BERLIOZ Benvenuto Cellini (Elder)
Terry Gilliam’s production of Benvenuto Cellini was the second of the ex-Python’s shows to open at English National Opera, after his Damnation of Faust. Here it appears as captured a couple of years later in Amsterdam – where it was performed in the original language – and there’s certainly no denying the energy that the director finds to reflect Berlioz’s bustling, brilliant but occasionally waffly score.
While Gilliam’s Faust (not available on video, it seems) sought to impose a grand concept, mapping the darkest century of German history on to Berlioz’s loose narrative, his Cellini seems happy just to tell the story – essentially of the famous artist creating his grandest statue to save himself from jail, interspersed with a conventional romantic subplot and lots of dancing and drinking and carousing. Gilliam doesn’t scrimp on these last elements, throwing acrobats and puppets aplenty at the carnival scene and cramming his stage with additional elements (the sub-Python old wenches that fuss around in the opening scenes, for example) and little vignettes throughout. But it doesn’t take long for all this to become wearing – not least when underlined by the camera direction – and one realises that we are given little of interest when it comes to the direction of the principal characters. The sets reflect the overly busy aesthetic, too, and Finn Ross’s video projections can’t hide the fact that they already seem to look a little moth-eaten and old-fashioned.
Thankfully there are some excellent musical performances, not least from Mark Elder, who brings out some fizzingly punchy playing from the Rotterdam Philharmonic. John Osborn is ideal as Cellini, too, dealing with the often stratospheric demands of the role with style, panache and a lovely command of colour and honeyed voix mixte. Mariangela Sicilia doesn’t offer similar tonal variety as Teresa but sings elegantly and acts engagingly. Michèle Losier is a terrific Ascanio, stealing the show with her brief appearances. The lower male roles are well taken, too.
I have my reservations about Gilliam’s staging, then, but Berlioz’s first opera is not well served on film, and this film is certainly more recommendable than Philip Stölzl’s sci-fi staging at Salzburg (also Naxos).