Some modern productions have difficulty trusting the work they are trying to present. Usually, the distrust stems from the director's lack of understanding about the work or the "modern spin" they attempt to impose on it in an attempt to make it more relevant. Such was the case with Terry Gilliam's production of La damnation de Faust , his first outing into operatic directing about four years ago. As I recall, his production received rather mixed reviews; however, Gilliam has returned to ENO victorious with his Benvenuto Cellini, a production that is unlike anything I have ever seen yet also does everything it can to communicate the drama of the music.
In other words, rarely is a critic put in the difficult position I find myself in now. English National Opera's production of Benvenuto Cellini, itself a rarity in the world's opera houses, is by far the best opera I have ever seen at the company. Apparently ENO has sunk a huge amount of money into the production, and, boy, does it show.
The production must be seen to be believed: there are dancers, acrobats, giant heads, extremely rude actors in a hilarious commedia dell'arte, fantastic lighting, clever use of space, giant statues and finally, enough confetti to fill a gay pride parade.
Michael Spyres was a lyrically soaring and committed Cellini. His voice is perfectly suited to the demands of the role: light enough to rise repeatedly into the stratosphere but weighty enough to provide a thrilling edge as he ascends. Spyres coped with Berlioz's incredibly difficult music with verve and tenacity-what a dream it would be to hear him in the original French. One wonders how difficult it is to play a cocky, seemingly arrogant, and archetypically romantic nineteenth-century artist; still Spyres did it convincingly and left me wanting more. It was an unquestionably five-star performance.
As the token love interest, Corinne Winters returned to The Coliseum after a triumphant debut last year in the otherwise appalling La traviata to play Teresa, witty and capricious daughter of the rich Balducci. Her voice has only improved since I last heard it: the committed style and intelligent phrasing that shapes her interpretations are becoming her hallmark in an industry that churns out soprano after soprano with decidedly less flair. I would've liked her to take more risks with her ornamentation, however; her top notes ring with clarion tone and she has no issues moving her voice quickly when required.
Ascanio is supposedly a role modelled after the inspiration for Cellini's Perseus--a prostitute's beautiful son-here played by Paula Murrihy. Murrihy is capable mezzo, who has an unusual amount of colourful depth to her range and can be heard over even the loudest moments in Berlioz's score. Her bullish interpretation was not without its (very funny) moments. Pavlo Hunka was perhaps the weakest link in a cast that most opera houses would be green with envy over; his Balducci had an inability to be heard , one could be down to first-night jitters however, and for the most part his clear baritone had direction and tenacity throughout.
As Cellini's competitor in love and art, Nicholas Pallesen was a robust and ferociously sung Fieramosca. His memorable baritone poured over each phrase he sung with striking softness when required. There were moments when I struggled to make out his words but that may have simply been a matter of balance with the orchestra. As the Pope, Willard White was commanding and, dare I say it, slightly demure in what seems like a role he was destined to play.
Edward Gardener's orchestra was in rare form : Berlioz tends to bring out the best or the worst in opera house orchestras and we should all be thankful that in this case it was the former. Never once were the sinuous lines of Berlioz's orchestration lost; as I hinted above, balance at times could have been better.
All this is taken in stride, however. It is not to be missed.
Photos: Richard Hubert Smith