Friday, 6 June 2014

Astonishing Benvenuto Cellini at London Coliseum

Benvenuto Cellini at ENO (c) ENO / Richard Hubert Smith.
Benvenuto Cellini  (c) ENO / Richard Hubert Smith.
Berlioz Benvenuto Cellini: Michael Spyres, Corinne Winters, English National Opera, Terry Gilliam, Edward Gardner: London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 06 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Terry Gilliam's idiosyncratic vision matched by an astonishing performance of Berlioz's rarely staged opera

Terry Gilliam's much anticipated production of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini made it's debut last night (6 June 2014) with English National Opera at the London Coliseum. Managing to combine striking stagecraft with outstanding musicality, the production managed to do justice to Berlioz's wonderful but tricky creation. Michael Spyres sang Cellini, with Corinne Winters as Teresa, plus Pavlo Hunka as Balducci, Nicholas Pallesen as Fieramosca, Willard White as the Pope, Paula Murrihy as Ascanio, Nicky Spence as Francesco, David Soar as Bernardino, Morgan Pearse as Pompeo and Anton Rich as the Innkeeper. Terry Gilliam directed and co-designed the sets with Aaron Marsden, Leah Hausman was co-director and movement director, Katrina Lindsay was costume designer, Paule Constable was lighting designers and Finn Ross video designer. Edward Gardner conducted.

This was a huge show, with a large cast and extra chorus and a highly complex staging. Whereas Gilliam's previous staging for ENO (Berlioz's Damnation of Faust in 2011, Gilliam's operatic debut) burst with theatrical energy but in a staging which did not always match the music, this new staging was full of excitement and visual drama which matched Berlioz's music. Berlioz's score for the opera is problematic, but astonishing and it can often seem that the best way to see it is in a concert performance; much of the drama happens in the orchestra. Gilliam and his team have gone all out to match Berlioz's energy, and whilst occasionally you could complain that the stage was just too busy, there was never any doubt about the sheer brilliance of the total musico-dramatic effect.

Things started with a bang, as Edward Gardner and the ENO Orchestra launched into a brilliant account of the overture, full of vibrant energy. The curtains were closed at first, but towards the end of the overture Gilliam brought the carnival on, not only onto the stage but into the auditorium with two mammoth masks which remained there throughout the performance.

The basic set was inspired by Piranesi and the result was a highly complex but rather striking series of visual statements. For the whole of act one, the sets were in almost constant motion. Using a combination of video and physically moving sets, Gilliam, Marsden and Ross created a visual environment that matched Cellini's constant restlessness. The look of the opera was fantasy 19th century, but it very much lived in its own world (just as Gilliam's films tend to). The remarkable thing about the production was the way that Gilliam and his team had transferred Gilliam's idiosyncratic vision (as seen in his films) into the medium of opera. There were lots of lovely details, such Spyres's Cellini arriving by balloon to woo Winters' Teresa, but the comic business in the first scene was also deftly handled. This was a production which was funny.

All three scenes in act one were, in various ways, riotous. Both scenes in the inn and the final carnival scene literally ending in riot. Luckily the staging was matched by sharply defined musical performances. In act two, things calmed down somewhat and Gilliam showed that he could take the more serious vein in the opera as well. Each scene in act two starts with quieter moments, with characters reflecting and Gilliam allowed the production to pause whilst not letting up on the tension. The first scene in act two, of course, ends with the appearance of the Pope; here Williard White in an entrance which was a striking theatrical coup. The second scene ends with the casting of the statue of Perseus.

In previous productions of the opera that I have seen staged, directors have usually matched Berlioz's musical invention in the carnival scene at the end of act one, but rarely managed to match things in the casting scene at the end of the opera. But in this production, Gilliam and his team came up with something which visually and dramatically matched Berlioz's music and created a little bit of magic.

Michael Spyres as Cellini was in tremendous form. The role is impossible, with Berlioz writing in the high heroic style beloved of early 19th century French grand opera, but completely ignoring what is and is not possible. Spyres has sung a number of other French grand opera roles (see my review of him in the Opera Comique's 2012 production of Auber's La muette de Portici). Seemingly tireless, he managed to combine a fine grained, focussed timbre with the sort of high, heroic singing necessary (think Arnold in Rossini's Guillaume Tell but on steroids). Physically, Spyres is a big man and his Cellini was invested with a great physicality which was highly appealing and matched the character. Something of a slob, a drunkard and a teller of tales, Spyres made you understand why Teresa had fallen for Cellini. Gilliam makes Cellini's character clear at the beginning of act two. During the duet for Teresa and Ascanio, we see Cellini in the background having a drink with mates; his subsequent description of his antics for Teresa is clearly a tale!

