Unmissable Cellini

7 Jun

I love Benvenuto Cellini in the way that I love, say, Rossini’s La pietra del paragone, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline or Mrs Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers.  All of them have flaws and all of their writers did better work, but there is an intensity and certainty about them that is hugely engaging. You sense in all of them that the author knew exactly what they wanted to achieve but didn’t quite succeed, that there are whole passages that need a complete reworking and the pacing is all over the place.  And yet there is something interesting and satisfying about seeing them.  That was what I felt following the ENO’s splendid new Benvenuto Cellini on 5th June.

There are lots of things wrong with the opera.  The balance of the comic and serious doesn’t quite work out.  It’s oddly paced, parts of it take just too long.  Some scenes feel wrong: the comic moments – like the finding of Fieramosca in Teresa’s bedroom need a lighter touch, more Auber or Offenbach, and could be shorter. There’s a glorious number for chorus in the third scene which sounds as though they should all be storming the Bastille but is, in fact, about an unpaid tavern bill.  There are other passages which cry out for better music or an editor.  But, throughout it all, there is the sense that Berlioz has been making a series of conscious decisions, for a reason, even if you feel that, for some of them, he is barely in control.  It’s an opera where the composer was in love too much with the subject and with himself.  I wonder whether Liszt’s Weimar version might have been an improvement.

Anyway, this ENO production was hugely welcome.  I’ve heard the opera in concert and the first Davis recording is a favourite of mine, but it was written to be staged and that is the only way in which you could get an idea of whether or not it works.  And the joy of this evening was the sense that ENO, rather like Berlioz, had thrown everything that it could at it and that there was barely any sense of compromise.

I missed Terry Gilliam’s Damnation of Faust, to my chagrin.  What struck me about this production was how faithful it seemed to Berlioz’s vision and how, in lots of ways, it mirrored the flaws of the work.  He catches the sheer exuberance of the piece: the carnival begins in the audience during the overture.  He’s set it in the nineteenth century and, in Balducci and Fieramosca catches the type of individual that Berlioz hated.  He stages an exuberant carnival, an outstanding entrance for Pope Clement and is wonderfully witty and subversive.  He catches the heroism and selfishness of Cellini and the exuberance of the end.  And yet, for all that, he cannot paper over the weaknesses of the piece.  I defy anyone to stage the end of carnival scene so that you actually follow what is going on and, like Berlioz, he got away with it by creating very convincing chaos.  Much of the first act struck me as remarkably conservative – there wasn’t a lot here that a competent director in the 1960s wouldn’t have managed.  It was well done but the mind wandered.

I don’t think that the music could have been managed much better. Edward Gardner conducted an entirely convincing and committed performance.  The orchestra outdid itself and the chorus was magnificent – singing with vigour and making light of the difficulties.  This must be one of the most difficult operas to pull of musically and the sheer complexity of Gilliam’s production made it an even more outstanding achievement.

I was uncertain about Michael Spyres when I heard him La donna del lago last year.  He cast away all doubts here.  He sang the role as if there were no difficulties worth mentioning, managing the reflective passages and the heroic one with, apparently, equal ease. After the Tara Erraught controversy, I hesitate to say this, but he doesn’t exactly look like a handsome young hero but, unless Jonas Kaufmann decides to have a go at the role, I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather hear sing it.

Corinne Winters was a very good Teresa.  I could have done with a little more sparkle and, maybe more personality, but this isn’t a role that is easy to interpret and I liked her sense of exasperation at the events that unfolded.  It’s a lovely voice, though, and she sang it all very well.

Paula Murrihy struck me as a really good Ascanio – witty and really strongly sung.  Pavlo Hunka sounded unusually under-powered as Balducci, Nicholas Pallesen made a good impression as Fieramosca and Willard White pretty much stole the show as Pope Clement – making me feel that the ENO should really cast him as the Mikado if they still have the Miller production around.

So this struck me as getting as near as possible to getting the spirit of what Berlioz was looking for.  There’s loads wrong with the opera and Gilliams didn’t hide this.  He also, however, made you feel that they didn’t matter and that what we had was a worthwhile experience.  Anyone who isn’t totally allergic to Berlioz should get to it.  I don’t suppose they’ll have another chance.

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