Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz is currently at the Opera of Paris, in the production by Terry Gilliam premiered in London in 2014, with Pretty Yende, John Osborn, Maurizio Muraro, Audun Iversen and Michèle Losier
Between 1558 and 1567, Benvenuto Cellini, a famous Italian goldsmith of the cinquecento, wrote his autobiography. First translated by Goethe into German, then by Denis-Dominique Farjasse into French in 1833, La Vita was a great success and inspired many artists including Alexandre Dumas, Paul Meurice, Camille Saint-Saëns and Georges Meliès. By taking some narrative liberties and adding a romantic plot, Léon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier turn it into a libretto that Hector Berlioz will set to music in 1838.
The story takes place in Rome during the Carnival. We are in the midst of the renaissance, where artists enjoy a privileged social position: Benvenuto Cellini is a goldsmith, architect, sculptor, draughtsman and master of the pontifical coin.
He wishes to marry Teresa Balducci, but her father, treasurer of the pope, prefers another sculptor: Fieramosca. The latter is not on good terms with Cellini because it is to him that Pope Clement VII commissioned a prestigious statue intended for the Italian people: Perseus holding the head of Medusa – which today decorates the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence.
Intrigues, duels and dramatic twists are on the agenda, because the life of the goldsmith, like that of Michelangelo, is extremely turbulent. His violent and careless behaviour, which earned him exile several times, led to being charged with kidnapping and murder, but in the end he is pardoned… by the Pope himself!
In this production created at the English National Opera in 2014, the English draughtsman, actor and director Terry Gilliam, former member of the Monty Python, underlines the extraordinary life of the Florentine craftsman, in a under the banner of humour and of high entertainment.
With fascinating and colourful costumes (by Katrina Lindsay), giant puppets and circus numbers, jugglers and acrobats mingle with the audience, on which a shower of confetti explodes. The troupe then climbs on stage, alongside the singers, to celebrate together an amazing and poetic carnival, coherently blending into the plot and providing it with new vitality.
The same dynamism can be found in the sets surrounding a giant reproduction of the Gothic Ark of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Imaginary prisons. Arches, staircases and alcoves are gradually added, removed or moved on scene, enabling fluid and understandable scene changes. Finn Ross’ beautiful videos projected against the back of the stage complement Paule Constable’s sets and lights in a coherent way, creating intense and charming atmospheres.
Just like circus artists, singers and extras naturally integrate into this whimsical atmosphere, underlining it with irresistible gags, choreographed by Leah Hausman.
Between Teresa, who fools her old aunts (superbly portrayed by the extras) and her father; Fieramosca, who is literally being stepped on, and the Pope, who seems to come straight out of Life of Brian, the 3 hours of opera fly by and leave us with a smile on our face.
Pretty Yende, who gains in confidence and volume during the evening, is an endearing Teresa, torn (but not really) between her father and her lover. We appreciate her stable voice, her powerful high notes and her smooth and effortless legato. John Osborn, whom we saw in La donna del Lago at the Met in New York in 2016, embodies a vibrant and realistic Cellini, which entertains, captivates and moves us. Audun Iversen‘s Fieramosca is also very compelling, in his Burtonian look.
We remark their hilarious and plausible trio in Balducci’s house, which ends with Cellini’s careless escape, and the lynching of poor Fieramosca.
Maurizio Muraro is a plausible and playful Balducci, just like Pope Clement VII of Marco Spotti, whom it is impossible to take seriously, after his arrival on stage in great pomp on a pedestal, the (divine) rays of sunlight piercing the clouds behind him.
Ascanio’s travesti role is played with flair by Michèle Losier who knows how to get the audience attention, make them laugh and be moved, thanks to her warm and caressing voice.
In the pit, Philippe Jordan underlines the cinematographic side of the score, while the choir of the Opera of Paris is both theatrically and vocally outstanding.
Just as the Florentine goldsmith overturned social patterns and crossed the boundaries of his social condition, the insolent spirit of shrove Tuesday has invaded the Opéra Bastille, highlighting the spectacular and majestic side of Berlioz’s Opera.
Music Director: Philippe Jordan
Staging Director : Terry Gilliam
Co-Staging Director: Leah Hausman
Choreography: Leah Hausman
Benvenuto Cellini : John Osborn
Giacomo Balducci : Maurizio Muraro
Fieramosca : Audun Iversen
Pope Clement VII: Marco Spotti
Francesco : Vincent Delhoume
Bernardino : Luc Bertin-Hugault
Pompeo : Rodolphe Briand
Cabaretier : Se-Jin Hwang
Teresa : Pretty Yende
Ascanio : Michèle Losier
Set Design: Terry Gilliam and Aaron Marsden
Costumes: Katrina Lindsay
Lights: Paule Constable
Video: Finn Ross
Head of Choirs: José Luis Basso
Orchestre et Choeurs de l’Opéra national de Paris