Benvenuto Cellini, London Coliseum, opera review: 'Curiously drained of energy'

2.00

'Everything becomes a cue for just another panto sight-gag'

‘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After three performances that show was withdrawn. Fifteen years later the work was revived at Covent Garden, but it bombed and was again withdrawn.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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there