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NBD0006 - BERLIOZ, H.: Benvenuto Cellini (Salzburg Festival, 2007) (Blu-ray, HD)
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Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)
Benvenuto Cellini

Opera in two acts
Libretto by Léon de Wailly and Henri Auguste Barbier

Benvenuto Cellini - Burkhard Fritz
Teresa - Maija Kovalevska
Fieramosca - Laurent Naouri
Giacomo Balducci - Brindley Sherratt
Pope Clemens VII - Mikhail Petrenko
Ascanio - Kate Aldrich
Francesco - Xavier Mas
Bernardino - Roberto Tagliavini
Pompeo - Adam Plachetka
Innkeeper - Sung-Keun Park
Dancers - Gabrio Gabrieli, Francesco Pedone, Marie Seeger, Tobias Wozniak
Acrobats - Silke Adolph, Andy Arndt, Thomas Dürrfeld

 

Benvenuto Cellini is one of Berlioz’s most attractive compositions. Written between Harold in Italy and the Requiem, it is the work of a young man, and is full of the Italian atmosphere which Berlioz found so attractive during his stay in Rome in 1831–32, as the winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome, however much he might have claimed to hate Italian music and musicians. Vivacious melodies, the glowing sounds of trumpets, guitars, harps and woodwinds create a special atmosphere which is present in no other work by Berlioz to the same degree.

Although Benvenuto Cellini was the first opera that Berlioz actually completed, it was in fact the third stage in his love-hate relationship with the Paris Opéra. When only 23 he had started to compose an opera entitled Les Francs-Juges, but the libretto, by a friend, was turned down by the Opéra in 1829, although the Overture survives. By this time Berlioz had become obsessed by Goethe’s Faust, the first part of which had recently been translated into French by Gérard de Nerval, and intended to write a ballet on the subject for the Opéra, but again the project did not materialise. The music that Berlioz had composed for this ballet did appear under the title Eight Scenes from Faust, published in 1829.

Berlioz finally married the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, with whom he was infatuated, in 1833, and the following year a son, Louis, was born. In order to support his family Berlioz spent most of his time in journalism. His chances of success at the Opéra improved in the same year when the management was taken over by the Bertin family: Armand Bertin was a friend of Berlioz who, in turn, later helped his daughter Louise Bertin in the production of her opera Esmeralda at the Opéra in 1836. With friends in place Berlioz had the idea of writing a comic opera based on episodes in the life of the Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini. Léon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier were commissioned to write the libretto, which was revised by Alfred de Vigny. Berlioz borrowed 2,000 francs from his friend Legouvé to allow him the necessary time to compose and the opera was completed by the end of 1836. As other operas were already lined up for performance at the Opéra, the first performance was eventually scheduled for 10 September 1838.

The rehearsals were agony for Berlioz: at this time composers were not allowed to conduct their own works in the theatres in France, and the musical director of the Opera, Habeneck, was clearly out of sympathy with the new opera. In a letter to Legouvé Berlioz wrote: ‘There are millions of wrong notes, wrong tempi and especially wrong rhythms. This causes me so much irritation, so much torture of the nerves that it is the sole origin of my present indisposition.’ When the opera was eventually performed the first night was not a success, apart from the Overture. Berlioz made some small revisions, and the second and third performances ‘went marvellously’, as he wrote to his father. The leading tenor, Duprez, then abandoned the title rôle and another, Dupont, had to be found. The opera was revived in January 1839, but this time it was given as part of a double bill with a ballet by the dancer Fanny Elssler. Her ballet’s lack of success doomed Benvenuto Cellini, and no further performances were given. The Opéra henceforth was closed to Berlioz for the rest of his life.

Twelve years later, Liszt, who had been a close friend of Berlioz in Paris and was now court conductor at Weimar, decided to mount Benvenuto Cellini. Berlioz was delighted, writing to Liszt: ‘I have just looked at it carefully, and I swear I will never again find such verve and Cellinian impetuosity, nor such a variety of ideas.’ But he was wary of singers and the problems that can occur in the opera house. His concerns proved to be justified: the first night at Weimar, scheduled for 16 February 1852, had to be postponed as the leading tenor and several colleagues maintained that the music would ruin their voices. Liszt eventually overcame this opposition and the first performance took place during March of the same year. Berlioz was in London at this time and did not manage to see the production until November, when it gave him great pleasure. In fact this was the only time during his lifetime when the opera had any success.

The following year, 1853, Berlioz heard that Covent Garden in London wanted to put on Benvenuto Cellini ‘ straight way, in double-quick time, without drawing breath’. It was mounted in June with Berlioz himself conducting. In a letter to Liszt he described the one and only performance: ‘A cabal of Italians, determined, enraged and virulent, had been organized to stop the performances of Cellini. These curious characters, helped by some Frenchmen who had come over from Paris, booed from the first scene to the last…The presence of the Queen and the Royal family of Hanover, who were at the performance, the applause of the vast majority of the public—nothing could stop them. They were going to do it again at the later performances and so I withdrew my score the next day.’

