Saturday, June 7, 2014

London Coliseum
Premiere: Thursday 5th June, 2014

"I need a drink!", I hear uttered after the curtain closes on Act I of ENO's spectacular new production of Hector Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini. "Perfect idea, but is one enough?", I say, feeling the need to celebrate this night of circus-infused entertainment and a production that truly embraces an audience. It's one of the most expensive undertakings ever by ENO despite the opera rarely being performed these days. Premiering in Paris in 1838, Benvenuto Cellini is a two-act semi-séria opera but more wildly demi-semi-séria from director, Terry Gilliam's exuberant handling.

Of Berlioz, Gilliam says "...he's crazy, flawed, exciting and he breaks the rules", a statement which easily describes much about this production too. First, it's gigantic. Set designs by Gilliam himself and Aaron Marsden move about and consume the entire stage, depicting a story set in 16th Century Rome with a visual collage of stylized period form, etched and printed surfaces, bold projections and a few 20th Century utilities. With the addition of elaborate and wacky period costumes by Katrina Lindsay and dynamic, cinematic-like lighting by Paule Constable, it's altogether a visual wonder.

There's unstoppable momentum as Act I reaches the 'Carnivale' climax, a scene rendering something far more than theatrical make believe. A giant street party does a twisted turn seemingly via Rome itself, jamming the aisles of the Coliseum stalls. A giant skull looms into the audience metres away from my seat, a reveller beats his drum alongside me and it's impossible not to be swept up in the sensational pandemonium. Might all this be a little too excessive? Just enjoy the ride, and let it all hover about and soak its way in.

By this stage, our eponymous Benvenuto Cellini (Michael Spyres), esteemed Florentine Renaissance goldsmith, sculptor and rogue, has escaped from the riotous festivities after having killed Pompeo (Morgan Pierce), friend of Fieramosca (Nicholas Pallesen), Roman sculptor and betrothed to Teresa (Corinne Winters). It's all over Cellini's attempts to elope with Teresa, daughter of Balducci (Pavlo Hunka), the Papal Treasurer upset that Pope Clement VII (Willard White) has commissioned a bronze statue of Perseus from Cellini instead of his intended son-in-law. With Cellini's business manager (Paula Murrihy), the innkeeper (Anton Rich) and Cellini's foremen, Francesco (Nicky Spence) and Bernadino (David Soar), there's plenty of fuel for a little confusion. It all unfolds in a swift, witty English translation by Charles Hart of Leon de Wailly's and Auguste Barbier's original French libretto.

After that drink and dazzlement, Act II settles, the energy is still aflame but the plot begins to reemerge with greater lucidity. Curiously, it seems any director's invention is unlikely to confuse the plot any more than Berlioz himself does with the music. There's lots of activity and complexity in the score, both over its 2 hour 45 minute duration and in any single moment. Even the first bars of music blast, then settle immediately as conductor, Edward Gardner, works his magic over the ENO Orchestra pit dwellers. Packed with sure-fast shifts of orchestral layers, the music is sound to behold.

To single out any one of the vocally expert, energetic and convincing performers on this opening night spectacular seems unfair. The spread of well-cast principals also successfully manage to compete with the glorious cacophony of Berlioz's music. Together with the indefatigable and ear-ringing force of the ENO Chorus, the clarity and fusion of voices work marvellously. A few performances under their belt will certainly clear up subtle issues with timing but the result is a triumph all the same.

Act II ends with Cellini having timely cast his Perseus in a deal with the Pope that grants him both Teresa's hand and freedom from hanging for Pompeo's murder. Then, after it's over,  the performers are as animated in their curtain call as the characters they portray, seemingly relishing the joy of having steered the production to safety. The entire evening makes believe the whole world exists right here in the vast Coliseum and leaving it to take the London Tube back to my lodgings seemed to be entering one slightly more mundane. It makes the world of Benvenuto Cellini well worth heading back to again.

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