Monty Pythonesque Touches in Benvenuto Cellini

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, Benvenuto Cellini: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Edward Gardner(conductor), London Coliseum seen live at Empire, Basildon, Essex, 17.6.2014. (JPr)

Benvenuto Cellini (c) Richard Hubert-Smith
Benvenuto Cellini
(c) Richard Hubert-Smith


Benvenuto Cellini: Michael Spyres
Teresa: Corinne Winters
Balducci: Pavlo Hunka
Fieramosca: Nicholas Pallesen
Pope Clement VII: Willard White
Ascanio: Paula Murrihy
Francesco: Nicky Spence
Bernardino: David Soar
Pompeo: Morgan Pearse

Director & co-set designer: Terry Gilliam
Co-director & Movement director: Leah Hausman
Set designed by Terry Gilliam and Aaron Marsden
Costume designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Video designer: Finn Ross
Translator: Charles Hart
Live Broadcast directed by Andy Morahan


Firstly I must praise English National Opera’s gimmick-free presentation of Benvenuto Cellini which I saw transmitted live to the Empire Cinema in Basildon. Having gone to the shabby chic splendour of the Gate Cinema in London’s Notting Hill and suffered poor sound and a not-much-better picture everything was top-notch in Essex. Also, there no gushing presenter exhorting me every few minutes to join the picnickers at Glyndebourne in a glass of champagne! All we had was a very brief introduction and some rehearsal footage during the interval giving a few insights into Terry Gilliam’s vision for Berlioz’s first opera, Benvenuto Cellini.

 Very loosely based on the memoirs of the titular Florentine sculptor the plot draws on a real happening involving the casting of his statue of Perseus (though it was actually cast in Florence  – and not as here in Rome – for Duke Cosimo I de Medici where it is still be seen in the Loggia dei Lanzi). Everything else – apart from Pope Clement VII whom Berlioz has commission the statue – is totally fictitious including the love interest for the sculptor who is the daughter of the papal exchequer but is currently betrothed to Fieramosca, also a famous sculptor. Benvenuto Cellini has had a chequered history and – as Gilliam himself admitted – Berlioz made three attempts to make this work popular … but with little success.

The original libretto (which has not survived) seems to have been in the format of an opéra comique and it was rejected by the Paris Opéra-Comique company. The story was then reworked as an opéra semiseria (though a semi-serious opera is itself an interesting concept), without the spoken dialogue, and offered to the Paris Opéra, for which it was accepted in 1835. Berlioz began work on it in 1836 and Benvenuto Cellini was first performed in September 1838. At its première, the audience were disturbed by it and rioted and if this was not enough, the musicians considered the work as impossible to play. Then in 1851, Franz Liszt offered to revive the opera in a new production (and revised version) in Weimar, suggesting to Berlioz changes to the score. This was first performed in 1852 with Karl Beck, the same tenor who had created Wagner’s Lohengrin under Liszt in 1850. What we heard was Hugh Macdonald’s critical edition and it is a hybrid, I suspect, of all the manuscript sources we have available … and certainly at least 30 minutes too long for such flimsy material.

The final strand to an often incoherent story involves Cellini’s lust for life that sees him kill someone and fall foul of the authorities in Renaissance Rome. To avoid being hanged and win a pardon, as well as, the hand in marriage of Teresa, he agrees to cast the statue for the Pope against the clock. If all this, plus a planned elopement and much confusion over some characters in monks’ costumes was not enough, most of Act I is set against the background of the Romans revelling at the Mardi Gras!

I mention Wagner earlier mainly for two reasons; certainly the undercurrent in this opera of artistic creativity and the role of the artist in society made me wonder how influential Benvenuto Cellini might have been when Wagner was thinking about Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Also here in the title role there was a tireless, lyrical – though also quite heroic – performance from the tenor, Michael Spyres, who does not appear to have much Wagner in his repertoire but sounded like a Lohengrin to me and somewhat similar in timbre to Klaus Florian Vogt. He gets some fearsomely high-lying music to sing at times and he acquitted himself very well.

