Benvenuto Cellini, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2014Posted on 6 June 2014
What fun this was! Terry Gilliam has done it again, following his opera directing debut with The Damnation of Faust in 2011.
Mr. Gilliam’s earlier success was with a later Berlioz opera, and he has now turned to the composer’s first with a story involving the mad genius Benvenuto Cellini, Pope Clement VII and his official sculptor Fieramosca. The historical facts — Cellini’s casting of the huge bronze statue of Perseus that stands to this day — have been embellished by the invented character of a lovely young woman Teresa, daughter of the Pope’s treasurer. Her father has promised her to Fieramosca, but she loves Cellini, and Fieramosca’s shenanigans lead to farcical moments for this pillar of the establishment.
It all starts on Shrove Monday, before the start of Lent, and carnival celebrations are in full swing. This gives Terry Gilliam the excuse he needs for a terrific show, and after newspaper headlines from a waste bin have brought us up to date on the Cellini/ Fieramosca conflict, and Cellini’s slow progress on the sculpture, an acrobat jumps out and we’re into massive entertainment. The lights come on, the front row occupants on either side are shooed out of their seats by revellers and huge heads are brought through the auditorium.
Teresa’s relatives are men dressed as puritan women, and all hell breaks loose with devils, acrobats, gymnasts, and even children on stage fitted with large heads. If you like a spectacle this is not one to miss.
Towards the end of Act I, Cellini and his business manager Ascanio, dressed as monks, try to abduct Teresa, as do Fieramosca and his accomplice Pompeo, similarly clad. It’s a riot, and with his blood up, Cellini kills Pompeo who falls backwards from a platform ten feet up! For this crime he is captured but in a conjuring trick of moving screens he vanishes. The huge heads brought on earlier and hung at the sides of the auditorium swing out, and the act comes to an end.
In case you wonder where the music went, it was carrying on all the time under the expert baton of Edward Gardner, with Michael Spyres as an outstanding Cellini. His heroic tone throughout and fine lyricism in the early Act II monologue suited the great élan he showed in his portrayal of the mad sculptor. As his beloved Teresa, Corinne Winters sang with power and passion, and Nicholas Pallesen showed great vocal authority as Fieramosca. Excellent singing from Paula Murrihy in the trouser role of Ascanio, and strong performances from Nicky Spence and David Soar as Cellini’s foremen, Morgan Pearse as Fieramosca’s accomplice, and Anton Rich in the small role of the innkeeper. The chorus was excellent, and Pope Clement VII, a patron of the arts who was involved in English history at the time of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII’s divorce, was sung with great gravitas by Willard White.
Set designs by Terry Gilliam and Aaron Marsden, and costumes by Katrina Lindsay, were outstanding, Paule Constable’s lighting and Finn Ross’s video designs were very effective, and the movement by Leah Hausman was a joy. I loved the sudden dancing steps of the Papal guards in their long red costumes, and there are numerous such careful details making this a show to confound anyone who considers opera to be dull. Berlioz’s vibrant music drives the action forward, and this is not to be missed on any account.
Performances continue on various dates until June 27 — for details click here.