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BERLIOZ: Benvenuto Cellini

DVD Button Sicilia, Losier; Osborn, Spence, Beekman, Naouri, Morsch, Muraro, Anastassov, Conner; Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Chorus of Dutch National Opera, Elder. Production: Gilliam. Naxos 2.110575-76 (2), 180 mins., subtitles

A Grounded Circus

Terry Gilliam’s production of Berlioz’s semiseria is energetic to a fault.

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Imperfect forgery: ensemble in Amsterdam
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus
 
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THIS RIOTOUS, exceedingly busy staging of Benvenuto Cellini by Terry Gilliam, the film director and Monty Python alum, must have been great fun for audiences in the theater, but on the small screen it’s exhausting. The production of Berlioz’s opera, very loosely based on the memoirs of the title’s sixteenth-century goldsmith and sculptor, was recorded in Amsterdam in 2015, the year after its London debut, and much of the blocking is amusing—for example, the pie thrown by Benvenuto Cellini that’s meant for his professional and romantic rival, Fieramosca, but hits his ladylove’s father, Balducci, instead. Or any of the detailed business involving Balducci’s six servants, who are hilariously played, in severe black dresses and large bonnets, by men in drag. But Gilliam is also too often unwilling just to let the principals sing and act without creating distractions all around them. 

The Roman Carnival scene features endless antics by acrobats, jugglers, contortionists, stilt-walkers and mimes. Its final minutes, in keeping with the frantic music, evolve into an enormous fracas. Later in the opera, Pope Clement VII is brought in, standing atop a wheeled staircase, looking like a refugee from Turandot. (He even boasts the long fingernails of Puccini’s “ice princess.”) Given Gilliam’s association with Monty Python, as an animator and sometime actor, of course the production includes at least one “silly walk”—by the Pope’s soldiers, at their exit in the first scene of Act II.

The stage business usually suits the characters, but Gilliam twice stumbles with gratuitous bits of staging: Cellini’s apprentice Ascanio makes a pass at Teresa when the two are alone in Act II, and the Pope faints when the Perseus statue is finally revealed. The gray unit set isn’t especially attractive, and it’s more appropriate for Cellini’s studio than for Balducci’s home. (The foundry, where the statue is cast, is massive in scale and adds much to the impact of the final scene.) The costumes are 1890s-ish but also often outrageous, for no apparent reason. Why, for example, should Cellini’s journeyman Francesco sport a ridiculous upswept hairdo? And why do Fieramosca and Ascanio appear so debonair when Cellini looks as if he just got out of bed?

The performance’s anchors, as they must be in any Cellini production, are the conductor and protagonist. Mark Elder elicits superb verve and technical accomplishment from the always-exceptional Rotterdam Philharmonic. His command of the challenging work is matched onstage by John Osborn, whose Cellini combines elegant style with magnificent prowess (including some exquisite voix mixte). Despite his singularly un-dashing costume, Osborn’s characterization amasses sympathy, charisma and intensity. 

Mezzo Michèle Losier (Ascanio), though merely adequate in voice, plays a young man with astonishing believability. Bass-baritone Laurent Naouri (Fieramosca) sings admirably while playing his bumbling character with fabulously precise stage movement. Suitably robust of voice and person, Maurizio Muraro, as Balducci, is a complete success. As his youthful daughter Teresa, Mariangela Sicilia lacks the role’s ideal expansiveness and radiant tone, but she’s an eager, ebullient actress. Orlin Anastassov’s tubby singing and cardboard acting as the Pope are disappointing. The male chorus has a whale of a time, the tenors bursting forth with enviable confidence. —Roger Pines 



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