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Benvenuto, Signor Cellini!

New York
Metropolitan Opera
12/04/2003 -  12/08,12/12,12/15,12/18,12/24,12/27/03,1/1/04
Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini
Isabel Bayrakdarian (Teresa), Kristine Jepson (Ascanio), Marcello Giordani (Cellini), Alan Opie (Fieramosca), John Del Carlo (Balducci)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
James Levine (conductor)

“Not stopping to consider whether he was a musical Poet or merely a Great Artist, Berlioz had begun composing Benvenuto Cellini.”

Jacques Barzun, Berlioz
and the Romantic Century

That most endearing of New York opera fans, Tony Randall, likes to tell this joke:

Question: What do you serve at the after party
for the premiere of Benvenuto Cellini?

Answer: Gorgonzola cheese

If you get it, it’s rather amusing; if you don’t, well, I’m not going to explain it, but perhaps it points out the obscurity of a work written in 1836 and just being performed at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in late 2003. The only reason for the event not being labeled a New York premiere is that a concert version of this neglected frolic was once mounted by the Philharmonic next door.

It certainly felt like a premiere, however, as men in tuxedo dotted the hall and every critic for 500 miles was in attendance, assuring local fans of the availability of many differing versions of the evening’s aesthetic worth. In fact, without these lions of journalism the auditorium would have been rather sparsely populated, as the general public had not exactly stormed the battlements to attend an event with no major singers, even a new production that deserved recognition in and of itself.

This reviewer was especially charmed by the costumes, a compendium of commedia dell’ arte, Fra Angelico, and Maurice Sendak (I kept expecting one of the electronic titles embedded in the seatbacks to read “Milk for the Morning Cake!”); Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili deserves a special mention for these designs. The new set was a versatile monolith, morphing from a Roman villa to a palazzo to a blast furnace (giving new meaning to the term “non-traditional casting”) rather pragmatically. The direction and choreography of newcomers Andrei Serban and Nikolaus Wolcz respectively, although a bit over the top, assured the viewer of almost constant motion, clowns running up and down ladders, crowds moving in animated waves, eye candy in the Italian manner, creating that wonderful generational confusion so palpable in this ancient land: is this the time of Perseus, Berlioz, Cellini, or Fellini? Most impressive were the gestures of the characters, well thought out and executed to maintain the illusion of an Arlecchino or Pantalone. For example, at the one moment in this entire production where the crowd rewarded a singer with an extended round of applause, that fine performer, Kristine Jepson as Ascanio, had ended her aria with a physical flourish, twirling and extending her left arm heavenward and holding it there for her accolades. Most deservedly, these expressions of praise lasted for quite a time (it was already Act II and sadly the patrons had had little reason thus far to express their approval with anything but the most tepid of ovations), creating a bit of a problem for Ms. Jepson, who finally lowered her outstretched arm in a series of robotic but expressive gestures in the style of a marionette, producing yet another burst of appreciative laughter and applause.

The quality of the singing was inversely proportional to the size of the role. This being the Metropolitan, the minor characters were all excellent. Robert Lloyd was a suitably churlish Pope Clement, projecting masterfully even from a sitting position. Bernard Fitch was a droll innkeeper, perhaps the only vocal artist to have read in his notes that this work is actually a comedy. Alan Opie was the most impressive vocally as a foiled Fieramosca, John Del Carlo a serviceable, if a bit wooden, Balducci, and Ms. Jepson was outstanding and lively as the boy. Isabel Bayrakdarian has an excellent campanilian soprano and, quite rightly for the role in question, emphasized its ingénue quality this night, producing a light and lyrical cavatina in her introductory number, but stumbling rather badly in the accompanying cabaletta. More self-assured afterwards, she made a nice recovery in Act II. Tenor Marcello Giordani, however, was a disappointment in the title role. Unable to transition well into his high notes, these usually eagerly anticipated apexes became rather dreaded strangulated commonplaces as the evening ground on. Mr. Giordano has a tendency to waver melismatically ala Whitney Houston and appears to feel no compunction about dragging us all along on his timbral explorations. Further, he seemed lost on the stage, striding about aimlessly and awkwardly in the midst of so many graceful dancers, a Gulliver far from home. The ever miraculous Met chorus was, however, in fine form, their chant des ciseleurs the highlight for this listener.

But the story of this night was the complete disconnect between what was happening on the stage and in the pit. This highly interesting visual production, with its emphasis on the thrills and chills of the circus, a newly developing art form in Berlioz’ time, seemed to have no relation to the lifeless play of the highly touted orchestra. Maestro Levine has been in a slump of late and perhaps has simply been doing this for too long. The performance of the overture, previewed last spring at Carnegie Hall, was so stodgy as to call into question the nature of the entertainment to come; certainly there would be no hint of amusement or mirth in this reading, and, further, any sense of Berliozian exaggeration, for example, the raucous trombone parts, transformed by Levine from forte to mezzo piano, were subsumed by this overly mannered and timid presentation. This lack of vitality in the orchestra undoubtedly contributed to the awkwardness of the singing: the duet that becomes a trio between Cellini, Teresa and Fieramosca in Act I had no bounce to it at all, the interplay of the phrase “a demain” simply flaccid. Without the lilt, Cellini becomes rather a dying fish, flopping about in the boat with all of us just waiting for it to expire. What should have been a ripping good time turned into just another curiosity destined to be put back on the shelf of some dusty operatic armoire.

One of the signature touches of this production is that Berlioz himself appears frequently walking through the scenes, an author in search of his characters, writing something with his quill on a pad. It took a while, but I finally figured out what he was constantly scribbling. It read:


Frederick L. Kirshnit



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