Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini

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 thȂtre, 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 opÈra 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
opÈra 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.

image_description=Portrait of Benvenuto Cellini 1822
product_title=Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Portrait of Benvenuto Cellini 1822