Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini (1838)

Opera en deux actes, quatre tableaux. Running Time: 3 hours 7 minutes (including 13 minutes of appendix items for inclusion in act 1).

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Again, this took me several days, but I figured, why not complete the Berlioz operas in one swoop? Here we have the one that started it all, and still the fairest (weirdest too!) one of all, Benvenuto Cellini. It was a fiasco essentially everywhere (except Germany, where Liszt put it on in a modified three-act version sanctioned by the composer after the successful first production of Wagner’s Lohengrin) although hearing it now this just seems bizarre. To be honest, Berlioz wasn’t Meyerbeer equal in terms of stagecraft, and that may be why the thing flopped (and why Queen Victoria and Prince Albert didn’t like it much either when it was performed at Covent Garden). He was innovative, and yet not so very different. To be perfectly honest this isn’t really any more innovative than Tannhauser, but like anything by Berlioz, the orchestral effects must be watched, and these reward the listener.

Okay, so I’ve realized something from this experience, I don’t dislike Berlioz!

This review is of the 2004 recording conducted by John Nelson with Gregory Kunde in the title role and Patricia Ciofi as Teresa released by Virgin Classics, as it is the most complete and definitive recording of the opera, basically reproducing Berlioz’s original intentions as per the 1836 score.

SETTING: Rome, early 16th century. Cellini is in love with Teresa, the daughter of Balducci who really doesn’t like him and prefers the Papal sculptor Fieramosca. After a failed elopement ends in Cellini murdering a man, the goldsmith has to make good on his  promise to the Pope for a statue of Perseus or otherwise he will be executed for his crime.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (95 minutes)

0: The overture *** is one of the most brilliant orchestral pieces in history. It does consist of a series of tunes from the opera proper (in particular the Hymn of the Goldsmiths, which is a sort of leitmotif which comes back after the first scene), but also something else, a rich orchestral texturing.

Tableau 1: Teresa’s chambers in the home of her father Balducci, the papal treasurer. Lundi soir.

13: After a mildly furious recitative between Balducci and his daughter Teresa (mostly the former) Balducci’s panicked warning aria is an okay affair * with variously instruments of the orchestra (bassoon rumbling below everything throughout) floating about. A good comic piece that sets the mood for the rest of the opera as he explains two important plot points, one that he is financing the production of a statue of Perseus commissioned by the Pope by Cellini and that said artist’s attentions on his daughter are unwelcome by him (although not by her).

16: After daddy dearest has left, Teresa is serenaded *** by Cellini and his compatriots (this brings Balducci back, which sort of defeats Cellini’s plans at alone time with Teresa, at least temporarily, as his presence is now quite known). Cellini has a brilliant high D right in the middle of all the semi-chromatic chorusing.

22: Teresa, left alone at last, gets a chance to express her rather sad feelings about the situation in a lovely two-part aria **.

26: The second half takes the form of a haunting romanza **.

31, 36: The Teresa-Cellini duet *** is more of a trio as Fieramosca hides behind a partition and spies on the lovers, but it has a singular gloriously calm tune (first taken up by Cellini as he declares his love for Teresa and before we hear Fieramosca tip-toe in, then Teresa throws some fioritura into the mix). Cellini does get agitated as he worries about Fieramosca, but we quickly return to the calm duetting. Things take on a completely different rapid-paced rhythm *** as Cellini tells Teresa to meet him in disguise at the Mardi Gras celebrations the following night so they can elope, all of this overheard by Fieramosca. They bit each other good night.

45: Before Cellini is able to leave, Teresa hears her father return, he comes in, and Cellini is able to escape thanks to Teresa’s quick wits, but not without alerting her father to the fact that there is a man in her room. Fieramosca (whose intrusion into Teresa’s chambers so late at night, unannounced and uninvited, is very bizarre even for opera) is at the wrong place at the wrong time. Fieramosca is discovered and tries to blame everything on Cellini, eventually a contingent of female neighbours invade to protect Teresa’s virtue ** and drag Fieramosca out of the house.

Tableau 2: A street in Rome made up for Mardi Gras, a tavern. Mardi soir.

50: Cellini and Co. lead a drinking chorus followed by Cellini’s chorally backed Hymn of the Goldsmiths *** (the tune is the opening from the overture).

