When in Rome . . .

music Benvenuto Cellini Rome Opera House
Click to follow
The combination of Hector Berlioz and Benvenuto Cellini seems to have a lot going for it: both were original and highly individual artists, both wrote flamboyant and possibly not always strictly truthful autobiographies, and both had strong links with Rome.

In his characteristically tart way, Berlioz wrote that he "had the misfortune to believe" that episodes of Cellini's life would make an interesting and dramatic subject for an opera. Misfortune indeed: for instead of taking one of the many colourful adventures recounted in the sculptor's memoirs, Berlioz (together with his librettists, De Wailly and Barbier) concocted an off-the-peg tale of a tyrannical father determined to marry off his daughter to a rich old man to spite her young lover. (That arc h-swashbuckler Cellini, who only ever thought of women as sex fodder, would have been disgusted at being cast in such a sentimental mould.) Defying history by shifting the action from Florence to the Roman Colosseum, Berlioz ends the opera with Cellini's triumphant casting of the Perseus statue, thereby securing the Pope's pardon and Teresa's hand.

Berlioz's friends were all convinced the work lacked the right ingredients for a well-constructed drama, and they were right. The tale is too thin, and Berlioz, magnificent composer though he is, nevertheless lacked the innate theatrical sense of the great opera composers. Long arias that mostly do nothing to forward the action are often followed by sections of spoken dialogue (given here in the original French) - a combination that shatters the dramatic impulse.

The director, Gigi Proietti, is almost totally lacking in ideas as to how to inject verve and coherence into this monumental work, which here runs at around five hours, including the three long, 30-minute intervals required to change the sets (designer: Quirino Conti) - realistic reproductions of Roman interiors, exteriors and, finally, the Colosseum - which, judging from the noise, have to be manhandled on and off.

Deborah Riedel as Teresa was dressed in a voluminous brocade dressing-gown in Act 1, and thereafter in one of those wide-sleeved gowns misguidedly inflicted on horizontally challenged prima donnas. She and David Kuebler as Cellini sang competently, if not memorably. Alain Verhnes as Fieramosca, the baddy suitor, was given the ludicrous task in Act 1 of flitting about hiding behind a bunch of flowers, thus conveniently overhearing the lovers' elopement plans. The production remained on that level.

After a shaky start with the overture, the conductor, and Berlioz expert, John Nelson managed to extract a creditable performance from the orchestra, despite the tensions currently prevailing in the opera house. Following the sudden resignation last weekof the new Intendant, Giorgio Vidusso, after only eight months, the realistic Roman sets on stage looked like an ironic symbol of events backstage. With the premiere threatened by strike action, Vidusso and union leaders had trooped to the Campidoglio to lay their grievances before the mayor in a scene Cellini would have found only too familiar. The premiere was saved, Vidusso leaves immediately. "At 68," he told me, "to stay would be buying a one-way ticket to the cemetery." The re al drama of the Rome Opera House continues.