Hilary Reid Evans

English National Opera, 20th June 2014

It is summer and it is English opera's silly season, or so it seems. This year we have Garsington's Vert Vert (Offenbach) and the ENO's Benvenuto Cellini. Like Vert Vert, 'BC' is a thankfully rare revival of Hector Berlioz's 1838 spectacle for the Paris Opera. Like Vert Vert, BC was a failure on its first airing and, despite Terry Gilliam's brave Monty Pythonesque attempts to entertain his audience, this production fails too. Unless, of course, you go to the opera for an evening of Cirque du Soleil-ish stilt walkers, trapeze artists, cross dressers and the like. With the action transposed from Florence to Rome and the time of Cosmo de' Medici to Pope Clement VII, Gilliam has chosen to set the drama in what looks like a sub-Bohemesque Paris of the 19th century. With this the plot line becomes stretched to breaking point. Every scene is accompanied by special effects and distractions, from a mardi gras parade during the overture complete with coloured confetti to back-projection of the metal workers' flames and yet more confetti during the final scenes. Pity the poor cleaners!

Michael Spyres in the title role performed energetically and sang well, but what deluded designer dressed him as Rab C Nesbitt? Hardly the best look for a romantic lead. Corinne Winters as Teresa displayed a sparkling coloratura in the Act I cabaletta along with a fine sense of comedic acting. Yet one did not sense any real emotion in her scenes with Rab, sorry, Benvenuto. Somewhat perversely, Fieramosca (Nicholas Pallesen) as Benvenuto's rival for Teresa's hand, provoked some sympathy. The production never really revealed him as truly villainous (just somewhat creepy) and one felt that, with his warm, full baritone, Fieramosca did not deserve his fate. Balducci, Teresa's father (Pavlo Hunka), remained a hollow shell, his character easily duped and reduced to a few unmemorable gestures rather than the imposing strong figure he could have been. The acid test is, on leaving the theatre can you remember what the character looked like and how they sounded? Here, the answer is a resounding 'no'. Paula Murrihy, cast in the trouser role of Ascanio, somewhat stole the show with her purity of tone and good stage craft, despite all the distractions around her.

Nicky Spence and David Soar, as Cellini's foremen, carried their plump comedic act through to the curtain call in true music hall style. Willard White's cameo role as Pope Clement VII clearly amused this once-great bass-baritone. Time has taken its toll on his voice, but his commanding presence remains, his authority enhanced by a god-like entry on a throne perched on what looked rather like a giant step-ladder. In the pit conductor Edward Gardner brought his usual formidable talents to bear on the patchy score, bringing to the forefront the occasional moments of first rate music, while the ENO chorus sang bravely and at times beautifully.

My lasting impression is that there must have been a production meeting at some point in the process where the conversation went something like this: 'This one is a real turkey but if we throw everything at it we may get away with it. Find every special effect in the book, round up the weirdest street performers, give those cleaners double time and let's hit the stage....'

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