54, 58: They get into an argument with the innkeeper over the bill which is somewhat ornery * and eventually this leads to the arrival of Cellini’s apprentice (and if history can have a say, his probable lover) Ascanio who embarks on a rather grand arioso *** which really takes flight when the male chorus backs him up like a collective of war planes. Ascanio thankfully has money (an advance from the pope for a commission for a statue from Cellini on promise that it be completed the following day) and pays the innkeeper. They leave to a reprise of the Hymn of the Goldsmiths which Berlioz ends grandly.

66: After some devision plotting with the comparatively minor Pompeo (they will dress up as monks and foil Cellini’s abduction of Teresa, incidentally Cellini and Ascanio are to be disguised as monks for the abduction), Fieramosca sings about his prowess with a sword in an okay number * with an almost Beethovenesque fury.

70: The act ends with a 24-minute long finale which can only be described as one of the most complex in all opera *** and involves everything from a play-within-a-play, a trumpet voluntary, an attempted abduction, a murder, and all the lights in Rome going out because the clocks strike midnight and it is now Ash Wednesday. Balducci comes on with Teresa, Cellini and Ascanio come in in their monk costumes and Cellini manages to inform Teresa.

74: The pre-festal chorus *** leads to calls for silence as a play by one Cassandro is about to begin.

79: The burlesque pantomime is, to put it mildly, weird **. Berlioz does, however, capture the sheer decadence of Italian theatre in the late Renaissance. The subject matter is King Midas (at least nominally) although the highlights of the performance are a very sad song for Harlequin and then Pierrot (more upbeat), both of which are done in pantomime and are not actually sung although from the perspective of the chorus they are the two finest tenors in Rome. Pierrot’s more happy piece wins him a lot of money from another actor who plays a mock-up of Balducci.

88, 91: What follows is much confusion ***. With four characters dressed as monks it is impossible for anyone to keep anyone else straight and eventually Ascanio is holding up Fieramosca and Cellini runs threw Pompeo, who dies as Teresa screams for help. The comedic element to some extent disappears (rightly) with what everyone thinks is the murder of a real monk, and Pompeo’s death, although of a minor character, is rather shocking. Cellini is arrested but as the canons are fired signally the start of Ash Wednesday (and thus Lent) everyone has to blow out their candles and Cellini escapes amid mass panic and confusion in a magnificent final ensemble *** as Fieramosca is arrested. This would be a very strong contender for opera’s greatest comic finale if what preceded it wasn’t more in the realm of dark comedy (what with an onstage assassination and all).

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(Costume design for Ascanio, first production. Wikimedia.) 

ACT 2: (80 minutes)

Tableau 3: Cellini’s studio, the next morning. Mercredi matin.

0: The act begins with a great entr’acte based primarily on the Hymn of the Goldsmiths **. Meanwhile, as the act begins Teresa and Ascanio await the return of Cellini. Teresa is terrified that he has either been arrested or is already dead, Ascanio has a lot more hope for his master and the two embark on a lovely duet *** while a chorus of monks chants in the background. Cellini shows up and the two exclaim with immense joy **.

7: Cellini’s murder monologue *** borders on the sort of between arioso and recitative that Wagner would be going for in his middle-period works, only Berlioz has stronger control of his orchestration here than Wagner has in, for instance, Erik’s Dream, also Teresa and Ascanio make interjections when needed which work well.

11: The second, this time sad, Teresa-Cellini love duet *** is very agitated as they wait for Ascanio to return with a horse for Teresa so they can make good their flight from the city.

20: Ascanio bursts in to tell them that Fieramosca is coming with Balducci, the five embark on (what else?) a brief quintet * in which Balducci orders his daughter to marry Fieramosca and ends with–

23, 25, 30, 32: The arrival of the Pope ***. Hushed, regal, and utterly hilarious as it seems more like a prototype for the Valhalla motif in Das Rheingold than anything else Wagner didn’t write as His Holiness declares a plenary indulgence to all present. It is difficult to figure out if Berlioz wants us to take this moment with religious solemnity or if it is all a massive joke. Balducci and Fieramosca plead for justice on Cellini * (namely for his arrest and execution for murder, which in all honesty is the truth). The Pope chides Cellini, telling him that he really does deserve to be executed for murder, but he is willing to be merciful, if Cellini can produce the promised statue of Perseus by nightfall. There is a lovely patch in which Ascanio and Teresa finally say something ** which really lightens up the heavy male voices as the action progresses in well orchestrated recitative. In the last three minutes or so of the scene *** we get a really great (if brief) ensemble.

Tableau 4: Foundry set up in the Colosseum. Mercredi soir.

