The Opera With The Protagonist Who’s A Very Naughty Boy

Visually powerful: Terry Gilliam's production of Benvenuto Cellini © Richard Hubert Smith

Visually powerful: Terry Gilliam’s production of Benvenuto Cellini © Richard Hubert Smith

If you’ve missed out on tickets to Monty Python Live at the O2 in July there is another way to experience the genius of at least one of the team’s members. Following a triumphant directorial debut for English National Opera in 2011 with Hector Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, Terry Gilliam now takes on the same composer’s first opera, Benvenuto Cellini.

Musically speaking, the French nineteenth century composer did some pretty wacky things, and so it seems appropriate to marry his works with a director who has his own unique, and frequently offbeat, ideas. Though the opera has a lot to merit it, it remains dramatically unwieldy and far from perfect, but this, if anything, gives Gilliam even greater scope to make of it what he will.

The story is loosely based on the real sixteenth century Italian sculptor Cellini. In it the maverick attempts to win the hand of his love Teresa, and complete a bronze sculpture of Perseus commissioned by the papacy, all the while fighting against a rival for Teresa’s affections and short supplies of metal.

Gilliam successfully places the action across several different centuries! Cellini’s workshop, with its crooked construction, strange angles and black and white lines recalls the eighteenth century etchings of Piranesi. Conversely, Katrina Lindsay’s costumes feel nineteenth century, providing a link to Berlioz’s own time, while certain features of the set such as neon signs could only be modern.

The opera is set during carnival season in Rome, which gives Gilliam plenty of opportunities to introduce weird and wonderful performances and acrobatics. Huge puppets appear in the aisles or swing from the boxes, gold and coloured paper falls from the ceiling, and a huge statue rises amidst red hot graphics of forgers at work.

While the staging is colourful and dynamic, the evening is also made by the sheer quality of the performances. American tenor Michael Spyres gives a brilliant account as Cellini with the most moving, powerful, expansive and precise sound imaginable. Corinne Winters as Teresa has a voice of both purity and richness, while the entire cast, which includes Nicholas Pallesen as Fieramosca (Cellini’s rival), Paula Murrihy as Ascanio (his business manager), Pavlo Hunka as Balducci (Teresa’s father) and Sir Willard White as Pope Clement VII, proves very strong. During their various solos, Gilliam is careful not to flood the stage too much with activity, but he introduces some visual interest and this often proves effective at highlighting character. For example, during one aria Fieramosca bursts a child’s balloons, marking him out as both vicious and pathetic.

Edward Gardner’s conducting is exceptional, the chorus are in fine vocal shape, while Charles Hart’s English translation proves highly entertaining. Lines such as ‘All hail all tarts and courtesans’ and ‘You feckless, witless waste of life’ may not always reflect the precise words of the original, but they certainly capture their spirit.

Until 27 June (eight performances) at the London Coliseum, Saint Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross, WC2N 4ES with start times of 18.00 and 19.00. For tickets (£12-£125) visit the English National Opera website.

On 17 June Benvenuto Cellini will be broadcast live into cinemas across the UK and Ireland and to selected cinemas worldwide. 

Londonist received a complimentary ticket and programme from the ENO press team.

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