I’ve had to wait forty years to see my second production of Benvenuto Cellini. And if that’s too long for anyone who cares about Berlioz, then after watching Terry Gilliam’s new production for ENO – and hearing what Ed Gardner makes of this sumptuous score with the ENO orchestra on tip-top form – it’s been worth the wait.
Poor Berlioz had to wait even longer. In fact you could argue that after just four performances at the Paris Opéra in 1838 he never did hear the work again. Certainly not the way he had originally composed it. The version that lingered on and scarcely limped into the twentieth century was a rewrite for Weimar in 1851 when Franz Liszt, who was in charge of music at the Grand-Ducal Court, championed Berlioz’s music.
That was the version that an Italian claque booed off the stage at Covent Garden in 1853, it seems. “Yesterday Benvenuto fell at Covent Garden exactly as in Paris. The difference is that the opposition showed its hand in advance and so its plan was discovered. A society of Italians had organised themselves as early as last Thursday to bring the opera down”, the composer wrote to a friend in Paris. “That same evening I withdrew the work, as I did not want to expose myself to the continuation of this Italian hostility.” The Italian claque, it seems, was outraged that the cast consisted of French and German singers!
Well, thanks to ENO, Hector Berlioz has had his revenge on Covent Garden. And with a production that gets us pretty close to the version of Benvenuto Cellini that was composed for the Paris Opéra.
If this were just a story of revenge and nothing more, then Benvenuto Cellini would be rightly relegated to a footnote in the history of the music drama. But this is one of the most radical operas to have come out of the early nineteenth century, as radical as Verdi’s first version of Macbeth (1847) or The Flying Dutchman, which Wagner started work on just about a year after the premiere of Benvenuto Cellini. It’s a work that puts the drama firmly in the pit with the orchestra that asks for a new kind of expressivity from its singers and pushes the chorus centre stage. And is completely uncompromising in the resources that it demands, which explains why performances are so rare.
More than that, this story of the artist fighting a narrow-minded and self-interested banker has a distinctly contemporary feel. And in Terry Gilliam’s kaleidoscopic production, the artist has the first and the last word. Or rather image. Not just in the tenor Michael Spyres’ larger than two lives impersonation of the Renaissance sculptor, but right through every turn of the design for sets and costumes which take their visual cues from the work of two of the greatest European graphic artists - Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri, images of imagined prisons, and Honoré Daumier’s caricatures of his fellow citizens. The Italy of Cellini mixing it, so to speak with the Hector Berlioz’s France. And even better, the artist makes the art - the great statue of Perseus - and he gets the girl, who just happens to be the banker’s daughter. Ars longa, argentaria brevis.