Cult movie maker and member of the Pythons, Terry Gilliam, admitted his debt to ‘co-director and movement director’ Leah Hausman, and English National Opera – along with co-producers Amsterdam’s De Nederlandse Opera and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma – have spared no expensive over what is put on stage. What we see is up to the highest standards of what is available currently on the West End – or in other major opera houses throughout the world – but whether Benvenuto Cellini merited all this effort I am not too sure.

The overture seemed endless and the spirit of the carnival comes through the audience and reaches quite a crescendo as it is the first we see of a theatrical troupe that plays a later important part in the story later on in the act, along with specialist aerial acts, tumblers and stilt walkers and a host of grotesques or otherwise anarchic, Pythonesque, characters that will inhabit Gilliam’s vision. It is often all quite chaotic and – on the big screen – my eyes didn’t really know what to concentrate on in the crowd scenes. However, I must add that Andy Morahan’s direction for the screen was admirably flexible, drawing us in for the more intimate moments and never trying to let us lose sight of the ‘bigger picture’ particularly during all the craziness of the carnival.

Gilliam designed the opera himself (along with Aaron Marsden) and a basic set shows Renaissance Rome as a Piranesi dungeon and there is much subtle video animation by Finn Ross that excels in the final scene set in Cellini’s foundry. Katrina Lindsay’s costumes hint at the inhabitants of Paris at the time of the opera’s composition, but it could also be the London of Dickens and also has many other influences from the intervening decades from then till now.

The trouble is that Gilliam shows what he has got for us during the overture and apart from all the fun of the fair returning at the end of Act I there is little he can do to bring real life to the longueurs elsewhere. The opera itself in its current form is neither comic enough nor serious enough to make it all really worthwhile. For me the second half is a lot better when things are less manic and Pope Clement VII’s arrives like a deus ex machina on a tall wheeled throne accompanied by a distinctly camp retinue of Swiss Guards. This Pope with extravagantly pointed fingernails was played with effete relish – and authoritatively sung – by the wonderful Willard White looking like a cross between Emperor Altoum and Turandot herself in the Puccini opera.

If a muddled libretto was not enough to worry about in this opera there are as many problems to solve musically, as dramatically. It can be fast and furious and then cease up and almost drift and a conductor has to bring some coherence to this mishmash of musical ideas. Edward Gardner does a splendid job in keeping the momentum going often against all odds and – from what we could hear though the loudspeakers – brought some real swagger or tender reflection to it when required. The playing of his ENO Orchestra sounded as if it was up to their usual very high standards and the commitment and singing of the chorus seemed exemplary, excelling in the ‘All hail, all art and artistry’ finale.

I’ve mentioned how good Michael Spyres was in the title role. Making this almost a performance by American National Opera he was well supported by two compatriots; Nicholas Pallesen seemed to enjoy himself as Cellini’s rival in art and in love, Fieramosca, and Corinne Winters was very personable as Teresa, the woman Cellini loves. The latter also convincingly plays her part in another of the opera’s themes as Berlioz tries to show women can also be a real force in society as he has Teresa try to rally Cellini’s workers  when they threaten to down tools. Paula Murrihy was irrepressible in the trouser role of Ascanio, his ‘business manager’ and perhaps Pavlo Hunka was the only singer seemingly challenged by the demands of their role and was a bit dour as Teresa’s father, Balducci.

Charles Hart’s translation appeared to do justice to Léon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier’s text and did not have too many of the rhymes that I abhor; although it was clear that occasionally when what we heard sung diverged from what we could read it was because singers were replacing consonants with vowels. Finally, after all the recent brouhaha over Glyndebourne’s Der Rosenkavalier  it was interesting to note how stick thin most of the women were here and how chubby and fat most of the men were, either in caricature or reality!

Jim Pritchard


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