Of course, no-one goes to an opera for a history lesson: but in the case of a work dealing with, primarily, famous historical personages whose lives are a matter of detailed record, you might be excused for assuming that at least the broad outlines of what you’re presented with conform to the known truth. Alas, this is to reckon without Hector Berlioz’s entirely cavalier attitude to something as dull and inconvenient as mere facts, which in his first completed opera – Les francs juges was abandoned – don’t so much get short shrift as no shrift at all. So, although the libretto (cobbled together by Leon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier in the mid 1830s with the composer’s active participation) is set specifically in various actual locations in Rome, in 1532, during the papacy of Clement VII – whom we are told has commissioned the eponymous sculptor to produce a bronze statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa – the actual truth is that Cellini was commissioned to create the work by Cosimo de’Medici, in Florence, in the mid-1540s, and cast the statue there in the mid 1550s (where it remains to this day) a full two decades and more after Clement’s demise (whose actual artistic legacy is his virtual death-bed commissioning of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment for the Sistine Chapel in 1534). Quite why Berlioz and his collaborators were so determined to ignore both historical fact, and the evidence of Cellini’s own, exceedingly famous autobiography is, I suppose, by now beyond conjecture (though it never seems to have occasioned any even at the time of the opera’s exceptionally ill-received premiere in Paris, at the Salle le Peletier, in 1838). But given that late-Renaissance Florence is at least as pictorially promising as Rome for stage setting, and Cosimo de’Medici rather more of a colourful character than his papal cousin Clement (real name, Giulio de’Medici) I do wonder why Berlioz didn’t just stick with the truth. And if, as seems likely, his épater-les-bourgeois determination to bring the pope – any pope – onstage was a critical factor, it was singularly pointless, since censorship in France under King Louis-Philippe forbade any such representation, and willy-nilly Clement VII became an anonymous “Cardinal”.

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The opera, which had originally been conceived as an Opera-comique text-wise – though never composed as such – underwent many revisions and humiliations, not least here in London, at Covent Garden, in 1853, and has never really caught on in the general repertory at any point thereafter, notwithstanding the ROH’s rather wonderful 1966 staging by John Dexter, in quite magical, diaphanous sets by Beni Montresor, which saw further outings in 1969 (the Berlioz Centennial year, when the work was finally taken into the recording studio under Colin Davis) and 1976, with Nicolai Gedda in the title role. The (then relatively) newly-opened Opera de la Bastille mounted the work in 1993, with a staggeringly complex and detailed staging that had a field day with the technical ramifications of bronze-casting, and what appeared to be molten metal pouring through steaming channels (think of the comparable moments in the Olympic opening ceremony here in 2012 to get an idea of what it looked like). The Met had a go in 2003, under Levine – a wholly underrated Berlioz conductor – in a peculiarly stylised staging by Andrei Serban: and Salzburg, by now fully in the grip of the most foolishly fatuous Eurotrash tat, gave a staging by Philipp Stölzl in 2007, under Gergiev, part Star Wars, part Aladdin. London, alas, has had to content itself latterly with no more than concert performances, both at the Barbican and the RFH. But now Terry Gilliam, a more visually significant director than the work has probably ever had in its entire history, has undertaken it for ENO at the Coliseum (though I half-wish he’d decided to have a crack at Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill’s oddly more factually scrupulous Cellini musical, The Firebrand of Florence, instead).

One observation: there are no swastikas, not one, all night long (for this relief, much thanks). And another: though the work has been pointlessly updated to the late Victorian era in terms of costume design (by Katrina Lindsay) – why, I wonder? – this is not a presentiment of parsimony and primness when it comes to the sets. Dear me, no. Indeed, I doubt whether the London operatic stage has seen quite such an eyeful since the palmy days of Visconti and Zeffirelli at the Royal Opera House in the 1960s. There’s as much horror vacui on display here at the end of the carnival which ends Act I and the bronze-casting at the end of Act II as you’d find in Zeffirelli’s Met Turandot, every inch of stage space both width-wise and vertically packed out with something going on, myriad extras, actors and acrobats all mumming away furiously. In fact, there’s an entire carnival both on stage and out in the Stalls, with tumblers, giant Mardi Gras masks on poles, showers of tickertape, a unicyclist, you name it: and all this before the end of the overture. Coming so soon after the dreary minimalism of the ROH’s current Dialogues des Carmélites, this is a hilarious and often eye-boggling exercise in visual overkill, with physically practicable cross-hatched monochrome sets motoring around in different configurations, rather oddly credited in the programme to an “original concept” by Rae Smith (in small print), but to Terry Gilliam and Aaron Marsden as “set designers” (in large). Drop-cloths both fore and aft go up and down with a frequency undreamed of by even the busiest whore’s drawers, and a most remarkable collection of Piranesi-derived back-projections turn out to have a surprisingly kinetic life of their own, especially at the end (Finn Ross, their designer). God knows how it’s all going to work for the HD relay, where I can’t imagine any camera knowing where to look for best advantage. But kudos to Gilliam for putting on what is first and foremost a tremendous theatrical show to be savoured by its audience in situ, without worrying about its filmic potential in the hereafter.

