Benvenuto Cellini

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

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 Stˆlzl 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

It is easy to ridicule this—Stˆlzl 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 Stˆlzl 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. Stˆlzl 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


image_description=Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini
product_title=Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini
product_by=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 Sch¸ller). Valery Gergiev, conductor. Philipp Stˆlzl, stage director and stage designer. Kathi Maurer, costume design. Duane Schuler, lighting design. Mara Kurotschka, choreographer. Filmed at the Grofles Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 5, 10 and 15 August 2007.
product_id=Naxos NBD0006 [Blu-Ray]