Spectacular visual effects and a feast for all the senses is the best description of Sunday’s performance at the Liceu of Hector Berlioz's 19th-Century opera, Benvenuto Cellini, directed by Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam. This particular Berlioz opera was poorly received initially and has been rarely performed over the years. But with this production by the English National Opera and the Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Benvenuto Cellini is sure to become a frequently performed and well-loved favourite.
The opera is loosely based on the life of Benvenuto Cellini, a 16th-Century Italian goldsmith and sculptor. Most of the opera characters are fictional except for the title character and that of Pope Clement VII. Benvenuto Cellini has been commissioned to make a sculpture for Pope Clement VII. Cellini is in love with Teresa, who is also sought after by Cellini’s rival, the sculptor Fieramosca, who hopes to win Teresa and the Papal commission.
Amidst a shower of confetti, a troupe of carnaval characters, some on stilts, come down the aisles of the theatre, while on the stage circus acrobats perform all with the background celebration of Roman Carnaval in full swing. To add to the craziness, Balducci, the Pope’s treasurer, instead of being pelted by flour pellets, receives a whipped cream pie in the face. Slapstick, perhaps, but so totally unexpected it only added to the general merriment. We now are introduced to the rather pompous Balducci, performed by the talented Maurizio Muraro making his debut performance at the Liceu, as well as Cellini, performed by Tenor John Osborn, also in his debut Liceu performance. Osborn’s superb theatrics, incredible vocal talent and ability to convey all types of emotions provided a very memorable performance. But in my opinion, the most perfect casting was the choice of Kathryn Lewek as the innocent, lovely but playful and spirited Teresa. Lewek’s pure, beautifully clear voice and emotional range was wonderful to experience.
The stage rarely had only one focus at a time, as occurred when Teresa was singing her aria in Act 1 'Entre l’amour et le devoir' while a group of black-clad old crones, servants, and chaperones were busy scrubbing, sewing or napping. But despite all the various background activities, the soloists were given full spotlight to shine. At times almost on the edge of being frenetic, the production was truly a feast for all the senses.
Pope Clement VII, expertly performed by Eric Halfvarson, was a delight to behold. The costuming and make-up resembled more of what we might envision appropriate to an ancient Oriental emperor, especially the long golden finger nails. Halfvarson’s subtle movements and beautifully resonant voice helped portray a character that seemed other worldly but comic, with a great sense of humour.
The evening ended with a bang when the completion of the glittering statue showered gold confetti down upon the audience adding both sparkle and a bit more magic to an incredible performance. Joseph Pons and the Liceu Orchestra, Conxita Garcia and the Liceu Chorus, and all the soloists were well recognised by the audience with their enthusiastic applause. Whether you are a seasoned opera lover or have just started to think about seeing opera for the first time, Terry Gilliam’s Benvenuto Cellini should be marked on your calendar. Performances continue at the Liceu until November 19th.