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There are directorial touches in this that would raise even the Carry On brigade’s eyebrows – six black-clad duennas hobbling around arthritically, all played by men in drag; the “King Midas” commedia dell-arte play at the carnival scrapped in favour of a man with a dangling cucumber, two giant tomatoes and a gorilla’s vast arse; and not to mention the Pope’s armed guards, who have a penchant for elaborate formation queening – so it’s with some effort you recall that Gilliam isn’t a native but an American, albeit one clearly utterly “corrupted” by English end-of-pier humour, bless him. Taste is therefore not his strong suit: and there are times when the simple need to get the plot across leaves him clueless, causing a momentary slackening of pace and focus (though here you could make a very good case for that being Berlioz’s fault, miscalculating musico-dramatic ends-and-means, though it’s hardly the director’s job to make them even worse). But generally the story gets told clearly enough, and at least some of the minor longueurs and mis-timings will surely iron themselves out as the run of what is a prodigiously ambitious show for this address progresses.

The other two star turns of the evening are the conducting of Edward Gardner and the ENO infrastructure’s – chorus and orchestra – spirited response thereto: and the singing of Michael Spyres in the title role. Indeed, it’s a testament to their excellence that they can (just about) hold their own against the staging, which isn’t so much assertive as relentless. Spyres first made an impression here last year at the ROH in La donna del lago, where his sound was almost entirely baritonal, except for some nightmare excursions above the stave, bravely executed (although, up against the latter-day refulgent form of Florez, sounding just a little pinched in the comparison). Here, he sounds far more naturally tenor-ish, probably helped by the generally higher tessitura of the role of Cellini, written for Gilbert Duprez (he of Rossini’s much-to-be-deplored “ut de poitrine” or chest voice high C). In fact, in the Act II equivalent to the Invocation to Nature in La damnation de Faust, “Sur les monts les plus sauvages”, Spyres did get into some local difficulty, for all that it is only – only! – written to top C. Elsewhere, as in the lunatic end to the trio with Teresa and an unnoticed Fieramosca in Act I, he surmounted the vocal obstacles with relative ease, and if the tone remains fairly slender above the stave, it is unfailingly accurate and never sounds remotely whiney (which God knows Gedda did, and not just in the role of Cellini, either). Unless Florez himself decides to expand his stage repertory in this direction – of which his latest disc of French fancies rather holds out the possibility – I can’t quite imagine who, currently active, would make a better fist of it than Michael Spyres (though no-one today equals the Giuseppe Sabbatini of about fifteen/twenty years ago in this role, who was stupendously rich-toned, fearless and sonorous).

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About much of the rest of the singing it would be possible – for me at least – to be less than entirely enthusiastic. I exempt Morgan Pearse’s very striking Pompeo, a voice of real distinction, expertly used. And Cellini’s two henchmen, Francesco and Bernardino, were finely sung by Nicky Spence and the aptly-named David Soar respectively. But these are minor roles, with relatively little vocal exposure (Cellini himself sings non-stop all night). For the rest, I’ve heard better singing in all the other important roles, including those of Balducci the Papal Treasurer, his daughter Teresa, Cellini’s rival in love and sculpture, Fieramosca, and Cellini’s apprentice Ascanio (unaccountably turned into his “business manager”). Here, Paula Murrihy’s Ascanio comes off best, and would be perfectly fine if I hadn’t heard Yvonne Minton at the ROH and Isabelle Cals under Colin Davis for his second, LSO Live recording, both of whom were simply wonderful. Corinne Winters (Teresa) is evidently a great house favourite: but I find the tone unpleasantly raw in places, and the technique just a tad suspect in rapid downward scales – in which the role abounds – which sound a bit smeary and pitch-approximate as a result. Nicholas Pallesen is decent enough as Fieramosca, but a bit too soft-grained and lacking in projection. About Pavlo Hunka’s frequently inaudible Balducci, short on top and non-existent at the bottom, I can only wonder why he was cast in a role to which he is, on this showing, unable to do vocal justice. And then there’s Willard White’s wobbly Pope Clement, bizarrely played – presumably as directed – as a cross between Emperor Altoum and Carmen Miranda, about which I’m in two minds. Here the camp is being laid on with a trowel, and he’s actually more successful in putting it across than you’d think (at least on the basis of his similarly-conceived Mephistophélès in Salzburg, a sorry thing to have witnessed). But it undermines the authority of his utterances, which are in any case now at the mercy of loosened and dried-out tone. All I can say is that I greatly preferred Orlin Anastassov for Sir Colin (though I can’t imagine the Russian wearing the headpiece and fingernails Sir Willard sports here. And is that actually his face we see in vast close-up, giggling away, projected on to the canvas sacking which masks the casting of the statue at the end?).

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The singing of the ENO’s (augmented by thirty) chorus was thrilling both in its power and precision. And not for the first time I found myself comparing the house’s orchestra – in particular its accuracy of brass and body of string tone – with that of its Covent Garden neighbour, not at all to the latter’s advantage. As for Edward Gardner, I do rather wonder whether anybody at the Coliseum realises just what they’re letting slip through their fingers: and just what well-charted waters of woe they’re launching themselves into in so doing. But that’s their business. As far as mine is concerned, I would be remiss in its execution if I didn’t admit to having been vastly entertained by the sheer scale and professional energy of the whole undertaking; and making clear that, whatever animadversions about this or that aspect of the performance I might have expressed – and some I even chose not to, like the staging’s misunderstanding of how bronze is really cast using the cire perdu process, and the fact that the actual statue is scarcely one sixth of the size of the monstrous thing revealed here – they shouldn’t be allowed to detract from a whole-hearted recommendation that you go and experience this colossal spectacle for yourself.

Stephen Jay-Taylor

4 stars

(Photos by Richard Hubert Smith)

 

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