Python at the ENO

Tom Sutcliffe praises a new production of Benvenuto Cellini, directed by Terry Gilliam

Almost everybody, even his fellow French, can now recognize the genius of Berlioz as a composer. But of course as an opera composer, a dramatist wielding his sublime skills as a melodist and diseur, he is unusual. Just as his melodies, schooled in the freedom of plainchant, have a tendency to extend unexpectedly as if momentarily becalmed, so characters and situations in his operas sometimes wonderfully, but sometimes oddly, hang fire.

Though his Cassandra and Dido in The Trojans are figures on a par with Wagner’s Wotan and Isolde or Verdi’s Otello, Falstaff and Boccanegra, that would not be true of Benedick or Beatrice in his delightful Shakespeare adaptation (with its rather unfunny comic choral rehearsal), and nor would it be right to go to Benvenuto Cettini expecting the title role (or any role) to match the compulsion and credibility of its historic hero title role, the bisexual renaissance sculptor, poet, musician and warrior of genius who also in his old age wrote the world’s first brilliant popular autobiography.


What English National Opera and director Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame have achieved with Cellini is sublimely exquisite and delicious. Gilliam was an inspired choice because his wickedly fertile disordered imagination has perfectly sussed the genius of the piece — an operetta as overwhelming as an iceberg. A week later the music is still pounding through my head, racing with delight, and the memory of the staging will never fade — because ENO has done the best production of this opera I have ever seen.

In 196G John Dexter made his opera debut with the work at Covent Garden and the scenery fell down, Michael Spyres is not quite Nicolai Gedda in the title role — but his voice and presence were well up to the mark. Edward Gardner is not quite Colin Davis, but the energy, fire and sense of pleasure were as beguiling and more fluent, despite some untidiness. Corinne Winters was very appealing as Teresa, Cellini’s adored, whose proposed abduction is the storyline. Willard White is the campest Clement VII you could imagine — but registers his moderated disapproval of Cellini, a man Duke Cosimo in his native Florence called a ‘filthy poofter’ (so domitaccio in Italian), as well as suggesting a judgment that could recognize the complexity of artistic genius. Nicholas Pallesen rang out wonderfully and acted wittily and cowardly as the sculptor preferred by papal moneybags Balducci for his gorgeous daughter.

A kind of game

Gilliam has admitted it was all a mess before the first night and he had had no idea what to expect. Everything that happened on stage was a kind of game — suggestive scenery and flights of steps on wheels were trundled around; video projections added to the atmosphere; the Roman carnival was as stuffed full of theatrical business as possible, with acrobats and stilt-walkers and jugglers and mime artists and crowds in bewildering but also exciting profusion — and carnival masks and larger than life figures floated above the stalls with just the right degree of abandon.

For the final unravelling of everything, the casting of the papal commission (Cellini’s in real life utterly brilliant Perseus sculpture), the choreographed comic prancing Swiss guards and Willard White descending from way up top of long steps pushed in through teetering double doors was as memorable as anything at ENO since Jonathan Miller’s Mikado was unveiled in 1986. I had never thought of Berlioz’s work as operetta before — but actually it is in its way as brilliant and inviting as Johann Strauss’s sublime Ftedermaus.

Violence and indulgence

Of course Berlioz makes Cellini resemble his more conventional 1840s French romantic artistic self than the real thing: but how could you reduce such a mixture of violence and indulgence and complicated sexual appetites for the purposes of theatre in nineteenth-century France some time before Proust? Cellini would be called a scoundrel, murderer and pervert if he had not earned the right to be himself in a quite intolerant and violent age. His liking for young men did not undo him, as it undid Oscar Wilde — and quite a few officers at the same period in the Kaiser’s army. The renaissance was different. The papacy was different. In an age when people were getting more and more obsessed with rooting out sin and vice, a self-confessedly great sinner was never so punished that his genius was cramped.

Fined at the age of 23 for homosexual acts, accused by a former female model and beloved of having preferred buggery with her, fined and put under house arrest for four years when he was 53 after an apprentice accused him of repeated sexual abuse, Cellini at 60 married his servant and had five children by her. He was not a man to trifle with. He killed some of his enemies — but he was good at war as well as at sex, and all is fair in love and war (as my fellow Magdalen College graduate Lely wrote) — or that at least is how his patrons and contemporaries seem to have seen Cellini. Opera is a gamble too — and sometimes you, the ENO, or Terry Gilliam will win.