| LONDON, June 6
LONDON, June 6 Anyone attending the premiere of
Berlioz's rarely seen opera "Benvenuto Cellini", directed by
Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam at the English National
Opera, could be forgiven for thinking it was a preview for the
Python reunion show in July.
Gilliam, who seems to hate a void, filled the stage of
London's enormous Coliseum theatre 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
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.
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 favour.
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 Cellini's workshop.
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)