Reviews Opera Published 10 June 2014

Benvenuto Cellini

London Coliseum ⋄ 5th - 27th June 2014

Terry Gilliam directs for the ENO.

David Ralf

Benvenuto Cellini is the second opera that the incredible filmmaker, animator and Python Terry Gilliam has directed for the ENO. Given his almost jinxed history with film (cast deaths, runaway budgets, endless cancellations and frustrations) which has nevertheless left us with gorgeously flawed gems like Brazil and 12 Monkeys, opera seems like an insane choice. To borrow from another Terry (Pratchett, this time), “Opera happens because a large number of things amazingly fail to go wrong”, and with a far less familar title (his first ENO outing was The Damnation of Faust) a difficult narrative, ridiculous demands on the design and a total cast of fifty-nine, this could easily have been an ill-advised follow-up. But Gilliam and his creative team give Hector Berlioz’s rarely performed opera semiseria a joyous production which builds to a genre-splicing climax of romantic, artistic and religious strands.

The sculptor Cellini has a commission from Pope Clement VII to build a statue of Perseus* but he seems more intent on drinking and wooing the beautiful Teresa, who is jealously over-protected by her father. The first half leads up to a carnival, where Teresa and Cellini intend to elope in disguise, but Cellini has also planned that the entertainments of the carnival publicly mock Teresa’s father. A rival sculptor, Fieramosca, who also desires Teresa also turns up in disguise, and in the heady mess of the carnival, Cellini fights and kills Fieramosca’s accomplice. But it’s okay – it’s only a semi-serious opera, a little brutal stabbing here and there is easily forgotten, and Cellini is a cheerily amoral protagonist.

The first act opens with a beautiful woodcut-style drawing of signs and ropes on a curtain, and the woodcut theme continues into the building blocks of the design and is projected across the back wall. We start with a taste of the carnival to come, and giant heads suggestive of Día de Muertos celebrations are paraded through the London Colliseum aisles of the stalls (worry not, the circles are well provided for) and tumblers tumble and excitable child actors child act excitably. It’s a necessarily big start because the first half is a self-contained comic romance which looks small given what follows. The music is intricate, the translation (to my ears) excellent, and exquisitely performed. By the time we meet Cellini’s (massive) gang of metalworkers, singing drinking songs we’re in good swing, and by the end of the first half, with attention to detail of the sprawling carnival, and the music doing similar big but brilliantly delicate work, the appetite is fully whet for the plot – and the spectacle – proper.

In all the supposed confusion of the carnival which the plot demands a couple of the onstage beats really are lost, and it is hard to work out which plan has come off, but at the start of the second half Fieramosca has been frustrated, Cellini is safe, and Cellini’s accomplice Ascanio (a breeches role sung fantastically by Paula Murrihy) has made it back to Cellini’s workshop safely with Teresa. The wit of the first half erupts into big laughs here as Cellini’s describes his escape (a highlight of a virtuoso performance from Michael Spyres) and Teresa and he are reunited. All is not well, as the Pope (an all too short appearance from Willard White) drops by to check on his statue. His definitely unfinished statue. Moreover, Fieramosca and Teresa’s father both catch up to him. If Cellini can cast the statue by daybreak, as he boasts, then all will be well. He even smooths his way to marrying Teresa – a Papal nod is a powerful thing. After a little more procrastination, wishing the life of an artist was more like that of a common labourer (hmm) and entertaining further notions of abandoning his responsibilities Cellini gets his striking metalworkers back on side, and appeals to God to help him cast the work. They nearly run out of material and have to melt down almost all the work in the shop, but the statue is cast and all rejoice. Cellini has made something of himself, won Teresa, and stuck his finger up to the establishment from within the semi-protective embrace of a prayerful relationship with the church.

The second half is spectacular in the very real sense of the word, and makes the parade through the auditorium in the first half look small and messy by comparison. But like Cellini melting down all the work in his studio to cast Perseus, there is a feeling that we have seen almost every design gesture of Gilliam’s before. Most of this works seamlessly and feels absolutely right from a director which such an exciting style and sense of humour. The libretto is all disproportion: Cellini’s art comes before all other concerns, and so the real-life statue that is not much bigger than a man where it still stands in Florence here is a towering giant, closer in size to the Statue of Liberty. The Pope emerges from a light cloudy sky, in aspect more cartoon than human, like something from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Every figure of authority is extruded and caricatured, commedia-like, but always in ways we’ve seen in Gilliam’s work previously. I found myself imagining (and not for the first time) what strange reference book it was that caught the young Gilliam’s mind so intently that he has never wanted to shake it off. Only occasionally does the familiarity feel ill-fitting or lazy though, and the self-reflexivity of putting this artist’s tale in such a visual auteur’s hands makes this genuinely difficult opera shine golden.

*The real sculpture, “Perseus with the Head of Medusa” was suggested by Cellini’s patron Cosimo de Medici, and apart from the fact that the bronze statue was extremely difficult to cast, Cellini’s factual life does not intrude on the libretto at all. So we’ll have no more interruptions on that score.

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David Ralf

David Ralf is a writer and critic in London. He won the Sunday Times Harold Hobson Award for reviewing at the ISDF in 2012, and the Kenneth Tynan Prize for his reviews for the Oxford Theatre Review in 2011. He draws pens and doodles at Pens by Pens.

Benvenuto Cellini Show Info


Produced by ENO and De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Link http://www.eno.org/

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