Benvenuto Cellini, London Coliseum, opera review: 'Curiously drained of energy'
'Everything becomes a cue for just another panto sight-gag'
Friday 06 June 2014
‘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After three performances that show was withdrawn. Fifteen years later the work was revived at Covent Garden, but it bombed and was again withdrawn.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.
film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
- 2 City traders pay £200 for a quick hangover cure
- 3 Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
- 4 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 5 Ball pool for adults opens in London
Gorillaz Phase 4: Cartoon supergroup is back as new artwork is unveiled
Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
As Better Call Saul launches, here are the other spin-off shows we need to see
Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures
Hard line on immigration could cost Tories the election