Berlioz - Benvenuto Cellini

ONP Bastille, Monday March 26 2018

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Terry Gilliam with Leah Hausman. Choreography: Leah Hausman. Sets: Terry Gilliam, Aaron Marsden. Costumes: Katrina Lindsay. Lighting: Paule Constable. Video: Finn Ross. Benvenuto Cellini: John Osborn. Giacomo Balducci: Maurizio Muraro. Fieramosca: Audun Iversen. Le Pape Clément VII: Marco Spotti. Francesco: Vincent Delhoume. Bernardino: Luc Bertin-Hugault. Pompeo: Rodolphe Briand. Cabaretier: Se-Jin Hwang. Teresa: Pretty Yende. Ascanio: Michèle Losier. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

People who go to the cinema will know better than I what Terry Gilliam's work looks like - his visual identity. I did once see Brazil on TV, or parts of it at any rate, and hated every second. From what I've read, however, it would seem this production of Benvenuto Cellini is more like his Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and certainly in some respects the visuals were reminiscent of the animated sections of Monty Python, though I should think by now, so many years on, headlines like "Terry Gilliam's Flying Circus" (referring to this Cellini) must have him rolling his eyes heavenward. The overall style was 19th-century fantastic, recalling to some extent the Cirque du Soleil but with more of the circus, fairground and music hall, less industrial-revolutionary steampunk.. The sets were complicated constructions of enlarged engravings, some, I think, of Piranesi's prisons, some also featured in videos whirling giddily across the backdrop, with coloured lights. The costumes were about 1850. The directorial choice was to treat the hard-to-pin-down Cellini as a wholly comic work.

It was busy, to say the least. For the first time ever in my opera-going career, as far as I can remember, I had the unlikely and illogical feeling that the music was drowned in the action, crowded out, overwhelmed... After brief taste of what was to come, with an acrobat hauled out of a (small) tub, the Roman carnival stormed the Bastille. In a shower of multicoloured confetti, we had giants on stilts, grostesque and death's heads, dancers, contortionists, tumblers and trapeze artists and rope dancers, comical strongmen, more acrobats, flying objects (including, of course, hot-air ballons with suspended baskets), devouring monster mouths, moving statues and more, much more. The Pope was wheeled in by his guards, brass Roman helmets and breastplates over scarlet robes, atop a metal staircase looking, in the heavy folds of a lavish brocade costume and sunburst head-dress, like the emperor Altoum or even Turandot herself. The costume split up the front like an easter egg, bringing a laugh from the public, for the Pope to descend on to the cluttered, chaotic workshop floor in plain white robes to inspect the statues: a giant, tousled golden head and colossal buttocks he caressed with glee. In the final scenes, an army of bare-chested workmen in welding helmets was deployed to fan an infernal furnace and raise a giant tower of scaffolding and tarpaulins for the casting, and when the gleaming golden legs and lower abdomen, complete with private parts, of Perseus were at last revealed, we had a second dousing of confetti, this time gold. The Paris Opera's cleaning ladies must hate this show.

Berlioz
It was busy, then. Hugely busy, overwhelmingly and distractingly and unnecessarily busy, like some gigantic, high-budget fantasy musical, though I must admit skilfully done.

Perhaps because they were thoroughly enjoying the mayhem, the chorus were very noticeably at their most splendid, why is why I mention it first. Hats off to the lot of them.

The solists were mixed. Three, I think, pulled their chestnuts (as the French put it) out of the furnace. Pretty Yende, though far from idiomatic and with audibly "exotic" French occasionally emerging from otherwise obscure diction (in which she was not alone), nevertheless made some beautiful sounds. Thankfully, she's more than just the "nightingale" sort of lyric soprano.

This wasn't the first time I'd heard Michèle Losier, nor the first time I'd been impressed, but here she was strikingly good: quite masculine in timbre or at any rated suited to breeches roles, strong-voiced and charismatic, projecting personality. What a good Composer she must make. She beat Pretty Yende on the clapometer.

It wasn't the first time I'd heard John Osborn either ("John Osborn is a remarkable high tenor of the kind needed in these French works" for example) and as you might expect, he was perfect once more in this demanding role. I'm aware but don't know why some people don't like him and in the past have noted that he deserved more applause than he got.

As usual, Philippe Jordan, in his "heir to the grand tradition" white tie and tails (though his orchestra wears open-necked black shirts) went for smooth, elegant, symphonic sweep - albeit nicely detailed. Not, really what you want in Berlioz, especially once you've heard Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. I wished we'd had them instead: they'd have suited the rumbustious production better.

I couldn't find The Maestro in anything from Cellini so here he is in Damnation.

EDITED DAYS LATER: someone with more exacting standards than mine took issue with my comment about symphonic sweep, saying basically that if Jordan went for it, he didn't achieve it, and that he, too, would have preferred Gardiner. On reflection, that's true: I think that, in the rush to get the post finished, I lazily projected on Monday's performance what I've thought of Jordan before. But I now remember thinking, during Cellini, that it seemed unlikely Jordan could really like this particular quirky score, and sounded as if he was indifferent to it: paid to do the job but not personally engaged.

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