Maija Kovalevska in Benvenuto Cellini.
Today I took a break from a lot of editing tests, reporting and writing to take in a showing, via Emerging Pictures, of the 2007 Salzburg Festival production of Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini (here’s the trailer).
This production, in which all the singing, particularly that of the Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska and the American mezzo Kate Aldrich, was excellent, got a lot of criticism for its out-there staging. The scene has been changed from the 16th century to the mid-21st, or thereabouts, when wealthy families will be able to rely on robots and/or androids to get themselves primped up for a night on the town (as in the picture above).
And there are all kinds of other bits of manic invention, such as the arrival of Pope Clement VII at the Cellini foundry in a red cruiser with a lighted-cross hood ornament, or the scene in Act I in which the rival sculptor Fieramosca is set upon by a chorus of women bearing brooms. It struck me during the opera that these kinds of things were so memorable they took away from the thrust of the piece.
But then I thought: Well, that’s not such a bad thing. As I listened, I could picture in my mind’s eye a sober, traditionally minded staging of this piece, with period costumes and stiff characters, and frankly, I could also imagine how monumentally dull it would be. The problem is that the libretto, by Barbier and de Wailly, is pretty awful, and a normal staging would be hard to take.
The other problem is the music. It’s brilliant, for the most part, with astonishing orchestration, vivid colors and terrific choral writing that thrums with a kind of excitement and exuberance that fits the image that has come down to us of Berlioz, that of an intellect and an artistic identity on fire. You can hear his influence on Wagner, among other people (Cellini was first performed in 1838), and it is in every sense of the word original.
But, for all its energy and power, it’s also oddly stiff, and this has something to do with Berlioz’ admiration of Spontini, I suspect. I don’t know that much of Spontini’s work, but grandeur and seriousness of intent is critical in the pieces I have heard (and there is a large amount of his music on YouTube, interestingly enough). Berlioz’ music for Cellini has passion and spirit to burn, but the Stolzl production shows that it also is old-fashioned in a grand-opera way.
Much of the music is first-rate, but it falls short of being a first-rate opera, at least for today’s sensibilities, because its melodic inspiration is not that effective, and while the score glimmers with orchestral genius, it also lacks a certain variety that would make the opera easier to take in a more sober staging.
As is, it seems to me that Philipp Stolzl did Berlioz a favor by coming up with this bold, manic staging, indebted as it is to television. movies and pop culture, and so full of the short-attention-span mentality prevalent today. Having so much crazy stuff to look at, so much business (including the theft from Star Wars of the idea of C3PO without a head for Ascanio’s aria), takes the viewer’s mind off some of the stasis of the music.
That’s how it struck me, at least. I greatly enjoyed this production, loved Kovalevska and Aldrich, and especially enjoyed hearing what is probably the best performance overall this opera has ever received. But it also showed that opera, like movies, is beholden to spectacle these days, and that Berlioz’ score, while unfairly neglected, has been pushed aside for other reasons than just its difficulty of presentation.