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Hector BERLIOZ ( 1803-1869)
Benvenuto Cellini
Benvenuto Cellini: John Osborn, tenor
Giacomo Balducci: Maurizio Muraro, bass-baritone
Fieramosca: Laurent Naouri, baritone
Pope Clement VII: Orlin Anastassov, bass
Francesco: Nicky Spence, tenor
Bernardino: Scott Conner, bass
Pompeo: André Morsch, baritone
Landlord: Marcel Beekman, tenor
Teresa: Mariangela Sicilia, soprano
Ascanio: Michèle Losier, mezzo-soprano
Chorus of Dutch National Opera
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Elder
Stage designer: Terry Gilliam
rec. live, Dutch National Opera and Ballet, May 2015
NAXOS 2.110575-76 DVD [180 mins]

Berlioz’s first completed opera has always been a problem child. Even before its first, disastrous performance in 1838 the composer had to make cuts, and when Liszt revived it in Weimar in 1852 he had to make more of them. Although it is occasionally revived, it has never become a repertory piece. This recording is of a production which started life at the English National Opera in London, where I saw it in 2014, sung in English, and then went on as a co-production to Dutch National Opera and Teatro del’Opera di Roma. We have here a recording based on two live performances in Amsterdam, with an almost completely different cast and conductor from those I saw in London, and, of course, the work is here given in the original French.

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) was an Italian goldsmith and sculptor. He had the kind of life which is called colourful, featuring numerous mistresses and boyfriends, more than one murder, and a frequent need to escape from justice. His autobiography has become a classic. The libretto of Berlioz’s opera is loosely based on it. The subject was suggested by the poet Alfred de Vigny and carried out by the dramatist Léon de Wailly and the poet Auguste Barbier. The main theme is the difficulty Cellini had in casting the statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa his most famous work. However, the action is transferred from Florence to Rome, and the commissioner of the statue is switched from Cosimo de’ Medici to Pope Clement VII. There is a subplot to give love interest, with Teresa, the daughter of the Pope’s treasurer Balducci, in love with Cellini, who has a rival, Fieramosca. All this is invented. The brilliant carnival scene, on which Berlioz based his concert overture Roman Carnival, is another invention, as is the internal play of Harlequin and Pasquarello in that scene. The pace is fast, the touch light, and some of the characters, such as Balducci and Fieramosca, little more than caricatures. However, the devotion of Cellini to his art is real and serious, and a theme which resonated with Berlioz. The score is quite brilliant and Berlioz himself said later that “it contains a variety of ideas, an energy and exuberance and a brilliance of colour such as I may perhaps never find again”.

Exuberance, indeed, is the main characteristic of this production. There is a single, rather elaborate set, which is rotated and transformed for all the settings in the work. There is a lot of clutter on stage. Numerous extraneous characters are introduced, such a group of duennas (played by men) who try to chaperone Teresa, and acrobats, puppets, actors on stilts and others who populate the carnival scene. The set is dominated by the gilded plaster model of the head of Perseus. The process of casting the statue involves Cellini throwing into the mould his previous work so as to make up the quantity of metal needed, a feature of Cellini’s own account, but otherwise the casting process seems completely incredible; whether this is down to Berlioz, his librettists or Cellini himself I have no idea.

The director, Terry Gilliam, occasionally gets the action wrong, for example by letting Fieramosca remain apart from the foundry team, after Cellini has enlisted him to help. But as you might expect from an ex-Python, his production of the Carnival scene is vibrant, energetic and eccentric. Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are, inexplicably, Victorian rather than sixteenth century, but this is not too distracting. The lighting by Paule Constable is excellent, with several tableaux looking like paintings by Caravaggio.

Mark Elder, who I know as a generalist, rather than as a specialist Berlioz conductor, secures the right Berlioz sound from the orchestra, a glitter and sparkle which carries the work through all the sometimes-creaking dramaturgy. His cast is excellent. John Osborn as Cellini is a lovely Berlioz tenor, looking the part and handling the demands of the role with aplomb. Mariangela Sicilia as Teresa has a more straightforward part as a love-sick girl – it is a fault in the libretto that she leaves her father for Cellini not once but twice – but she is convincing and sings prettily. Maurizio Muraro as Balducci and Laurent Naouri as Fieramosca are stock characters, the blocking father and the unsuccessful rival lover, and they carry off their roles nicely. Orlin Anastassov as the Pope, manages to rescue some dignity and credibility from what is almost a comic part, since he appears dressed as a sort of Mikado rather than as Pontifex Maximus. Michèle Losier as the apprentice Ascanio, a breeches role, gives pleasure whenever she appears, and she is given her aria, a late addition to the Paris version of the score. The chorus of Dutch National Opera are convincing both as the revelling carnival-goers and later as the foundry workers.

The text of the opera seems to be close to that known as Paris 2, i.e. what was actually performed at the premiere. Balducci’s aria (no. 1) is included, Teresa’s original Romance, No. 3a, is replaced by the Cavatina, No. 3b as it was then, Cellini’s Romance, no. 7 is included. There are some cuts. The picture quality and sound are both excellent. There are no extras such as interviews. The booklet note offers an interesting discussion and a plot summary. Subtitles are available in several languages.

I am aware of only one rival on DVD for this work, a rather strange-sounding one from Gergiev and the Vienna opera; the Presto website quotes a newspaper review of this saying “A mixture of futurism à la Metropolis, fantasy à la Batman and quotes from Piranesi’s Carceri, juxtaposed in the form of photo montages, enhanced with . . . robots, a helicopter, a shark and the winged vehicle of a pop star Pope”. On CD you can get the full original version, Paris 1, from John Nelson, two different recordings of Paris 2 from Colin Davis, and one of the Weimar revision from Roger Norrington.

Although I have some reservations, in general I can commend this recording. Everyone who loves Berlioz should get to know this work.

Stephen Barber



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