‘Nobody succeeds with a Berlioz opera,’ Terry Gilliam confided to his diary when his production of Benvenuto Cellini was first mooted three years ago. ‘You might f*** it up, but so does everybody else.’
As did the producer of the Parisian premiere of this picaresque paean to art and artists, with the composer himself sardonically noting: ‘The overture was extravagantly applauded; the rest was hissed with exemplary precision and energy.’
After three performances that show was withdrawn. Fifteen years later the work was revived at Covent Garden, but it bombed and was again withdrawn. A further century elapsed before yet another version went on in Paris and London, after which the opera returned to the shadows. Gilliam’s is the first London production for decades.
It’s easy to see what drew Berlioz, a brilliant maverick excluded from the musical establishment, to the story of this uncompromising artistic genius who suffered similar exclusion. Gilliam himself professes kinship with this ‘crazy, flawed, exciting’ rule-breaker of a composer, and he has persuaded ENO to commit more money to realise his vision than it ever has before to a single show.
But he must have seemed a good bet, as his 2011 ENO production of the same composer’s The Damnation of Faust was a popular and critical success. He updated the plot of that opera to Nazi Germany: he and his co-director Leah Hausman set this one in nineteenth-century Rome, with the mardi gras carnival setting the tone. From the moment stilt-walkers and giant Satyagraha-style inflatables invade the auditorium in the middle of the overture, it’s clear they are going to pursue effect for its own sake.
The designs inspired by the looping architecture of Piranesi prints, and the vast gilded head which is the focus of the action, make an impressive set, and tumblers, dancers, jugglers, and a huge cast of extras fill it with pullulating life.
The trouble is, nobody’s still for a moment, and neither is the set. This opera, which concerns a Papal commission, wants to say serious things about art and patronage while having a love-story grafted on, but the graft doesn’t take, and everything becomes a cue for just another panto sight-gag – and the gags never raise more than a titter. Everybody acts their head off and the pace is frenetic, yet the whole thing feels curiously drained of energy.
We are left with a conductor (Edward Gardner) valiantly making sense of the richly coloured and rhythmically intricate score, with a chorus singing splendidly, and with a handful of singers heroically breathing life into their dramatically improbable roles: pre-eminent among these are Willard White’s comically quirky Pope Clement VII, Paula Murrihy’s ringingly pure-toned Ascanio, and Nicholas Palleseh’s charismatically evil Fieramosca.
Meanwhile the superb lyric tenor Michael Spyres does lovely things in the title role whenever he’s allowed to by the production, and by Berlioz. Because in this opera Berlioz never found a vocal magic to equal that of his great Italian contemporaries; his strenuous efforts never hit the mark.