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.