The textual history of Benvenuto Cellini is complicated. When Berlioz described it as ‘a comic opera’ he was correct. The original libretto had been offered to and rejected by the Opéra-Comique in 1834, and thus the opera would initially have been conceived of as consisting of musical numbers interspersed with spoken dialogue. The chance of a production at the Opéra required the composition of recitatives, or sung dialogue, and it was in this form that it was given at the Paris Opéra and at Weimar. In terms of structure the opera was originally cast in two acts, consisting of four scenes in total. At Liszt’s suggestion in November 1852 Berlioz made each of the first two scenes into separate acts, and merged the last two scenes into a single act. It was this version that he conducted in London in 1853, and which was published by Litolff of Brunswick in 1856. To complicate matters, a later proposal to mount the opera at the Théâtre-Lyrique in Paris, which came to nothing, resulted in Choudens of Paris publishing another vocal score with cues for spoken dialogue provided by Berlioz in place of the sung recitatives.

The plot of the opera concerns Cellini’s wooing of Teresa, the daughter of the papal treasurer, Balducci, who would prefer Teresa to marry Cellini’s rival, the cowardly Fieramosca. When Cellini attempts to abduct Teresa at Carnival time, a fight ensues in which Cellini kills Fieramosca’s hired assassin. Cellini disappears, returns under the cover of a monks’ procession, is arrested, and is pardoned by the Pope only on the hurried completion of the commissioned statue of Perseus.
David Patmore

 

Synopsis

1. Opening titles

2. Overture

Act I

Scene 1: Rome. A room in Balducci’s house, on the Monday before Shrove Tuesday.

3. Teresa is watching the carnival festivities against the express orders of her father, Giacomo Balducci, the papal treasurer, who takes her by surprise. Furthermore, he is annoyed because the Pope has summoned him at a late hour. It again has something to do with the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who gets on Balducci’s nerves because he is lazy and lecherous. Nevertheless the Pope has commissioned Cellini to cast a statue instead of Fieramosca, who is in the employ of the Pope and whom Balducci has in mind as a husband for Teresa.

4. Hardly has Balducci left his house before Cellini and his friends, wearing masks, approach the house. Teresa’s heart beats excitedly because she has long been in love with Cellini and he loves her. Balducci returns unexpectedly and in view of the row going on outside his house, gives vent to his fury. The crowd throws confetti over him and his clothes are soiled, whereas Teresa is showered with flowers. Balducci is enraged and chases the noisy crowd away so that he can finally depart for his appointment with the Pope.

5. Among the flowers Teresa discovers a letter from Cellini in which he announces his arrival. At first she is horrified at his audacity but the prospects are too enticing and the hour favourable. She indulges in love-sick daydreams until Cellini appears.

6. Cellini knows that Balducci wants to marry Teresa off to Fieramosca and is determined to abduct her the following evening during the hustle and bustle of the carnival celebrations. Unnoticed by Cellini and Teresa, Fieramosca has approached in order to pay a courtesy visit to Teresa. He is furious to overhear how they have only bad things to say about him.

7. Cellini explains his plan to Teresa: he and his assistant Ascanio will dress in a white and brown monk’s habit so that Teresa can easily recognise them. They intend to meet at the Piazza Colonna, where everyone will gather to see the latest play by Cassandro’s troupe; from there Cellini and Teresa plan to flee together.

8. Fieramosca strains to overhear and find out what they are planning, and then Balducci returns. With Teresa’s help Cellini manages to escape whereas Fieramosca, who has had to hide in Teresa’s room, is discovered by Balducci. He is greatly agitated to realise that Fieramosca has visited his daughter at night.

9. Balducci calls in the neighbours who attack the alleged monster with great delight.

Scene 2: Shrove Tuesday: a tavern

10. Thirsty workers, metal engravers, have gathered outside the tavern. They exuberantly sing the praises of their art.

11. They order more wine, but the innkeeper presents them with the bill which they have run up so far.

12. Cellini’s assistant Ascanio arrives just at the right moment with a deposit from the Pope for the cast of the statue However, the sum of money is so small that it only covers the debts with the innkeeper. The workers are angry, most of all Cellini, and they resolve to take revenge on the miserly treasurer Balducci. In the evening they intend to ridicule him on the stage of Cassandro’s theatre.

13. Fieramosca, who has overheard everything, is furious about this additional conspiracy against Balducci. His friend Pompeo, whom he has informed about Cellini’s abduction plan, has a solution. He and Fieramosca will also wear monks’ habits and thwart Cellini’s plan to abduct Teresa.

14. Fieramosca is enthusiastic and already sees himself as an irresistible victor in winning Teresa’s favour.

Scene 3: Carnival on the Piazza Colonna.

