Benvenuto Cellini, Coliseum, London – review

Benvenuto Cellini, Hector Berlioz, Terry Gilliam – soulmates in chaos, confusion and crazed inspiration. Or so it seems in the youthful Berlioz’s paean to the Renaissance sculptor, where one flawed genius speaks to another and finds an echo in the madcap creativity of a Monty Python alumnus.

Berlioz took a huge risk in trying to create a comic-serious opera out of Cellini’s disordered life. You have to admire his ambition, even while admitting he didn’t quite succeed. The same can be said of Gilliam’s staging of Benvenuto Cellini for English National Opera – a brave attempt to match Berlioz’s exuberance, and an inspiring advertisement for ENO’s musical and technical prowess. As with the opera itself, however, there is more to applaud in the endeavour than the finished result. Gilliam strikes gold where Berlioz does – in the teeming Roman carnival scenes of Act One and the bizarre Papal interventions of Act Two. He sinks where Berlioz lets tension slip, and cannot stop long swathes from drowning in hubris.

It’s here, though, that attention shifts to the most consistent source of inspiration at ENO – Edward Gardner’s conducting and the energetically precise responses of orchestra and chorus. Gardner invests this notoriously difficult score with all the cross-rhythmic verve it needs, and covers himself and his ensemble with glory.

Would Gilliam’s ideas have taken shape more coherently if he had had more time? It’s a question any opera director might ask. Judging by Gilliam’s widely circulated production diary, it’s a miracle Thursday’s first night went ahead without interruptions or mishaps. The hoped-for projections never materialised. The black-and-white Victorian setting gave much of Act One a conventional hue, and the sequences in Cellini’s foundry hung fire.

There were Python-esque flashes – Teresa’s non-singing aunties, the Pope’s gold tiara and nail varnish – but most of the production’s energy was expended on an eyeful of spectacle to match the swirling eddies of carnival music: cue circus acrobats and a wonderfully ribald ballet. The humour came from Charles Hart’s sharp translation.

On this reckoning Cellini is an entertaining flop, from the jaws of which Michael Spyres’ hero extracts an unqualified triumph – histrionic charisma, tenorial grace and easy musicianship rolled into one. Corrine Winters’ Teresa tugs the heart with her luscious soprano, Paula Murrihy contributes a lusty Ascanio and Willard White is the scene-stealing Pope. A worthwhile effort, then, warts and all.

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