Gilliam, who seems to hate a void, filled the stage of
London's enormous Coliseum theater on Thursday with jugglers,
trapeze artists, stiltwalkers and tumblers for one of the
19th-century French composer's most troubled works.
Huge papier-mache-style masks of a devil and a skull were
paraded down the aisles within minutes of the curtain going up
and they remained suspended from boxes on either side of the
stage for the duration, emphasizing the carnival tone.
"Benvenuto Cellini", Berlioz's first opera that was based on the
life of the renowned 16th-century Italian sculptor, was a flop
when it had its premiere in Paris in 1838 and has been revived
only sporadically since.
In Gilliam's re-imagining - sung in English instead of French as
is the custom at the ENO - it is difficult to tell if what's
going on is more Gilliam than Berlioz, or vice versa, but what
happens is certainly not boring.
As if in preparation for the reunion show the surviving Pythons
will perform at London's O2 arena next month, the Python-style
rendition of the opera included a posse of ferocious old women,
serving as guardians for the main love interest, Teresa, sung
with aplomb by the American soprano Corinne Winters.
She is at the heart of a romantic tug-of-war between two
sculptors, the boring but responsible Fieramosca, ably sung by
American baritone Nicholas Pallesen, and the roguish Cellini,
sung with a lovely Italianate lilt by another American, tenor
Michael Spyres - both men making their ENO debuts.
They get strong support from the powerful Jamaican-born bass
Willard White as Pope Clement VII, who has commissioned a statue
of the Greek hero Perseus from Cellini and is willing to
overlook anything, including murder and Cellini's seduction of
Teresa, who is Fieramosca's intended, as long he gets it.
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Gilliam, directing his second opera and second Berlioz work for the
ENO after a huge success in 2011 with "Damnation of Faust", provides
the very opposite of the minimalist stagings many European directors
The Coliseum stage is filled with cardboard cutout versions of
Cellini statues, odd-shaped buildings and vast numbers of people
serving either as the carnival crowd or the metalworkers in
One of the few intimate moments comes in the second act when Cellini,
facing the likelihood of being hanged unless he casts the Perseus
before dawn, sings a solo aria wishing that instead of living the
party-animal life, he had become a drover.
"Show me how a sculptor might live as drovers do," sings the
chastened Cellini, who vows to God that if he completes the statue
he will "renounce all earthly vices".
That seems unlikely, in this bawdy, earthy and entertaining
production, with the ENO orchestra under conductor Edward Gardner
whipping up a Berliozian storm as the opera ends with Cellini and
Teresa being carried aloft atop the enormous head of Perseus - a
Python touch if ever there was one.
(Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Ken Wills)
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