Hector Berlioz - Benvenuto Cellini
English National Opera, 2014
Edward Gardner, Terry Gilliam, Michael Spyres, Pavlo Hunka, Corinne Winters, Nicholas Pallesen, Willard White, Paula Murrihy, Nicky Spence, David Soar, Morgan Pearse, Anton Rich
ENO Screen - 17 June 2014
The 'opera semi-seria' is a curious beast. Are you supposed to take it seriously or not? Half-seriously maybe? I find it a particularly problematic term when it's applied to Benvenuto Cellini. The plot of Berlioz's opera is inspired by a real historical figure (1500 - 1571) and from events described in his autobiography, but there's a considerable amount of both farce and pomposity in Berlioz's treatment of the subject. It's hard to really know what to make of it.
Benvenuto Cellini is not in any case a work that is performed very often. A production for the 2007 Salzburg Festival by Philipp Stölzl didn't make the work any easier to get on with, his staging exaggerating the farce with colourful cartoon robots, while the orchestra romped through the overblown score. I expected much the same from ex-Monty Python director Terry Gilliam, but surprisingly, the English National Opera's 2014 production of this neglected and misunderstood work actually finds a balance that is better suited to drawing out the musical and dramatic qualities of the work.
The association of Terry Gilliam with the English National Opera has clearly been creatively revitalising for both parties. As a filmmaker, Gilliam's irreverence and his single-minded determination to put his surreal and uncommercial vision up on the screen (regardless of budget) has frequently put him at odds with the Hollywood movie industry. Creatively however, Gilliam has slipped into a bit of a rut and any efforts to so something groundbreakingly different (such as the extraordinary Tideland) have proved to be box-office flops. The box-office is of prime consideration for the ENO in these ties of austerity and arts budget cuts, but there's also been a concerted effort by the house to reach out to a new audience, and Gilliam's invitation to direct opera has been very much part of that design. It's one that has drawn a lot of publicity and, most importantly, acclaim.
While Gilliam and the ENO have proved to be a good match, the combination of a maverick director like Terry Gilliam with a rather conventional and mainstream establishment composer like Hector Berlioz didn't seem to be the most natural pairing. Berlioz however, for all his considerable ability and creativity, was never fully embraced by the French musical establishment as an opera composer and struggled all his life to get his works off the ground. There are definitely parallels with Berlioz's efforts to stage his hugely ambitious grand opera Les Troyens, only to see it drastically cut and only half of the work performed in his lifetime and Gilliam's very public battle to screen his 1985 masterpiece Brazil after the film was taken out off his hands and cut into an entirely different movie by the studio.
The Damnation of Faust, Gilliam's first production with the ENO however proved beyond any doubt the viability of the director applying his talents to the opera stage as well as the suitability of his vision and temperament with that of Berlioz. It seems only natural then, looking at Berlioz's other works and discounting (for the moment) the challenges of taking on a beast like Les Troyens, to invite Gilliam back to tackle another Berlioz opera. Benvenuto Cellini is the perfect work with a central character very much in line with Gilliam's sensibility and imagination. It's a work full of colourful figures, with tragic and comic elements and grand creative and romantic gestures made in the story (in the pressures of Cellini's commission to create a vast statue for Pope Clement VII) and in the score itself.
Surprisingly, Gilliam's Benvenuto Cellini resists unnecessary clutter and caricature and plays the work fairly straight, or at least at straight as it's possible to play this work. He reserves the really big gestures for those moments (the Mardi Gras, the arrival of Pope in all his pomp and ceremony) where it's necessary to make a specific impact. All the rest is lavishly scored by Berlioz, and Gilliam wisely doesn't seek to compete with it or contribute to setting it up as parody. There are a few typically Gilliam touches in the drawing of grotesque characters and he can't resist allowing the dancers a few camp gestures, but they're just flourishes to decorate the effect and perfectly in keeping with the overall tone.
There's not much else required in the way of interpretation in Benvenuto Cellini, and there's nothing really to be gained from a modern updating either. It's a colourful historical episode that takes its amusement from the personalities involved, and Gilliam accordingly sets his staging as stylised period. Cellini, his reputation and his exploits are enough to work with on their own terms, the statue he is preparing for Pope Clement VII big enough in scale to tell you everything you need to know about the extravagance of the commission. Gilliam cheekily (ahem!) places a large model of a bottom among the work-in-progress casts littering the sculptor's workshop, but it's the perfect antidote to the grand declarations of the Pope and his dire threats to Cellini should he fail to deliver his commission.
For most of the production, Gilliam lets the work speak for itself, focussing mainly on keeping the characters personalities real and defining their relationships credibly without letting too much farce get in the way. With Edward Gardner conducting, this works very well. Berlioz's score emphasises and underlines, swirling with clever flourishes, harmonies and melodies, and Gardner just goes with the flow. Musically and dramatically,it's enough to keep things moving, and Gilliam clearly has a good team of movement directors and choreographers who know how to keep it all visually interesting. When those grand gestures are called for however, Gilliam pulls out all the stops, converting the Coliseum itself into a grand Mardi Gras celebration, with colourful tickertape parades of huge puppets, whirling acrobats and dancers.
The attention to detail in the characterisation is extended to the cast, who similarly play their roles without unnecessary exaggeration. Most of them are caricatures of one sort or another, either romantic love-interests or cartoon villains, but are played and sung with verve by the cast. The most flamboyant is Pope Clement VII - but this is clearly called for in all the ceremonial music that accompanies his entrances. Willard White however anchors it with a solid, serious performance, his Pope seemingly oblivious in his self-importance to how ridiculous he looks and acts.
Where it not for the fact that the performances are universally good, you suspect that Michael Spyres could carry this production almost single-handedly. His is a gloriously sung and warmly characterised Cellini. Even singing in English - translated well, if not quite with the same lyrical flow of the original French (now competing on an international stage via live cinema relays, the ENO really need to review this English-only policy) - Spyers rich musical voice is a delight, ensuring that there's real character and personality behind all the visual and aural extravagance of Benvenuto Cellini.