Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Benvenuto Cellini

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Benvenuto Cellini

Article excerpt

Credit: Hugo Shirley

Benvenuto Cellini

ENO, in rep until 27 June

Operas about artists are not rare. However -- perhaps for obvious reasons -- those artists tend to be musicians, singers, or at least performers, able to persuade and cajole both us in the audience and the other characters on stage through their eloquence. Berlioz, in his first opera, presents the renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, in an episode loosely adapted from his autobiography. But the final casting and unveiling of his new statue of Perseus, against all the odds, provides a climax that music (let alone stagecraft) seems fundamentally ill equipped to portray.

The road to that climax is also paved with numerous distractions for both us and Cellini, the most significant being an amorous subplot invented by Berlioz and his librettists as a concession to the piece's opéra comique origins. It was later adjusted for the more 'serious' Paris Opéra, where it flopped magnificently. It has remained a rarity ever since: ENO's is London's first professional staging for four decades. And ultimately it also remains an opera about art and artists in which no one has very much to say about art or artists. The composer clearly identified with Cellini as an exemplar of the fast-living, fast-loving creative genius for whom arrogance and irresponsibility are but necessary, forgivable corollaries; but his score, shot through with irrepressible brilliance and invention, does a great deal more to persuade us of Berlioz's own genius than of Cellini's.

This impression is compounded by ENO's new production by Terry Gilliam. His 2011 production of the Damnation of Faust at the Coliseum mapped that work on to German history from 19th-century imperialism to two world wars. His Benvenuto Cellini is conventional in terms of presenting the action, but it does so in a manner that suggests that sheer eye-watering excess is a worthwhile aesthetic end in itself. Facilitated by a budget (boosted by the Peter Moores Foundation's Swansong Project) that puts the Pope's patronage of Cellini in the opera to shame, this show is unstintingly, unremittingly entertaining.

Carnival revellers invade the overture (and the auditorium) as well as the central Mardi Gras scene; gold confetti drops from on high at the glittering, kitschily staged conclusion. The set (designed by Gilliam and Aaron Marsden) consists largely of movable blocks covered in Piranesi-style drawings, plus a vast gilt head. Finn Ross's projections add further details, but the silhouetted workers and flaming furnaces in Cellini's foundry feel unconvincing in a production that has none of the abstraction or imagination of Gilliam's Damnation of Faust. …

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