Benvenuto CelliniHector Berlioz - Benvenuto Cellini

Wiener Philharmoniker, Salzburg Festspiele, 2007 | Valery Gergiev, Philipp Stölzl, Burkhard Fritz, Maija Kuvalevska, Laurent Naouri, Brindley Sherratt, Mikhail Petrenko, Kate Aldrich | Naxos

I’m in two minds about Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini but I don’t think it has anything to do with Philipp Stölzl’s extravagant and somewhat eccentric direction of the composer’s lesser-known opera produced here for the Salzburg Festspiele in 2007. A huge colourful cartoonish spectacle, with a Metropolis-like retro-futuristic city populated by clunky robots standing in for 16th century Rome, it’s surely far from what Berlioz would have imagined for a staging, and one wonders whether it best serves the subject of the Florentine sculptor working on a commission for Pope Clement VII who becomes embroiled in a romantic tug-of war with a rival over the daughter of the papal Treasurer.

On the other hand, Benvenuto Cellini is hardly a serious opera, written principally for entertainment, seeming to play with all the tools of operatic composition. It shows some of the sense of playful academicism that you would find in Rameau, particularly something like Les Indes Galantes (the William Christie production is a must-see) – a huge colourful pageant that delights in showing off its over-the-top dramatic situations with elaborate staging and extravagant musical flourishes. So while Stölzl’s outrageous production seems to go out of its way to irritate those who like their opera done in a period traditional manner, it perfectly suits the tone of the musical and dramatic content and serves it well. Done any other way, taken more seriously, one would imagine that the whole enterprise would end up looking and sounding dreadfully self-important.

Where I really have doubts however is in regards to whether the opera is actually any good, or whether Berlioz indeed doesn’t really go over-the-top in his scoring of the huge dramatic swathes of music, with big arrangements that underscore everything, self-indulgent singing that is close to bel canto, and huge raucous, rousing choruses dropped in at every available opportunity. The same approach applies to Les Troyens, where, not being one to do anything by halves, Berlioz throws in everything and stretches it out to two brilliant full-length operas. Even his cantata La Damnation de Faust attracts big-scale operatic productions from the likes of La Fura dels Baus and, at the time of writing, no less than Terry Gilliam is directing a production for the English National Opera.

The subject in Benvenuto Cellini does however seem to demand such an extravagant approach. Teresa, the daughter of the papal treasurer Balducci, is to be married to Fieramosca, but she is in love with the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. Teresa and Cellini plan to use the confusion and fancy dress of the partying to elope, but Fieramosca has got wind of their plans and intends to take his place disguised as a Capuchin monk. It’s a dramatic situation that seems to conform to the stereotypes of Latin passions, religious fervour and artistic licentiousness and, having resided in Italy prior to writing the opera Berlioz, although professing a dislike of the Italian style, certainly seems to have absorbed the nature of the Italian temperament here. Setting the first act of the opera on Shrove Tuesday during a Mardi Gras parade is all the justification that is needed to indulge in extravagant displays of orchestration and singing.

Since everything about Berlioz’s scoring for Act 1 suggests over-the-top operatic conventions, Philipp Stölzl stages the drama accordingly. One can’t fault the performers who likewise enter into the spirit of the piece and they all sing well, even if the lines of the duets, trios and quartets don’t blend together all that well. Whether through the fault of imperfect scansion or the tone of the voices, I’m not certain – it’s certainly not as polished as Mozart’s ensemble work in the Marriage of Figaro, for example. Act II has a slightly more varied tone, much as the two parts of Les Troyens show different qualities in Berlioz’s writing, but there’s a sense that it is still rather pompous in its solemnity, particularly when Pope Clement arrives on the scene. Unable to play this with a straight face, Stölzl opts for the camp qualities that are inherent within the scene, which is certain to infuriate traditionalists.

It’s difficult to judge the qualities of the opera when it is played this way, when another interpretation might convincingly put another complexion on it entirely – not that we are likely to see too many productions of this work – but that’s what opera is all about. Regardless of whether this particular version is to one’s taste, it’s approached with genuine feeling for the work and launched into vigorously under the baton of Valery Gergiev. At the very least, it’s highly entertaining. Moreover, it looks and sounds terrific in High Definition on the Naxos Blu-ray. A word of warning however – it is one of those discs that takes time to load up into the player, a pointless practice that can introduce some player-related problems. Personally, I found it impossible to access the pop-up menu for chapter selection during play, but I didn’t come across anything more serious than this.