Genius and Intemperance
Berlioz's 'Benvenuto Cellini',
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Benvenuto Cellini by Hector Berlioz is another opéra maudite like Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele ('A Portable Devil', 21 March 2016). The author worked on it with love and passion because of his memories of his life in Rome as a young scholar and the autobiography of the Renaissance sculptor who had, in his view, the features of his self portrait: a mixture of genius and intemperance. This is well expressed in the title of a Jean Paul Sartre play about Edmund Kean, the British actor who made Shakespeare well known across the Atlantic Ocean. Initially conceived as an opéra comique with spoken dialogue, then transformed into grand opéra and eventually presented as opéra lyrique, its 1838 premiere was a flop. The opera was performed in Germany and Austria a few times in revised versions and in the German language, and it was chosen for the inauguration of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1913. However, the original 1838 version, the closest to Berlioz's own intention, was only recently made available by the Bavarian publisher Bärenreiter.
It is a 'Roman opera', in that its plot evolves in the Holy Palaces, in Cellini's studio and in Colonna Square during the Renaissance in the days of the Carnival and Ash Wednesday. Nonetheless, until the current production, it had been staged in Italy only three times: at La Scala in 1976 (an import from London Royal Opera House), in Florence during the 1987 May Festival and in Rome in 1995. It is a very costly undertaking, requiring ten principals, two choruses, dancers, mimes, 'theatre within theatre' and special effects. The present production is a joint effort of Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, English National Opera in London and Amsterdam's De Nationale Opera and Ballet. I was at the 22 March 2016 opening night.
The plot revolves around Cellini, genius and intemperate, in love with the daughter of the Pope's treasurer, who wants her to marry a mediocre yet properly behaved artist. During a Carnival brawl, Cellini even commits an unintended homicide. The Pope has a lot of sympathy for such an unruly artist and promises that the sculptor will be pardoned if he casts a statue of Perseus in only a few hours. The entire Roman community helps Cellini with this strenuous effort. Of course, the end is quite happy. The plot evolves in two acts with over three and a half of music, where the various styles are not perfectly blended. This adds charm for the modern listener, however.
The staging is entrusted to Terry Gilliam. The sets are signed by Terry Gilliam and Aaron Marsden (on an idea by Rae Smith), the costumes by Katrina Lindsay, the videos by Finn Ross and the lighting by Paule Constable. I would have imagined a wilder staging by Monty Python's famous cartoonist. The action is moved from the Renaissance to Berlioz's own time (judging by the costumes). The impressive single set is inspired by Pironesi's drawings. In the Carnival scene, the entire theatre is involved in the staging. The acting is high class. There's no doubt that this is an excellent staging, but it's not especially innovative.
The two protagonists (John Osborn and Mariangela Sicilia) were applauded open stage and received ovations at the end. In my view, although they were excellent, the orchestra and Roberto Abbado's baton and the choruses directed by Roberto Gabbiani were the main successful elements. They showed the real innovative quality of Benvenuto Cellini: the ambiance, the colors, the tints, the exotic vision of Renaissance Rome, the exuberance of the place are not just the context of the plot but a protagonist of the action itself. They provide cohesion to the imperfect fusion of a variety of musical styles.
As for the vocal part, Mariangela Sicilia shows great abilities, right from her initial impervious aria where she does not miss a single note. John Osborn's voice has darkened when compared to the years when he was the ideal Gounod Roméo, but has the agility required to ascend easily to a very high register. Nicola Ulivieri is an effective Pope's treasurer. Alessandro Luongo is a comical Fieramosca (Cellini's mediocre rival). Marco Spotti is the satire of Pope Clement VII. Varduhi Abrahamyan as Ascanio, Cellini's helper, was especially good.
Copyright © 25 March 2016 Giuseppe Pennisi,