ENO/Gardner: Benvenuto Cellini

Date: June 27, 2014
Location: London Coliseum, London.

Benvenuto Cellini: Michael Spyres
Teresa: Corinne Winters
Balducci: Pavlo Hunka
Fieramosca: Nicholas Pallesen
Pope Clement VII: Willard White
Ascanio: Paula Murrihy
Francesco: Nicky Spence
Bernardino: David Soar
Pompeo: Morgan Pearse

English National Opera
Edward Gardner, conductor
Terry Gilliam, director

Terry Gilliam, most famous for being a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, made his debut as an opera director in 2011 with in an ENO production of Berlioz’s Faust. The enormous success of that collaboration led to another invitation this year: to direct Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz’s rarely-performed opera semiseria.

Loosely based on the life of the 16th century sculptor, the opera concerns the casting of a statue of Perseus, which Cellini struggles to complete but eventually does. That much remains true to history, but, in Berlioz’s version, the rest extrapolates from there. Python hoopla was on offer early on: supersized puppets, jugglers and stiltwalkers invaded the Coliseum during the overture while colorful confetti rained down on the audience. A carnival mask and a skull were so gigantic that, when paraded down the orchestra aisles, they humbled even the not-so-trivial size of the Coliseum. The sheer extravagance of the set, designed by Gilliam and Aaron Marsden, could be felt from the carpentry of Balducci’s residence to the Mardi Gras scene, in which over hundred performers and chorus members established an evening of festive splendor. Cellini’s studio and foundry presented in Act II were comparatively more modest: Cellini’s various works were depicted with silly cardboard cutouts. The triviality of the cutouts provided perhaps an important dramatic contrast with the enormous head of Medusa, placed right in the middle of the stage, suggesting the monstrosity of the Perseus project. But a more cynical view, where a stylistic contrast between Act I’s lavish abundance and Act II’s relative economy seems awkward and evident, would be that the production simply ran out of budget by the time Act II had to be built. Perhaps this contrast is precisely Gilliam’s very literal take on the semiseria genre. Michael Spyres, as Cellini, shaped his lines with care and grace. Trained originally as a baritone, his lower registers imparted a deep, fatherly tone. At the higher registers, a resonant head voice projected a bright, almost trumpety sound. While anticipating the arrival of Cellini early on in Act I, Corinne Winters’ Teresa, Cellini’s love interest, singing with emotion and gusto, exposed a character torn between love (for Cellini) and duty (to her family). Edward Gardner, spotted with more than a few strands of white hair, led a brisk and masterful reading of the score.

Benvenuto Cellini. Photo credit: ENO and Richard Hubert Smith.

Carnival performer, in Benvenuto Cellini. Photo credit: ENO and Richard Hubert Smith.

Benvenuto Cellini. Photo credit: ENO and Richard Hubert Smith.

Head of Medusa and a golden Pope, in Benvenuto Cellini. Photo credit: ENO and Richard Hubert Smith.


Royal Opera/Pappano: Les Troyens

Date: July 8, 2012
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Director: David McVicar
Location: Covent Garden, London.

Les Troyens is a brilliant symphonic piece that, in the hands of a fine orchestra who could express Berlioz’s majestic musical integrity in full, can bring absolute thrill to the audience. In this case, Antonio Pappano delivered an enriching program filled with Berlioz’s famously lush sounds. Pappano’s tendency to emphasize dramatic bits, occasionally allowing the orchestra to roam free, further allowed the piece to come to life in an otherwise mundane, rain-soaked Sunday afternoon in London.

In David McVicar’s production, Troy’s wall curved outwards to form what essentially became a metallic Coliseum. The Trojans were dressed and armored in such a way that seemed to place them in a Crimean War setting. The majestic choral celebration of the Trojans’ liberation, followed by Aeneas’s forceful entrance and his forward-looking interpretation of what was to be, reminded the audience visually, if not also dramatically and historically, of Jean Valjean’s pre-exile scene at the end of Act I of Les Mis the musical. If that association was an unnecessary distraction, McVicar’s vision of Carthage was not: it was a beautiful miniature Indiana Jones set, wrapped around by a wall of Carthaginian passageways and illuminated with a beautiful, rustic yellow tinge. McVicar’s production worked not only because it didn’t obstruct the storytelling but, perhaps more importantly, by utilizing a walled design to place the choral members, whether in the metallic Coliseum in Acts 1 and 2 or the wall of passageways in Act 3, the chorus could spread across the vertical and horizontal spans of the proscenium opening, resulting in a wider, more direct projection of the choral sound.