35: The scene opens with one of those entr’actes which indicate that something mechanical or inventive or creative is going to happen. Good cerebral brooding **.

36: Ascanio has a long but very tuneful aria *** which doesn’t budge the plot an inch but it is lovely as he talks about how sad he is and then imitates some of the other characters (particularly Cellini and the Pope).

44: Now Cellini has a chance to emote ** (preceding by a seemingly long orchestral interlude). It is good, but lacks any discernible tune, and although the elements do eventually come together, at first the orchestral accompaniment is more interesting than the vocals. It is mostly about how he knows everyone is waiting for him to create the statue and he would rather run away and live in a little hut somewhere in the countryside.

50: The Goldsmiths sing an off-stage choral number **, eventually the guitars come back. Fieramosca arrives with two men with enormous swords and attacks Cellini, who realizes that they are only present to distract him from completing the statue, but they only leave when Cellini promises to immediately meet them for a duel. Teresa rushes in having escaped her father’s attempt at trying to marry her off to a stranger outside of the city (the Pope having banned any Roman or Tuscan from marrying her until sunset that night because Ash Wednesday as she is supposed to be Cellini’s prize for completing the statue). Teresa sees as Ascanio brings in Cellini’s sword and the two men leave her there.

58: All this leads to yet another good choral number *** as the workmen furiously come out of the foundry to go on strike and Teresa is left trying to stop them from giving up. Yes, that is how much procrastination occurs in this scene, the workers stop working! Cellini disappears into the foundry and Fieramosca comes on and everyone (particularly Teresa) believes that he has murdered Cellini (yes, they went there too) but no he is alive! As punishment for forcing Cellini on a wild goose chase in order to bribe the workers into striking (and for stalling the plot for over half and hour) Fieramosca is forced to work in the foundry.

67: The return of the Pope ***, again regal hushed holiness as he arrives with Balducci (Teresa is still, rightly, miffed with him).

70: At long last, the ten minute long finale ***, in which some plot forwarding finally actually takes place. It becomes apparent almost immediately that there isn’t enough metal in the foundry to produce the statue and so Cellini orders that all the metal in his workshop be sacrificed.

76, 78: The massive explosion ***, proto-wagnerian in scope if Wagnerian was a thing in 1838. The statue of Perseus is completed, Cellini is pardoned by the Pope, and set to wed Teresa. The opera ends with a reprise of the Hymn of the Goldsmiths ***.

APPENDIX:

Two arias:

One for Teresa for insertion in act 1 scene 1 N. 3b, very lovely ** and lasting about seven minutes, most likely as a replacement for her usual aria here. Standard slow and sad start with a grand cabaletta, watch out especially for the woodwind and brass work. She contemplates her struggle between youthful sex and love and duty to her parents, considering that when she is her grandmother’s age love will go hang!

An aria for Cellini for insertion at the beginning of act 1 scene 2 N. 7a as he awaits Teresa’s arrival for the elopement and how he used to think only of fame and fortune but now only wants her and her love ***. The vocal line has a haunting quality to it, and again, good woodwind work.

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(Costume design for Teresa, again Wikimedia) 

COMMENTS:

To modern audiences, the failure of this work in 1838 is about as bizarre as the failure of Carmen in 1875. Incidentally, both started out in life as opera comique, although by 1838 Cellini had been submitted as a through-composed score without spoken dialogue (which frankly is a good thing, the spoken parts of Carmen are the annoying ones, if there is anything annoying at all about Carmen). The first production at Le Peletier had a star-studded cast including Gilbert Duprez in the title role (one of his last creations), Rosina Stoltz as Ascanio, and Julie Dorus-Gras as Teresa. Ironically, in spite of the fact that the singers in the first production almost all lived to extremely advanced old age for the time: Stoltz outlived the production by 65 years and Duprez and Dorus-Gras both died in 1896(!), no one bothered making any comment in later life about being in this opera. Perhaps it was ahead of its time (and the plot, what little there is of it, is admittedly quirky to say the least), but the score is wall-to-wall amazement. It is possible that the comic nature of the work is the reason for its failure in the 19th century. It’s use of irony and black comedy is more easily appreciable today than it was in the mid-19th century. The score is highly innovative and with rare exception it is difficult to find fault with it, but I am reminded that Wagner waited until the mid-1860s to tackle a “comedic” subject. Comedy is far harder to project musically than tragedy (especially after the 18th century when the exact opposite was probably closer to the truth), and more than likely given that Berlioz never had much sense for theatrical pacing, the comedic elements of the story simply went over the heads of its original audiences, hence failure. This lack of pacing (or even drama) would later prove fatal in La damnation de Faust and in the second half of Les Troyens but ended up being an asset in the vague Shakespearian Fantasia that is Beatrice et Benedict, again a comedic foray. The plot here is very slight. Not much actually happens even though what does happen is all rather scenic and we move from set piece to grand set piece. It is very simple but also very, very slow. Ironically, there is very little padding until the final tableau, so I can’t fault this opera as I can Troyens for throwing too much filler into a otherwise magnificent opera. The story itself isn’t uninteresting, but there is something about the way it unfolds that bothers me.