15. In the evening the people of Rome gather to attend Cassandro’s play. Balducci arrives accompanied by Teresa, who is now plagued by pangs of conscience because of the forthcoming abduction. Cellini and Ascanio, disguised as monks, mingle in the crowd of pleasure-seeking people who are excitedly awaiting Cassandro’s performance.

16. The play begins: the crowd calls for silence.

17. The actors stage a singing competition between Harlequin and Pierrot. A spiteful caricature of Balducci appears on stage as the judge who in the end rewards Pierrot’s bad performance with gold whereas the poetic Harlequin only receives a small coin.

18. Balducci, exposed to ridicule by the people, is beside himself with rage and throws himself onto the stage. Cellini and Ascanio want to make use of the general confusion in order to escape with Teresa but then Fieramosca and Pompeo appear wearing identical habits. Teresa is faced with four monks and is confused. A fight breaks out between the rivals, during which Cellini kills Pompeo.

19. The crowd is horrified and tries to catch the murderer but cannon shots fired from the Castel Sant’Angelo proclaim the end of the carnival. The candles are extinguished and Cellini just manages to escape. Fieramosca is erroneously believed to be the culprit and is almost lynched. Ascanio takes Teresa to safety; Balducci searches for his daughter in vain.

Act II

Scene 1: Ash Wednesday: Cellini’s studio

20. Teresa has fled with Ascanio to Cellini’s studio. She is afraid for his life. At dawn monks pass by, praying. Cellini, still wearing his monk’s habit, leaves the procession and enters the studio. He has been able to evade capture but he now insists that they should both escape to Florence.

21. While Ascanio is sent to find a horse, Cellini and Teresa assure each other of their love.

22. However, their dream of a future together is abruptly disturbed by Balducci, who—assuming Teresa to be Cellini—has rushed over to demand that Cellini release his daughter so that she can marry Fieramosca.

23. The heated conflict is interrupted by the arrival of the Pope who generously bestows his blessing on everyone present. When Balducci and Fieramosca accuse Cellini of murder and abduction, the Pope initially remains calm. However, when he discovers that Cellini has still not completed his statue, he angrily threatens to commission another sculptor.

24. Cellini is enraged by this and intends to destroy the model of the statue but the Pope relents. He grants Cellini grace until the evening and then he himself intends to be present when the statue is cast. If the work is successfully completed he promises to fulfil Cellini’s demands: he is to be acquitted of the murder of Pompeo and is to receive Teresa’s hand in marriage. However, if Cellini does not complete the work within the allocated time, he will be hanged that very evening.

Scene 2: The Colosseum

25. Ascanio desperately tries to see the cheerful side in what has happened: it was after all really funny the way Cellini forced the Pope into a corner.

26. Nonetheless Cellini is aware of the seriousness of his situation. He would dearly love to exchange his life with that of a simple shepherd.

27. The journeymen Bernardino and Francesco return to work having spent the night drinking; the furnace men can be heard from the melting room singing a gloomy song which the journeymen interpret as a bad omen.

28. Cellini impatiently urges them to hurry but at that moment Ascanio rushes into the studio and announces the arrival of Fieramosca. He is followed by a powerful troop of thugs, and for the humiliation he has been caused, he challenges Cellini to a duel in a nearby monastery. Despite being under enormous pressure of time, Cellini accepts the challenge. Teresa arrives—she has run away from home and is prepared to flee with Cellini—but even she cannot hold him back. She remains alone and hears the songs of the exhausted workers.

29. They feel they are being exploited by Cellini and intend to go on strike. Teresa implores them not to let their master down at this of all times.

30. Fieramosca unexpectedly enters the studio. This can only mean one thing: Cellini has been killed by him in a duel. Ascanio and Teresa incite the workers to avenge Cellini’s murder. The workers attack Fieramosca and find gold in his pockets: he wanted to bribe them to stop working. They are furious and ultimately loyal to their master and so they prepare to throw Fieramosca into the furnace. Before it gets that far, Cellini turns up again: he waited in vain for Fieramosca at the monastery. When Cellini finds out that the challenge merely served to give Fieramosca an opportunity to prevent his workers from casting the statue, he gives Fieramosca the chance of either burning in the furnace or of helping him. Fieramosca takes his place among the crowd of workers.

31. The Pope arrives. Among his entourage is Balducci, who immediately tries again to take possession of Teresa. The Pope calls him to reason; he is now only interested in the project of casting the statue.

Scene 3: The furnace

32. The workers, among them Fieramosca—much to the amazement of Balducci—are eagerly heating up the furnace. However, shortly before the melting process, they run out of metal. Balducci cannot withhold his derision. Cellini struggles for inspiration and makes a desperate decision: all his previous works should also be melted down.

33. The cast succeeds, the form explodes and reveals the statue concealed beneath it. The workers rejoice. Cellini has now won everything: papal absolution, artistic fame and the hand of his beloved Teresa. Balducci takes his daughter to Cellini—he did indeed always believe in him.

34. Curtain calls and end titles.


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