The showpiece of the production was the Trojan horse, which was made with scrap artillery and metallic tools. To stunning and unforgettable stage effect, it self-immolated in a ball of pyrotechnics at the end of Act 2, and smartly morphed into a humanoid caricature of Hannibal at the end of Act 5, thereby allowing McVicar to link the two stories in Les Troyens together through a connection of their respective symbols of transformation. If there was any serious flaw in McVicar’s concoction, it was his lack of reserved space for the dancers and acrobats in the offer scene at the beginning of Act 3. The Royal Opera dancers and acrobats, as good as they were, simply weren’t given enough room to display their craft.

Anna Caterina Antonacci, as Cassandra, was dramatically involved by virtue of her intense on-stage demeanor and vivid vocal colors. Her dark but controlled timbre allowed her to project a Cassandra that was respectively grievous but authentic. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Dido effused maternal strength as well as a conscientious leader’s frailty. Vocally, Westbroek’s well-supported voice and meticulous phrasing was a reminder that, if she nurses her voice wisely, she could very well become the next great Wagnerian heroine.

Bryan Hymel’s French diction was horrendous. He often chewed away the Romantic syllables in seeming unease and agony. That said, everything else about Jonas Kaufmann’s replacement was superlative. As Aeneas, he stamped his mark as a dramatic high tenor with crisp and secure top notes, delivering a gorgeous and ringing B-natural in Nuit. Even towards the end, he had so much power in reserve that he practically slashed through the orchestra with his final “Italie”. This valiant ending provided the fuel to Pappano’s orchestral fire.

Elsewhere, Brindley Sherratt had a fine outing as Narbal, fully projecting a fatherly and stentorian sensibility and providing much vocal warmth to the lower registers. Ji-min Park phrased Iopas’ legato lines with a flowing grace. In the song of the fields, his high C first appeared with a slight wobble but ended with the kind of ring and comfortable support that left the audience close to the edge of their seats.

Each of the vocal, orchestral and visual bits had their individual moments of glory, but a full realization of Berlioz’s vision of a cohesive grand opera came up just short. The determination to introduce the two-storey Trojan horse, no matter how visually stunning, unfortunately gave rise to the chronological misplacement of the Troy scenes and the corresponding confusion (e.g. not-so-subtle references to the mid-19th century Crimean War preceded subtle references to 1832 Paris uprising). The Carthaginian scenes were generally glorious, but whether it was due to Dido’s questionable appearance (an entire curtain from Marie Antoinette’s Versailles seemed to have fallen all over her) or the lack of breathing space for the offerors, the concept of the whole just fell short of unreserved triumph.

Acts 1 and 2: the metallic Coliseum.

Act 1: This metallic Coliseum reminds me of Act 1 of Les Mis. Photo from Royal Opera’s website.

Act 3: Carthage.

Act 3: Carthage. Photo from Royal Opera’s website.

Westbroek's drapery.

Westbroek’s questionable drapery. Photo from Royal Opera’s website.

Orchestral music

HK Phil/Rizzi/Antonacci: Ravel, Berlioz etc.

Date: January 28, 2011
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Together with the Hong Kong Philharmonic and soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, guest conductor Carlo Rizzi delivered a formidable all-French program: Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, Op. 7, and Debussy’s Images for the orchestra. Antonacci has recently made Les nuits her own, having sung the piece with Sir Colin Davis at Champs-Élysées, with Bruno Bartoletti in Parma, and with young superstar Tugan Sokhiev in Munich and Ferrara. The sultry timbre of Antonacci’s voice, her crisp vocal agility and her ability to secure low registers allow her to handle mezzo-like, technically daunting endeavors such as Les nuits with relative ease. But her performance tonight did not fit the bill: her timbre was somewhat banal and uninspiring, and her emotional colorings were the same whether she was singing about springtime love in Villanelle or a lover’s death in Sur les lagunes. Rizzi’s Images was not marginally better: all the notes were dutifully presented, but Rizzi’s rendition lacked the shade of “Frenchness” imprinted in Debussy’s works. Granted, Images carries geo-locational subtleties, but that Gallic absence seemed to betray Debussy’s mystical presence in his glittering, free-flowing passages. In a theme-less work such as Images, the lack of Debussy’s skeleton made the piece somewhat hollow and, to put it more bluntly, dragging to endure. The audience’s response was lukewarm, as much due to the fact that it was the Friday night before a long national holiday as it was a retort to the concert planners trying too hard to make possible an academically stimulating but hard-to-please program.

Anna Caterina Antonacci, in Hong Kong.

Anna Caterina Antonacci, with maestro Rizzi, in Hong Kong.