Premiered last year at ENO, Terry Gilliam’s take on Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini now opens at Dutch National Opera, this time in the original French language. The production had been received enthusiastically in London by the press and public alike and, judging by the loud cheers from the public on Saturday night, it is going to do just as well in Amsterdam.

John Osborn (Cellini) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
John Osborn (Cellini)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

The task sounded Herculean: turning Benvenuto Cellini, that reputedly difficult, flawed work by Berlioz, repeatedly shunned by the public ever since it was first performed, into an engaging and utterly entertaining show that renders justice to its youthfully energetic music. This is what Terry Gilliam, conductor Sir Mark Elder, the Rotterdam Philharmonic and a fine team of soloists managed to pull off, and it is nothing short of miraculous.

Much has been said on the flaws of Berlioz’s first opera. First composed for the Opéra-Comique, it was rejected and then reworked in order to fit the grander requirements of the Opéra de Paris, giving it a hybrid character, neither grand opéra nor opéra bouffe, that makes it difficult to pigeon-hole. The libretto, very loosely based on the memoirs of the 16th century eponymous Florentine goldsmith and adventurer, is reputedly confusing: the acclaimed goldsmith Cellini is racing against the clock to cast a bronze statue, which will win him the pardon of Pope Clement VIII for a murder he committed whilst attempting to kidnap his lover, the young Teresa. Teresa’s father, Giacomo Balducci, the pope’s treasurer, opposes Cellini and favours instead his rival, Fieramosca, both for the pope’s commission and his daughter’s hand. In spite of the two men’s plotting, Cellini triumphs, casts his masterpiece and gets the girl.

Mariangela Sicilia (Teresa) and John Osborn (Cellini) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Mariangela Sicilia (Teresa) and John Osborn (Cellini)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

This all happens during Rome's carnival. It is in the ensemble scene of the Shrove Tuesday celebrations that Terry Gilliam’s staging is at its most spectacular: the soloists and full choir of the Dutch National Opera are joined on stage by a colourful troop of acrobats, jugglers and dancers in superbly choreographed chaos the incredible virtuosity of which matches Berlioz’s music perfectly. There are many other visually jubilant moments throughout the evening, my favourite being the very Monty-Pythonesque grand entrance of the pope, as a “son of Heaven” escorted by a guard of very camp Roman centurions. Yet the exuberant direction never undermines the music, and Gilliam knows precisely how and when to tone things down, so that the soloists have all the space to shine in their arias.

This virtuosity on stage was well matched by Sir Mark Elder in the pit who expertly managed to balance the Rotterdam Philharmonic with choir and soloists on stage, even during the most bombastic ensembles. It is quite unbelievable that, out of the whole opera, only Ascanio’s aria from Act II has gained any kind of popularity. Cellini’s Act I romance that portrays the hero as a lover and an artist is exquisite. The trio as he plans with Teresa their escape while being spied by Fieramosca is jubilant. The choir of the goldsmiths is the kind of tune that would stay in one head’s for days.

John Osborn (Cellini), Laurent Naouri (Fieramosca) and Maurizio Muraro (Balducci) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
John Osborn (Cellini), Laurent Naouri (Fieramosca) and Maurizio Muraro (Balducci)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

The cast is overall excellent. In the title role, John Osborn gave an unforgettable performance. His French diction was impressively flawless. He tackled the fiendish tessitura of the role (written for Gilbert Duprez, the first operatic tenor to ever sing the high C “from the chest”) with apparent ease. The voice was both powerful and virile, perfectly suited to Cellini's flamboyant character, while still infinitely flexible. The virtuosic romance “La gloire était ma seule idole”, sang with exquisite pianissimi, was a blissfull moment. Mariangela Sicilia was an engaging and fiery Teresa both vocally and theatrically. Her soprano is round and appealing, her coloratura in the Act I cavatine was clear and easily delivered. My only reservation is that her French was unintelligible – but I guess there were few other Gallic members in the audience to notice this. Her compatriot, Maurizio Muraro, excelled as Balducci, a character somewhat reminiscent of a Dr Bartolo. Laurent Naouri, with his characteristic baritone and impeccable diction, was irrestistible in the comic villain role of Fieramosca. Michèle Losier’s rendition of Ascanio’s aria “Mais qu’ai-je donc ?” was expressively boyish. All the other roles were perfectly cast, and I particularly liked Orlin Anastassov (Pope Clement VII), Nicky Spence (Francesco) and Scott Conner (Bernardino).

Only the future will tell, but I’d like to think that, with Gilliam's spectacular production, Benvenuto Cellini will finally receive the place it deserves in the standard repertoire.

****1