“He’s not an opera director. He’s a very naughty boy!” Such were some of the jibes flung at Terry Gilliam after his operatic debut directing Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust in 2011, a hugely entertaining romp, although bearing little resemblance to the actual plot. Three years on and Gilliam tackles more Berlioz for English National Opera in the shape of Benvenuto Cellini, striking gold again.

Michael Spyres (Cellini) and Paula Murrihy (Ascanio) © Richard Hubert Smith
Michael Spyres (Cellini) and Paula Murrihy (Ascanio)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Berlioz’s first opera is a sprawling mess – neither comic opera nor serious drama – but Gilliam revels in its ramshackle madness. The setting is 16th century Rome, opening amid scenes of carnival – and mardi gras gives the director licence to unleash quirky revelry parading its way through the auditorium before spilling onto the stage. Pope Clement VII has commissioned a bronze statue of Perseus from Cellini, a celebrated goldsmith. This has irked Balducci, the pope’s treasurer, who wanted it to go to Fieramosca, also his preferred choice to win the hand of his feisty daughter, Teresa. She, however, has fallen for Cellini. Fieramosca attempts to foil first Cellini’s elopement with Teresa and then, when that fails, to sabotage the Perseus project. Cellini triumphs at the last minute, a giant statue unveiled, at least from the waist down, awaiting the hoisting up of the head, which has been deposited on-stage – in a Pythonesque way – throughout much of the opera.

Benvenuto Cellini © Richard Hubert Smith
Benvenuto Cellini
© Richard Hubert Smith

However, the real triumph belongs to Gilliam. He treats the narrative faithfully, the quirkiness coming instead from a touch of the surreal in the form of a quite brilliant multi-level set. Based around Piranesi etchings, it shunts and shifts around to propel the action forward. Video projections, on-stage acrobatics and bawdy humour create a dazzling finale to the Shrove Tuesday carnival at the end of Act I. Costuming spans the centuries, from camp centurions straight out of The Life of Brian to revellers in Dickensian garb, yet sporting teddy boy quiffs. Even Gilliam’s fantastic stagecraft can’t help the pace slackening after the interval, Berlioz taking his time to build to the finale where Cellini is in a race against the clock to save his life. But the finale, with the casting of the statue of Perseus, is spectacular. As the goldsmith wins both a pardon and the hand of Teresa, a shower of golden confetti tumbles over the stalls.

A great cast is headed by the tireless Cellini of Michael Spyres, whose tenor has an astonishing range and timbre, from baritonal heft in his lower notes to thrilling top notes. Even towards the end of the evening, in the scene “Rome holds her breath”, Spyres remained in superb voice, despite the taxing tessitura of the role.

Corinne Winters (Teresa) © Richard Hubert Smith
Corinne Winters (Teresa)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Corinne Winters, returning to the Coliseum after her spectacular debut as Violetta last season, wowed us once again as Teresa. Her Act I aria “Hearts full of love” was wonderfully sung, but the cabaletta which followed treated us to a cascade of coloratura glinting with diamonds. Winters displayed bags of personality, including a knack for comedy, qualities shared by Paula Murrihy’s Ascanio. Her agile, light mezzo was perfect for the Act II aria that is in danger of remaining an earworm for some days.

Nicholas Pallesen, making his ENO debut, sang with a full, warm baritone as the villainous Fieramosca, foiled at every turn. Willard White had great fun as the Pope, making a grandly comic entrance descending a stairway from the heavens. His bass-baritone isn’t as sepulchral as it once was, but he can still nearly steal the show in a cameo role. Pavlo Hunka was the weak link in the cast as Balducci, underpowered and lacking the buffo bluster the role demands. David Soar and Nicky Spence made strong impressions as the foremen in Cellini’s workshop.

Edward Gardner injected Berlioz’s score with ebullience, drawing playing of great brio from the orchestra; warm string playing and chattering woodwinds an especial joy. Pacing was lively, but Gardner also lingered where it mattered, the Act II prayer for Teresa and Ascanio being a fine example. The ENO Chorus contributed spirited singing, as ever, while the troupe of actors brought colour and acrobatics to proceedings.

Berlioz was a strikingly individual composer. In Terry Gilliam, he has found a similarly striking – if unlikely – champion, drawing coherence from Benvenuto Cellini’s plot and doing so in richly entertaining style.