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Another serious hijacking of Berlioz's intentions was the appearance of the Pope (François Lis) in Act 2. For this scene Barbe provided a striking surrealistic setting that included the figure of Perseus and a giant metronome, which later on in the scene would start ticking to indicate the passage of time. For the Pope's dramatic appearance the metronome simply turns round to reveal the Pope enthroned within it, surrounded by three chubby cherubs that he holds on golden ribbons. There was much by-play with the cherubs, and the entire scene, theatrically effective though it was, came over as camp and entertaining; the Pope was never the powerfully threatening figure that he should be. The singer playing the Pope, François Lis, was announced as ill. He did very well, but even if he had been in full voice I think the staging would have undermined even the most powerful figure.
The final casting is always a problem; here Doucet and Barbe created some effective stage pictures in the build up to the casting and controlled the comings and goings on the stage very well. When the 'figure' is cast, sheets of music billow everywhere over the stage and auditorium (cue much rustling of paper by the audience!). Then Cellini appears with a bound score (of Benvenuto Cellini) with a glowing lyre on the cover; a staging which was theatrically effective and kept the opera in tune with both Doucet and Barbe's vision and Berlioz's own vision.
A scene from the Opéra national du Rhin production of 'Benvenuto Cellini'. Photo © 2006 Alain Kaiser
The base version performed was Berlioz's original from 1838, with a few of his later revisions included. You can have a field day with Benvenuto Cellini, mixing and matching the various editions; there is no single definitive version that is best. The version performed in Strasbourg proved very satisfactory and very effective. Though they did drop the recitatives in favour of spoken dialogue, on the basis that Berlioz had intended the opera for the Opéra Comique. This also had the effect of playing up the comic nature of the plot.
Copyright © 2 February 2006
Robert Hugill, London UK