Giddy Gilliam in Barmy Berlioz

benvenuto cellini firenze

Benvenuto Cellini bust on the Ponte Vecchio, Florence.

Terry Gilliam’s second foray into opera direction, again Berlioz, is if anything more successful than the first. I hadn’t known any of Berlioz’s 1838 opera Benvenuto Cellini, which tells the story of Cellini’s brush with both papal and paternal wrath in his simultaneous failure to cast a monumental statue of Perseus and his attempts to woo the daughter of a papal exchequer. The work seems sprawling, to put it mildly, and rambles along with rousing ensembles punctuated by less distinctive recitatives and short arias. Gilliam’s madcap treatment of the work would appear to meet its flaws head on in a spirit of riotous abandon.

The overture itself already has a thousand and one musical things going on, and towards its conclusion Gilliam sets us off with a bang as colourful confetti is exploded around the auditorium. The stagecraft is quite deft, with cartoon stone arch-work that serves multiple purposes as it is moved around to create different spaces. Carnival closes act 1, with tumblers, trapeze artists and sleazy dancers adding to the building sense of chaos and disorder. In act 2, the Pope arrives at Cellini’s workshop in vestments so elaborate they turn out to be a sort of wheeled cocoon, from which he steps through doors at the front. Hilariously anarchic little touches abound, such as the pair of papal guardsmen that proceed out at the rear of the  formation, only to glance at each other, grab their long tunics, and skip merrily out behind the pontiff. The work culminates in a grand unveiling of the finally-cast statue, looking a bit wonky after being poured, cooled and burnished in absurdly quick time, and after much clamouring to melt down everything in sight to accomplish it. Cue another choral deluge, another loud bang, and a glorious shower of gold confetti to top everything off. If it sounds chaotically interventionist, it probably was; however, it appeared to me to suit the work well, which would otherwise have risked being somewhat lacklustre and turgid. I also ‘go with it’ because, as opposed to many a ‘fashionable’ director today, Gilliam has applied himself to the work, rather than seeming to simply apply a pre-destined ‘house’ style (Pelly? Jones? Aldens?). The humour was here applied with a broad grin and a rather charming playfulness: in that respect it compares favourably to the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier. It was a shared piece of fun, simple as that.

Benvenuto Cellini programme and gold confetti

Benvenuto Cellini programme and gold confetti – it got everywhere!

Everyone on stage appeared to revel in the fun and games. Michael Spyres, heading the cast as Cellini, was very impressive, his ringing, burnished tenor having a remarkable range (though going through a slightly awkward transformation into a different sound in the highest range). His act 2 aria, charting his despair at his predicament, was beautifully sung and atmospherically set by Gilliam in a welcome pause in the merriment. Paula Murrihy was outstanding as Ascanio, a character that put me in mind of Nicklausse in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, and it was great to encounter her bright, well-projected mezzo. Corinne Winters made much of relatively little as the love-interest, Teresa. Fieramosca, Cellini’s rival for her love, was well-taken by Nicholas Pallesen. Willard White revelled in the slightly camp, but nonetheless fear-inducing character of Pope Clement VII. As his papal exchequer (and Teresa’s father), Pavlo Hunka was not so clearly projected as the others. In fact, universally (albeit a little less so for Spyres, White and Murrihy) the surtitles were an absolute essential, with the thick orchestration, fast pace and wordy translation conspiring against clear diction.

The orchestra were on fine form, with much Berliozian colour in the score, taken at a swift pace by Gardner. In a programme essay, Berlioz is quoted as saying that the director of the Paris Opéra, Duponchel, “regarded [him] as a kind of lunatic whose music was a conglomeration of absurdities, beyond human redemption.” We can only speculate at what M. Duponchel would have made of Berlioz’s music allied to Gilliam’s gleeful spectacular.

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