall against which Gilliam’s grotesques might better shine.

With his generous, ambitious approach and restless visual daring, Gilliam’s production gets to the core of Berlioz’s opera. If only that core weren’t hollow he’d have an unqualified hit. As it is, even if the composer’s rebel artist is more bronze than goldsmith, ENO’s new production successfully gilds him with Gilliam’s signature sparkle.

Willard White’s worldly Pope Clement VII glides in on a pimped-up Popemobile, Gilliam-style.


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Now I can't wait to see it. But on the strength of two concert performances from Sir Colin Davis, Pountney's superb production in Zurich, a Salzburg DVD and three recordings,  I don't see where the flaw lies in the work. It's unremitting energy propped up by astounding details: the first half is about love, the second about art (depending on where you put the break - presumably after the carnival whirl). The more I get to know it - and we spent six weeks on it in an opera appreciation course at the City Lit - the more I reckon it's a solid gold masterpiece: pure testosterone, huge fun, with a dash of reflection.

Exactly. This review under-appreciates the opera. I feel that the problems with the evening arise from the production rather than the work. It is hard not to get swept up in the excitement - but I could not help feeling that something important was missing.

Yes. Tunes.

How many tunes do you want me to sing to you? Because at least a dozen are lodged in my brain. Start with the famous melody Berlioz immortalised for the cor anglais in the 'Roman Carnival' Overture, core of the Act One love duet, and at least give credit to the numbers for Ascanio and Cellini later on (the 'wish I were a simple peasant' number is a much better prototype of 'Annie's Song').

It may be that the rest are just testament to Berlioz's unusual melodic lines, but he wasn't just one of the great orchestrators of all time (if not the greatest), he was also a fabulous melodist. Might the production be smothering them under business? Well, I'll see for myself eventually.

Leave after the Carnival- a wis move .Musically -not worth it

I was there last night and it was stunning. How anyone can claim that the story makes no sense, or is incomprehensible...where are they coming from? It's very simple and easy to follow. What's more, I knew absolutely nothing about the story before last night and didn't buy a programme, so I followed it "raw". The weakest part in my opinion was the music which lacks melody; beautifully played, but nothing special from a compositional perspective. But that's just my take on it. The singing was great, and the spectacle was astonishing. An amazing work of the imagination. This work is hardly philosophy, or some deep (supposed) insight into the human mind, but rather a piece of fun. It's great! Miss it...and regret it.

I was surprised that people I was with last night were also complaining about a lack of tunes. Maybe one needs to hear it more than once to pick them up - a bit like "Falstaff" in that respect?

When I arrived at the Colleseum, adding perhaps my own touch of bizarreness on a mobility scooter, the waiting audience seemed hysterical in anticipation. They were not disappointed!! The spectacle was a brilliant evocation of the more extravagant ebullience of people at their manic best.As I removed confetti from my hair I realised that I had only vaguely appreciated the extraordinary complexity and vibrant subtlety of that amazing score.both superbly sung and played. One of the better opera evenings in a long lfe of opera going. Having sone theatre connections we tried to join the party, but the numbers of crazily happy revellers gathered in impenetrable masses and you could hear the party all down St Martin's Ålane. Many people will never forget that evening-me included!!

How can anyone say it lacks tunes? They have been running round in my head ever since! Alison is of course correct; hearing a piece more than once helps embed the tunes in the memory. David Nice's comments are spot-on, in particular: "he wasn't just one of the great orchestrators of all time (if not the greatest), he was also a fabulous melodist. Might the production be smothering them under business?" A fabulous melodist indeed.

I think that the problem with tunes was that the visuals were bigger than music. Music became secondary.

''The Party's Over'' after the Carnival-- much seen - little to hear ! What a waste of TG 's talents --and ENO's money!

That reaction surprises me. Because surely Berlioz turns his genius in a different, not inferior direction, one slightly redundant duet apart (which was helpfully cut altogether here) Hving finally seen the show last night, I also reckon Gilliam does much better with Act Two. The Piranesi designs begin to work, Willard White's appearance as the Pope was the first time in the evening I laughed a bit, that ensemble is good - and then you get two great arias (Paula Murrihy is the real star of the evening, I reckon, though Spyres does well in the beefy stuff) and a proper denouement in the forging, where Gilliam does not disappoint. Otherwise it seemed too heavy-handed to me.

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