I’m a bit surprised that Berlioz’ 1838 opera Benvenuto Cellini hasn’t come my way before. It’s got all the operatic elements; romance, politics, murder (and the Pope) etc and some really rather good music. There’s a lovely duet between Cellini and his girl, Teresa, in the first act and Cellini’s aria Sur les monts les plus sauvages is long and demanding in the way that Rossini writes long and demanding tenor arias. The plot maybe has a few holes. One might expect that after the pope has decreed that Cellini will be hanged if he doesn’t finish a statue by nightfall that he might just get on with it rather than running around fighting duels and stuff but there you have it. It’s French opera after all.
Terry Gilliam directed the piece for Dutch National Opera in 2015 and he doesn’t just throw the kitchen sink at it. The stove, the fridge and the dishwasher follow in quick succession. There are unicyclists, giant puppets, stilt walkers, ticker tape and fireworks in the auditorium. The pope’s treasurer gets “pied”. And so on. I think my favourite bit though was in Act 2 where Cellini and Teresa, having ardently removed most of each other’s clothing, are surprised in the act by the Pope arriving on a three storey Popemobile accompanied by the dancing Papal Guard. There were a few embarrassing times when, as a young man, my pager went off but none of them involved the Pope. There’s also another scene where Teresa removes most of her clothing while singing a rather fierce coloratura aria. It’s never dull and, perhaps surprisingly, the narrative doesn’t get lost in all the hijinks.
Musically it’s rather good. John Osborn sings Cellini and displays the qualities I’ve seen in several of his Rossini recordings. He’s very physical and can sing loud and very high for extended periods. Mariangela Sicilia makes a very good Teresa. She has the coloratura chops and is a very decent actress. Maurizio Muraro is a suitably pompous Balducci (the treasurer and Teresa’s father) while Laurent Naouri is splendidly weaselly as the Cellini’s unattractive and untalented rival Fieramosca. Orlin Anastassov steers the line between gravitas and OTT pomposity as a Pope who could have stepped straight out of Turandot. Michéle Losier is a remarkably masculine looking Ascanio. Props to the make up department and to her for mastering moving like a man. There’s some fine playing from the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Sir Mark Elder in the pit copes with the hyperactivity rather well.
I watched this recording on DVD though Blu-ray is available. Both sound (DTS 5.1 and PCM stereo) are really good for DVD. Even dark, crowded scenes came across well. François Roussillon’s video direction is very good and does the production justice. There are no extras on the disk but the booklet contains an essay, a synopsis and bios as well as a very detailed track listing. Sub-title options are English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.
There’s only one competing recording, curiously also on the Naxos label. I haven’t seen it but it sounds equally nutty and features a strong cast plus the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s probably a toss up.