Hector Berlioz was among the most innovative and original of all the great composers. His first opera loosely based on an episode from the Renaissance artist’s memoirs was written in 1838. It sounds like nothing that preceded it. The music moves like the molten metal that is used to cast Cellini’s famous statue of Perseus which for dramatic purposes Berlioz places in Rome rather than Florence. First performed at the Opéra in 1838, it was a resounding failure. Its fate at the house is unsurprising considering that Meyerbeer had set the style in Paris, and subsequently the rest of the operatic world, with Robert le Diable in 1831 and Les Huguenots in 1836.
Benvenuto Cellini could not be more unlike Meyerbeer’s Grand Operas than a Broadway musical is to The Rake’s Progress. Though Liszt tried to save the opera, Cellini disappeared for about a century. By the time Meyerbeer’s operas were mostly of historical importance, Berlioz’s opera gradually reemerged on the world’s operatic stages. Today it is regularly performed and recognized as the masterpiece it is. The Met’s history with the opera merits an asterisk. It’s done the opera eight times – all during the Berlioz bicentennial year, 2003. The company had planned to restage the opera, but troubled finances were given as the reason that the work was not brought back. This excuse from a company that regularly stages new productions of new works of almost no merit.
The opera moves from comedy to murder and back to comedy with the speed of fired gunpowder. To Parisian ears still processing Meyerbeer, it must have sounded like a message from the moon. Today it still is unique.
The opera is in four Tableaux. The second of these ends as people gather in the piazza. A crowd assembles at Cassandro’s booth, where the pantomime opera of King Midas or The Ass’s Ears is unfurled. Balducci (Teresa’s father) and Teresa (Cellini’s love interest) enter, and soon after Cellini and Ascanio (Cellini’s friend) dressed as monks, and then Fieramosca (the Pope’s sculptor) and Pompeo similarly disguised. In the pantomime, Harlequin and Pierrot compete for the attention of King Midas, who is attired to look like Balducci. At this, the real Balducci approaches the stage, leaving Teresa alone. Both sets of “friars” then approach Teresa, to her confusion. The four friars begin to battle by sword, and in the struggle, Cellini fatally stabs Pompeo. The crowd becomes silent, and Cellini is arrested for murder. As he is about to be taken away, the three cannon shots from Castel Sant’Angelo are heard, indicating the end of Carnival and the start of Lent. All of the lights in the piazza are extinguished. During the darkness and resulting confusion, Cellini escapes his captors and Ascanio and Teresa go off. Fieramosca is then mistakenly arrested in Cellini’s place.
The excerpt below starts before Cellini kills Pompeo. The Pope forgives him after he successfully casts the famous statue at the opera’s end. Nicolaia Gedda is Cellini in this performance conducted by Colin Davis. Davis was the best Berlioz conductor of his era.