POPE CLEMENT VII (1523-34), whose dramatic emergence forms a
central scene in Hector Berlioz's opera Benvenuto Cellini,
which is being staged in a new production by English National Opera
at the London Coliseum, was a pontiff who had his share of bad
luck. But, being born Giuliano de' Medici, and bearing the same
name as his late father - assassinated in the Duomo at Florence at
the age of 25 - and nephew of the great Lorenzo, he perhaps knew a
bit about art.
One of four Medici popes to hold sway in a century, Clement had
been, in effect, Leo X's Rottweiler. Because he was Florentine, he
accentuated the rivalry between the two artistic and commercial
centres Rome and Florence that forms the heart of this powerful,
hugely entertaining, but rarely seen opera, which flopped on its
Paris première in 1838.
Clement's bossy appearance puts the sculptor Cellini on his
mettle. Clement is sung by the baritone Willard White, in a role
dangerously veering towards camp-comic in this two-act opera
semiseria; and what a joy it is to hear the overture convert
into a full-blown aria, richly intoned by the striking American
tenor Michael Spyres - a singer shamefully unknown to me, but much
admired for his appearances in New York, Dresden, Salzburg, and the
Rossini festival in Pesaro.
Cellini has been commissioned to complete a bronze statue of
Perseus - the famous statue still to be seen in the Piazza della
Signoria in Florence - and must complete it, pronto, or face
execution. A gallows even appears high above in the
director-designer Terry Gilliam's very witty, funny, and astute -
if sometimes cluttered - ENO staging; and ominous chaps pace up and
down, preparing for the grisly moment.
But we know it will not come. First, it is hard to believe that
a sumptuously arrayed Holy Father wheeled forth aboard a kind of
minbar and looking like the Emperor from Turandot is going
to give him the chop.
Second, because Gilliam is best-known to us as the pictorial
member of the Monty Python team (those flamboyant cartoons), he
treats us to a huge amount of visual tickling. If occasionally this
fiesta gets addled or out of hand, what are artists' studios
(probably including Gilliam's own) if not awash with
The singing is pretty fine, starting with Pavlo Hunka's elegant,
severe, and commanding Papal Treasurer, Giacomo Balducci, who has
plans to marry his daughter Teresa (Corinne Winters) to a rival
sculptor-cum-dilettante, the ghastly Fieramosca (perhaps "pompous
bluebottle"), who wants both the girl and Cellini's commission, but
is gloriously inept. Hence flows comedy well worthy of Rossini.
Delightfully though Winters (also an American) sings, I fell
vocally for young Irish mezzo Paula Murrihy as Cellini's patient
assistant Ascanio. Trouser roles invariably have that certain buzz,
but her acting, full of little touches, proved deft and
The American Nicholas Pallesenas Fieramosca is another vocal
treat, proffering great beauty amid the blustering: a wonderful,
classic loser. There are agreeable lesser roles: scribes,
chaperones, harridans -mostly in drag; and both ENO male and female
chorus sections have fine individual moments, having been prepared
up to the gills by the chorus master Nicholas Jenkins, who is aide
to the Baroque specialist Marc Minkowski, and closely associated
with both the Dutch National Opera and opera at Blackheath Concert
High praise goes to ENO's orchestra desks, ever fleet of foot
and artfully driven and paced under the outgoing music director
Edward Gardner. One papal passage for cellos and double basses
excelled, and the subtlety of Gardner's brass felt particularly
pleasing in a composer whose inflated scores tend to encourage
But it is Gilliam who gets thingsso blissfully right, by
deciding that the central character should be the statue. We see
the gold head of the Greek hero, modelled enticingly closely on
Cellini's somewhat Apollinian 1545 original. From the start, bits
of gold keep turning up. And, as we approach the Pythonesque
dénouement, the whole stage, with back-projections and astounding
animations, becomes a seething smelting and casting forge that is
as dramatic and fiery as Coalbrookdale by Night.
Aaron Marsden has helped Gilliam forge some stupendous sets.
Katrina Lindsay's saucy costumes are both an education and a
marvel. Paule Constable's lighting is, as always, spot on the mark.
Leah Hausman's movement direction is endlessly shrewd and clever. I
reeled out, magnificently exhausted.
Benvenuto Cellini is at the London Coliseum, St Martin's
Lane, London WC2, until 27 June. Box Office: phone 020 7845 9300.