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(Costume design for Cellini, Wikimedia) 

Although the dramatic pacing is at times annoyingly slow, and the final tableau gets bogged down for over half and hour in a number of dramatically unimportant (although musically great) arias, choruses, and weird plot twists that contribute nothing to the narrative and are simply procrastination rather than drama, this is a coveted A+ opera. The score is one of the top ten greatest scores in the history of opera, in spite of its occasional dramatic malformations and lack of popular awareness.

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5 thoughts on “Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini (1838)

  1. A+! Three-star number after three-star number!

    Yes, it’s a crying shame it flopped. It’s a work of genius, and it’s my favorite Berlioz opera.

    It has more vitality than Wagner (or Verdi), and more breadth than most other operas.
    It’s the perfect antidote to something like Tristan. (Wagnerians told me that after Tristan, one should always listen to Meistersinger.) It’s a very Victor Hugo-ish or Shakespearean opera: the whole of life seems to be in there – the sublime and the ugly, rich and poor, young and old..

    The only thing I disagree with is that it’s too slow. I’ve listened to it several times, and seen a broadcast of Terry Gilliam’s production, and Ifind it fast-paced, and a joy from start to finish. That may be more Berlioz’s music than the libretto, though!

    Ae you going to do La damnation de Faust?

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    1. I’m glad you liked it, hopefully you aren’t too angry at my Faust review as I didn’t like it as much as the other three. Also, doesn’t surprise me that Wagnerites want to top off their Tristan with more Wagner. Why do these people limit their musical appreciation to just one guy?

      Let me clarify, the music doesn’t really slow it down, the plot just moves glacially. The plot is very simple, and Verdi would have done it in about half the time.

      But yeah, it is an amazing score!

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      1. When you have Wagner, you don’t need anyone else!

        Most Wagnerites, unsurprisingly, only know the warhorses.

        Viz https://www.operawarhorses.com/2011/09/27/lucrezia-borgia-the-dramatic-foundations-of-donizettis-opera/

        “As with much that’s written about the history of opera, much of what we think we know about a particular style of opera is based on the prejudices of writers from later in the 19th century (and from the 20th). The work of various composers are said to define a “school” – say Italian bel canto. So identified, that  “school” is, more often than not, presented unfavorably in contradistinction to an author’s own vision of what opera should look and sound like. Over time, such prejudicial statements are absorbed as uncontestable facts by later generations of persons regarded as knowledgeable about opera.

        “Many of those experts obviously have a strong foundation and knowledge of Mozart’s half dozen most famous operas, of Wagner’s ten masterpieces, of Verdi’s output, at least from “Rigoletto” onward, and of the most popular works of Puccini and Richard Strauss.

        “It’s rather rarer to find operatic experts (although there are some important ones) who are as well-versed on the output of any but the most famous of the bel canto operas. These “most famous”, one will concede, are three comic operas by Rossini, one to three operas of Bellini, and one or two serious Donizetti operas in addition to Donizetti’s most famous comic works.”

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      2. My blog must be anathema to such people then! How dare I mention the dreaded Meyerbeer? Or even–RIENZI!

        You are right though, most “opera people” only know like 100 opera tops and I could stump them with Smetana’s Certova Stena much less Cagnoni or Szymanowski. Which probably makes them more like opera peasant fans. I’ve probably listened to around 400-500 operas in my life which must make me an opera guru or something! Granted, there are probably 40,000 operas that exist somewhere so I’ve barely cracked the surface.

        By the way, I do know the term “warhorses” and I get the context, but any idea how the term ended up being used in the field of opera? Sometimes I wish other operas, like this one, would get more attention, there really are some amazing scores out there that no one touches. Not every opera that is just laying about was written by Petrella! I love Traviata, but does it really need to be performed 4000+ every year? That is 10 to 11 times per day which means that at two hours it is always playing somewhere on earth!

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