In fairness, this is an opera, not a film, but it was directed by a famous film director and I happened to see it in a cinema. Terry Gilliam is the talk of London at the moment and here’s why.
In 2011, the ex-Monty Python animator turned Hollywood filmmaker decided to try his hand at directing an opera. He staged Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust at the English National Opera to unprecedented acclaim. Naturally, we expected a follow-up and three years on he has delivered. Benvenuto Cellini, also by Berlioz, opened this month with a now-familiar fanfare of cheer and applause.
It is not so puzzling that Gilliam would choose to stage two Berlioz works (a composer remembered more for his orchestral music than his operas) at the expense of more conventional repertoire. In many ways, the American-British director is a modern-day counterpart to the French composer; bold, daring, a little crazy and yet highly imaginative, capable of taking the simplest of themes and allowing them to blossom into colourful fantasies. The two-act Cellini is blessed with this synergy from start to finish and its subtitle as an ‘Opera semiseria’ (semi-serious opera) is also well-addressed by Gilliam’s comic-tragic directorial approach.
The overture is left to breathe without interference from the stage; an interesting artistic choice, given that the music is hardly Berlioz’s best. But when the curtain does open, the fun really begins. The first act dawdles with exposition for the first hour or so, which is perhaps serendipitous given that audiences will spend this time ogling at Gilliam’s richly detailed stage rather than follow the characters. But the arias here, particularly the love duet between Cellini himself and Teresa, are musically captivating and beautiful. Gilliam gives them the space they deserve before launching an all-out offensive with the carnival scene that closes Act 1. Here, it is the costumes that shine, some of them larger-than-life, each carnival caricature dancing between flames and mirrors to Berlioz’s ridiculously fast music. When a murder is committed amidst the revelry and the wrong killer is arrested, the term semi-serious seems all too suitable.
The second act is more deliberative and ponders the role of the artist in society, in this case of Benvenuto Cellini, the goldsmith and master sculptor hiding from various adversaries in his workshop (the centerpiece of which is an unfinished statue of Perseus slaying the Medusa, with only the head and the arse having been cast). He is visited by the Pope, looking amusingly African, and told to complete the Perseus statue by the following dawn. Of course, he achieves this only in the nick of time by having his workmen accost all of the gold jewellery in Rome to add to the furnace. Gilliam ensures, from moment to moment, that the correct proportions of beauty, pathos and humour are allowed to inhabit the stage and the characters. The triumphant ending (and revealing of the full statue) feels rightfully overstated. That can’t be said of all operas.
I hope that Terry Gilliam is spurred by his successes to continue illuminating dark corners of the operatic repertoire but, if he chooses to make more films instead, I won’t be complaining.