Hector Berlioz (1803-66) was a composer of such unique gifts that he deserves a place among the great composers all to himself. So original were his ideas and talents that even after more than a century and a half after his death, we still struggle to keep up with him. He invented the modern symphony orchestra. his Treatise on Instrumentation published in 1844 in is still in print. Richard Strauss updated it in 1905. He wrote a preface for that edition which compares Berlioz, somewhat unfavorably, to Wagner. It’s a comparison that I would weigh differently.
Berlioz couldn’t make a living from his musical compositions. He became the first great conductor. His championship of Beethoven introduced the French musical public to the German titan’s music. He was the best music critic I’ve yet encountered. His articles on the Paris premieres of what are now standard works are still worth reading. He had insights and understanding of new music based on a single hearing that are remarkably prescient. His Memoirs is still in print in numerous editions and languages; it is the best prose ever written by a musician. The account of his experience as a medical student is Joycean. He makes his two years as a medical student seem like two days. The description of Cherubini, the director of the Paris Conservatory during Berlioz’s student days, chasing him around the Conservatoire’s library because of some educational malfeasance is hilarious. Also is his early use of absurdist humor as when he describes how the school’s piano that had been used so often to play Mendelssohn’s G min concerto started to play it on its own and had to be destroyed.
Because of his work as a writer, of words not music, and his career as a conductor his compositional output is not as great as might be supposed given that he lived to 66. But much of his work is at the very highest level. Among these great works is his first opera Benvenuto Cellini. Initially performed at the Paris Opera in 1838, it failed. Berlioz’s relationship with the company is still difficult.
Some years ago my son and I decided to tour the Palais Garnier early in a day when nothing was going on in the house. We were interested in its architecture. Charged with collecting an entry fee was a middle aged woman sitting at an card table. Unable to resist, I asked my son (he’s fluent in French) to query the woman as to where Berlioz’s statue is. The building is festooned with depictions of famous composers of all nationalities. The question appeared to stun her. After all, Berlioz is a major figure in French culture and national pride was threatened. She obviuosly couldn’t think where or if his likeness was in the palace. She made a series of phone calls, to whom I have no idea, and after about half an hour told us that there was a small bust of Berlioz in an alcove on the third or fourth level, but not to expect much. We searched around for awhile and found the bust. It was the kind you’d get in a tourist shop as a souvenir. It was not much larger than a fist. This “tribute” to France’s greatest composer defines the relationship he had with the Opéra.
Back to Cellini. Ostensibly about the 16th century Florentine sculptor, it is mostly invented. The casting of his famous Perseus with the Head of Medusa is moved from Florence to Rome and is done at the behest of Pope Clement VII rather than Duke Cosmo De Medici. The opera failed because of an indifferent production, cast, and audience. It was mostly ignored during the rest of the 19th century, occasionally revived in the 20th, and done more often in the current century.
The Met has done it only once, in 2003 – the Berlioz bicentennial year. After eight performances it has yet to return. I saw one of those shows and was greatly impressed by both the score and the Met’s staging, one that was only marred by the insertion of a mute character supposed the be the composer who wandered about distracting the viewer, but adding nothing to the opera. The company planned to bring the opera back, but their plans were scuttled by COVID.
The production under review was mounted by the Salzburg Festival in 2007. Valery Gergiev conducted the Vienna Phil’s opera orchestra like he was prepping for the Indianapolis 500. But the players and singers were up to his schedule. The staging, of course had nothing to do with renaissance Italy. Director and designer Philipp Stölzls set the work in some dark, metallic city that seemed out of one of the Batman films via Fritz Lang’s Metropolis except for the presence of helicopters and cell phones. Ascanio, Cellini’s friend, was a robot who literally lost her head. She sang her last act aria from her severed head. But all was OK as the head was soon back on her body. The Pope arrived dressed like a rock star in a winged car. The were acrobats, jugglers, mimes, and enough people prancing around the stage to fill the auditorium if ticket sales lagged. Berlioz’s score is so original that it can easily withstand any directorial assault.
The first two scenes of the opera (Act 1) are so fast paced and brilliant that they pass like an inspired missile. There’s nothing like them in the repertory. The second act, also in two scenes is slower and while still of very high quality is a bit of a letdown after the flood of the first act. The casting of the statue that ends the show was a dud as it was never seen.
The title role was portrayed by Burkhard Fritz. He’s a Wagner tenor who while he won’t make you forget Nicolai Gedda did a credible job with a demanding role. Ascanio, in full robot locomotion, was the American mezzo Kate Aldrich who managed to sound beautiful despite all the metallic gear soldered to her. Laurent Naouri was appealing as the cowardly Fieramosca. Teresa, Cellini love interest, was the Latvian soprano Maija Kovaļevska, She was only 27 at the time of this recording. She was a slim as a sylph and very good looking making you understand Cellini’s interest in her. Her singing was competent if not memorable. The rest of the cast was up to the demands Berlioz’s lightning score requires.
Particularly fine was the Vienna State Opera chorus. Which has a big part in the work. They handled their role with virtuosity while being almost always in motion.
This is the only video of a fully staged presentation of Berlioz’s masterpiece currently available. Amazon is selling it for only $15. You can watch the opera for nothing on YouTube. It’s just below. You won’t get the subtitles present on the DVD and YouTube videos have the lifespan of a paramecium. But it’s live as of this writing.
Benvenuto Cellini is of such originality and inspiration that every opera company that has the resources necessary to stage it should have in their regular repertory.
Composer: Berlioz, Hector
Libretto/Text Author: Wailly, Leon de
Conductor: Gergiev, Valery
Orchestra: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Chorus: Vienna State Opera Chorus
Chorus Master: Schuller, Andreas
Ascanio: Aldrich, Kate
Benvenuto Cellini: Fritz, Burkhard
Bernardino: Tagliavini, Roberto
Fieramosca: Naouri, Laurent
Francesco: Mas, Xavier
Giacomo Balducci: Sherratt, Brindley
Pompeo: Plachetka, Adam
Pope Clement VII: Petrenko, Mikhail
Publican: Park, Sung-Keun
Teresa: Kovalevska, Maija
Set/Stage Designer: Stolzl, Philipp
Costume Designer: Maurer, Kathi
Lighting Designer: Schuler, Duane
Stage Director: Stolzl, Philipp
Television Director: Morell, Andreas
Date of Production: 2007
Festival: Salzburg Festival
Venue: Grosses Festspielhaus Salzburg