Yet again cinema has succeeded in carrying the gravitas and sincerity of a live stage production. However, Terry Gilliam’s version of Hector Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellinihas a lot more to offer than his visionary expertise in two dimensional film directing.
The eccentric film director of award winning blockbusters such as 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, has produced his second opera at the ENO, Benvenuto Cellini. This follows on from a successful legacy from his first opera also at the ENO in 2011,The Damnation of Fraust, It is also another creation of Berlioz. I’d heard rumours of marvelled operagoers and 5 star reviews, but I resisted the temptation to read what critics had said and decided to see it for myself live at the cinema as part of the ENO Screen series.
In this compelling amalgamation of multiple themes: love, tragedy, comedy and violence, Gilliam sets himself the task of striping bare the finer details of an regretfully overlooked opera.
Balducci (Pavlo Hunka) a pious and ‘dear father’ plans for his virtuous daughter, Teresa (Corinne Winters) to wed the evil and clown-like foe, Fieramosca (Nicholas Pallesen.) Yet, she falls for the protagonist, her ‘soul mate’, the sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini (Michael Spyres) who endeavours for them to elope from Rome with her. However, their plans are delayed when he is commissioned to the messianic Pope Clement VII (Williard White) as warned by his business advisor, Ascanio (Paula Murrihy.) Caught in a duel that leads to the fatal death of Fieramosca’s accomplice Pompeo (Morgan Pearse), in the presence of Mardi gras revellers, Cellini is stuck in delicate predicament: to run away with his love, complete the commissioned bronze statue or face death by hanging.
Only top grade singers were part of this production. Spyres’ ardent voice in Act Two where he prays to Saint Eloy was sang as if his life depended on it, holding onto every note. White sustained control over his impressive and deep-set vocals required for a demanding Pope. He also managed to squeal ‘No!’ like a high-pitched woman at the sight of Cellini pushing Perseus’ statue head over the edge.
The pantomime-opera scene, choreographed by Leah Hausman, Aaron Marsden and Gilliam himself, leaves viewers lost in a quagmire of Mardi Gras madness. Early on, the entire auditorium space is emblazoned with a decorative cast and its artwork parading down onto an exhilarating stage. With confetti fluttering onto the audience and the involvement of a zany carnival troop, it is an opening that starts the production on a high and only gets better. A fun house with puppeteers, African voodoo faces, skulls, contortionists, jugglers, tarts and people on stilts flaunt the set, but it is far from being over the top – indeed we, the audience just wanted more. Evidently there were a variety of props and scenes utilised overall however, in the shadows these were changed subtlety and seamlessly.
Pale Constable’s creativity was highlighted by projections of news headlines in the opening scene and Cellini’s laughing enemies displayed just before the finale. Finn Ross’ clever coordination of multiple video screens of metal workers against an orange and red fiery furnace was mirrored against silhouettes of Romans preparing Cellini’s hanging execution.
Katrina Lindsay said ‘370 costumes’ were designed for the large cast and this included the most simplest dress from Teresa’s demure and conservative couture to carnival contortionists’ leotards to the most exuberant Santa Nino assemble worn by White accompanied with dollops of gold: long golden nails, golden eye lashes, and glittery gold make up.
Edward Gardner directed a mighty orchestra crowded with violinists that delivered a long overture with grace and a bass line that cinema speakers could -sadly- not handle.
During the interval, Hausman said in an interview that Gilliam ‘wanted to quit twenty times’ in the creation stages of the production which pinpoints Gilliam’s determination to direct an outstanding opera as complicated and challenging as Benuvenuto Cellini. As an undisputed top-class director – and now Berlioz virtuoso – Gilliam has the graft to get every nook and cranny executed in the right way. In an interview for the ENO he said when approaching the opera he was, ‘trying to work out the romanticism, outrageousness, scandalousness and true artistry’ to create an ‘interesting mix.’
The ENO’s live broadcast was sharp, with added charisma for showcasing visually pleasing pictorial shots. It is however, a shame that I wasn’t there to experience an explosion of confetti nor see the carnival performance from sitting in the stalls. Is it possible for opera to be semi-serious? Gilliam has provided a sensational production full of depth and texture proving that indeed, it can.