Thursday, March 31, 2011

Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini

Hey, opera buffs!

I had the good luck to hunt down a DVD copy of the Salzburg Festival production of Hector Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini a week ago. Delighted by the staging and direction of Philipp Stolzl, the musical stewardship of the passionate Valery Gergiev, and (not least) the singing, the 1838 two-act opera was a three-sense treat.

Berlioz, as was typical throughout his career, was misunderstood (O! overused word of too many fragile artists) , ignored, and savaged by his complacent countrypersonhoods, though to focus the surveying laser, the obtuse judgements were the eventual shame of musical directors, musicologists, reviewers, and musicians at least as much as they were of music attendees.

David Solway had great fun with the Andreas Karavis creation, and Doris Lessing humiliated the English gatekeeping publishing set with her repeated "failure" in the "first submission" pseudonym for The Diaries Of Jane Somers, but my favourite artistic jest was orchestrated by Berlioz when he wrote the sublime ninth movement to L'enfance Du Christ, and then claimed he "borrowed" it from a fictive 17th century composer. (Of course, if that project were in play today, Kenneth Goldsmith would be envious in a straight-ahead second-to-the-plate plan.) The reviewers and music-going audience fell over themselves in declaring "it's obvious he couldn't come up with this tenderness!", though it's curious the equally sublime prior movement (#8) was omitted in the comparative hubbub (for obvious strategies). It seems to be a universal failing of our insane, guilt-ridden, and stubborn race that once a reputation is established, for ill or good, it takes the time and effort of a 9,000 tonne ferry to turn around.

All this by way of mentioning that -- 130 to 170 years later -- the opera is finally gaining traction. The initial killjoys? The first musical director hated it, as did the singers and most of the instrumentalists. It was "too hard". And they were right, obviously. But when something's this musically and dramatically excellent, it's a challenge the players should relish.

To bring things up to date, it was with fascinated humour I read (after hearing/viewing the DVD) the comments about the opera on amazon and other outlets regarding the "outlandish" staging, the psychological redrafting (of the Pope and of Cellini, in particular), and the quality of the singing. First off, Berlioz, unlike most other opera composers, favoured and featured the orchestra, though in this, his first opera, he allowed for live interpretation, and he even refashioned and edited the original score several times to please all manner of requests and demands, so that a true libretto for the work is now problematic. Which one? The larger point is that Berlioz -- and here I know I'm assuming a great deal -- would have been far more lenient in the helicopter/robot/lightning/rooftop/popemobile nods to entertaining the $700 a seat shock-chasers if it meant having the bloody thing produced at all! I actually found many of the sets, and the "spontaneous" shenanigans of the chorus (and lead singers) charming, and more to the point, faithful to the spirit of the original score and story. (Of course, as for the "original" story, well, that's another remove altogether, and it's the hilarious wink of opera. If people want to nitpick about narrative discrepancy, they'd find a better target in the play which gave Berlioz his initial plan. The real Benvenuto Cellini, though a multi-talented and highly accomplished Florentine, was also a serial adulterer, multiple-murderer and sodomizing rapist of boys.)

Again, as against some of the joyless twaddle, the singing (and acting), though not powerful, was appropriate to the comic tone and intent, both light and charming, and occasionally poignant. Burkhard Fritz as the eponymous hero was a convincing "bad boy", and the chemistry between him and Teresa, played by the lovely and sweetly anguished Maija Kovalevska, was palpable.

Gergiev was typically brilliant (an underappreciated Shostakovich interpreter -- if you're into S, check out a fabulous rendition of Shostakovich's Symphony #4, in many 10 minute segments, conducted by Gergiev, on you tube, in spite of the compromised production transmission. If the hour is too much, click towards the last, the 3rd, movement -- about 27 minutes -- for the greatest symphonic movement, IMO of course, in the repertoire). Another commenter referred to Gergiev's Benvenuto direction as lacking lightness, when necessary. All I can say is to listen to the tender and incredible Regardons bien maitre Arlequin scene twelve, Act I, and then shrug off those ridiculous, entrenched positions.

Even on CD, only a few versions of Benvenuto Cellini exist. I recommend the Virgin Classics 2004 effort under the needfully detailed direction of John Nelson.

I sometimes hesitate to share thoughts about anything non-verse related here since most come to the blog from that "special interest" (and special interest), but I thought there were more than a few ties to matters poetic, at least in the political sense, and what the hey! I don't feel like opening up different blogs for different subjects and interests.

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