But Spyres made it work, delighting with his musicality and the way he shaped Berlioz's line. His solo in the first scene of act two, describing his 'exploits', was a complete delight. The long scene at the opening of the final scene of the opera, when Cellini is racked with doubts, was simply marvellous as Spyres made Berlioz's long, high lines work. Gilliam paid Spyres the credit of trusting him and here there was little stage business, just a very fine singer allowed to do his job and being completely mesmerising.

Corinne Winters impressed when I heard her in the title role in ENO's recent La Traviata, and Winters' winning combination of coloratura with spinto power worked its magic again as Teresa. She was fearless and charming in the coloratura moments, but sparky too. She made the whole of the first scene a comic and musical delight, combining dazzling roulades and stage business with aplomb. But was also equal to the more expressive moments in Teresa's act two solos. The part is perhaps a little under-written at times, but Winters made Teresa's appearances count and in her act two, scene two solo she made it believable that Teresa could stand up to the striking foundry workers (believable and not a little moving).

Paula Murrihy as Ascanio (here Cellini's business manager rather than apprentice) charmed and delighted, managing to make the most of what Berlioz gives Ascanio. This is another role which can go for very little in this opera. But Murrihy made it work and in moments like her act three, scene two solo grasped the opportunity Berlioz gave her. This was a highly musical performance, as well as a dramatically involving one. Murrihy moves well in a trouser role and there are lots more that I would like to see her in. (How about a revival of ENO's fine Tales of Hoffmann with Spyres, Winters and Murrihy!). Gilliam tried to beef the character up with some extra business which I am not sure quite worked, but did no real violence to the plot. Murrihy's duet with Winters at the opening of act two music remain one of the highlights of the opera, sensitively and imaginatively staged by Gilliam.

Williard White was impressive as the Pope, bringing off Gilliam's outrageous concept of the role with aplomb. I can think of few singers who could bring off the character's first entrance as outrageously imagined by Gilliam, and still impress their personality and musicality. White also carried off the sequence of hilarious wigs the character wore!

Nicholas Pallesen was a preening comic delight as Cellini's rival, Fieramosca, constantly being knocked down only to pop up again elaborately dressed and coiffed. Pavlo Hunka provided solid support as Teresa's father.Nicky Spence and David Soar were Cellini's two foremen, holding their own in the characterful ensembles and rather fond of fighting and head butting! Morgan Pearse was a strong Pompeo, a small role as the character is killed at the end of act one!

A further character in the opera was the chorus, here on strongly vivid and thrilling form under chorus master Nicholas Jenikins. They combined musical brilliance in Berlioz's choruses with a vividly dramatic presence. The chorus sound was bright, forward and focussed, exactly what we need in this music, with a lovely grasp of the musicality of Berlioz's writing.

Edward Gardner and the orchestra started proceedings off like a rocket, and never stopped. This was a superbly brilliant account of a very tricky score, the orchestra is far more important than in some 19th century operas and it is clear why Berlioz would move in works like Romeo and Juliet to creating dramatic works based on the orchestra. The orchestral playing dazzled and all the tricksy detail was there, so that at the end of act one we had brilliance on stage and in the pit.

The new translation was by Charles Hart; Terry Gilliam's rehearsal diary in The Guardian talks about how  how chose the translator by setting them a test, translate the phrase Honneur aux maîtres ciseleurs. Hart, who wrote the book for The Phantom of the Opera got the job and his new translation combined imagination and facility; most importantly it flowed nicely with the music which can sometimes be tricky when translating French. Diction was remarkably good and a surprising amount of Hart's words came over.

Few productions manage to balance the necessary visual and musical brilliance required in a work like Benvenuto Cellini. The beauty of this new production was not only the way Gilliam's idiosyncratic vision was harnessed to the opera, but also the way it was supported by the strongly musico-dramatic values from the singers and the pit. The performance worked because Spyres, Winters and the cast, along with Gardner and the orchestra, gave such a strongly musical performance which was in balance with the highly visual production.

I could probably imagine a subtler production of Benvenuto Cellini but not one which could astonish so consistently as this one. Go to see Gilliam's vision by all means, but also go to hear a remarkable performance.

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