To say that the Liceu's production of Benvenuto Cellini was 'busy' is an understatement along the lines of saying that PP in Spain is 'dishonest'. With stilt-walkers, drum beaters, giant swinging skulls, an enormous golden head, back projection, front projection, acrobats, flag wavers, moving sets, fire, dramatic lighting and a camp pope, there is enough going on to keep even the most reluctant opera goer amused.
Whether it all works, of course is something else.
This production is designed and directed by Terry Gilliam, with co-direction and choreography by Leah Hausman, and Aaron Marsden also credited with design, so a certain amount of scenic Surrealism is to be expected. It may have been the lacklustre audience that the production I saw had, but the participants seemed to be working too hard for too little response. The circus troupe parading through the auditorium with a coloured paper ticker-tape shower was perhaps giving too much too soon and added to that much of the 'acting' was hammy in the extreme.
And that is one of the problems with the piece: what exactly is it? The opera exists in various versions and experts have said that it is difficult to know exactly what Berlioz had in mind for it. Originally it was conceived as an opéra comique with spoken dialogue and musical numbers, but this was not the opera that was performed in 1838 when the piece had become a through-sung performance. The opera was then cut and revised so that there are now at least three 'versions' of the show to choose when contemplating a (rare) performance.
Perhaps this lack of clarity is reflected in the sense of discomfort that I had in watching parts of the opera. There are elements of pure farce (in the best Brian Rix - there's a name from the past! - tradition) with lovers hiding when the father of the object of their attention comes home; there is the 'tables' approach to the action which could be funny; individual characters are presented as absurdly pompous or as outrageously camp, the latter most blatantly in the character of Pope Clement VII (well sung by Eric Halfvarson) who arrived on stage processing through a pair of massive swing doors, atop a wheeled set of stairs and encased in a sort of armour of over-the-top ecclesiastical garments which opened to allow him to descend the stairs in a mincing fashion to join the action. His appearance was like a cross between the ancient emperor from Turandot and Bella Lugosi, except, of course, I cannot remember either of those wearing an ostentatious gold cross and false glittering metallic finger stalls! And there's a murder, a real death in all this visual melange.
And the fact that I haven't mentioned the music yet speaks volumes for this production.
It is not music that I know, apart that is form the snatch of melody from the fiesta which later was used by Berlioz as the basis for the Roman Carnival Overture. So I came fresh to this opera and was open to be impressed.
The title role was taken by John Osborn, who sang it competently, but not in a way to take me with him through the production. I felt that he was straining in the upper register – but then, what tenor would not given the music written for him by Berlioz – and I found his acting a little wooden.
Teresa (the love interest) was played by Kathryn Lewek and she was more than a match for challenge of the role, though she was sometimes drowned by the excellent orchestra, the Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu conducted by Josep Pons, a fault I am prepared to forgive because of the magnificent performance the orchestra gave.
For me the stand-out performance was given by Annalisa Stroppa as Ascanio a replacement for Lidia Vinyes-Curtis who was scheduled to sing the role in the performance I saw. This is a 'breeches' role and it is always a delight to see what characteristics are adopted by the singer to emphasise the masculinity of the character: Stroppa was a delight to watch as, legs akimbo, chest out, hands on hips she made the man! Her singing was exceptional and she was always a commanding presence on stage.
I was surprised not to see on the cast list credits to the troupe of jugglers, acrobats and dancers who added so much to the feel of this piece. The sinisterly androgynous Master of Ceremonies with his painted skin and cracking whip added a touch (perhaps more than a touch) of depravity to an opera that always seemed on the cusp of descending into total mayhem and incoherence.
Did I enjoy this opera? On balance, yes I did. Not only is it an opera that I can now tick that I have seen and heard, but its Piranesi influenced scenery and sheer vitality will stay with me for a long time.
And, of course, the sound, the sheer sound of the chorus (Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu) which in many ways was the true star of the production.
The first of the OU essays is slowly getting written. I have decided that today will (WILL) see a draft of the first of the three pieces that I have to write – anything less will make the timetable for completion impossible. Though, there again, I always hear David's, “Don't worry Stephen, it will get done!” echoing in my head. And I suppose that's true, but I am aiming to do more than simply get the essays done.
I am enjoying this course on the Renaissance much more than I did the Modern Art course just completed. I suppose that artists or 'artists' had not yet got into their pseudo-intellectual stride and so much of what the practitioners wrote was more practically orientated than wallowing in theory. And it is a bloody sight easier to read and understand!
I take it as a good sign that the opera was about Benvenuto Cellini who was, after all, himself a Renaissance man, or at least goldsmith (or godsmith as I first typed it! Given what he managed to create, perhaps the typo is not too far from the truth!) and I am going to take his easy way with evidence as my inspiration for the sort of writing that I am going to produce for my essays. Cellini's 'Autobiography' which I read when I was in college in the Penguin Classics (black & serious) edition was an absolute delight to read. It was recommended by the English and the history departments- though, to be fair I think that it was regarded as 'informed literature' by both!
I have a great deal to do to find out details of the art works that I am supposed to be writing about, and I will give you some of the questions that I need answers to: Who commissioned each work of art? Was there a contract? Does that contract exist? Who designed the font? Who decided on the artists? Where exactly was the font positioned? Who the hell is the sculptor, of whom I have never heard? Were the statues supposed to be where they now are? What is the cross of St John made of – surely not marble? What is the significance of the bird (eagle?) on the base of the half column behind the three statues? Were the blind windows (and is that what they are called) intended to be the background for the statues? And so on. In a way I am delighted that I am in a position to have to answer, or bluff my way through, these questions. And I am paying (heftily) to do so!
I have discovered that one other person (as well as an appalled Toni) listened to my infamous but-he-doesn't-speak-the-language radio interview – Ramon, the owner of the take-away (how little that description tells you about the foodie delights that he provides) who merely said that he was listening to the radio and heard a voice which he told himself could only be me!
This is not the first time that this has happened. A very early broadcast (!) of mine was for WNO when I had to enthuse about an opera that I had neither seen nor heard. This was broadcast live on a Sunday evening when no-one was listening. But, come Monday morning, I was greeted by one of my pupils who asked if I had been on the radio the previous day! In a similar way one friend recalled driving in North Wales along narrow and difficult roads while listening to the radio and almost swerving to oblivion as my dulcet tones emanated from the loudspeaker! It is nice to have an effect or affect – or possibly both depending on how you read the sentence!
And now writing. A simple draft before bedtime will suffice.