Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Benvenuto Cellini
PERFORMER: Burkhard Fritz, Maija Kovalevska, Laurent Naouri, Brindley Sherratt, Mikhail Petrenko, Kate Aldrich; Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna PO/Valery Gergiev; dir. Andreas Morell (Salzburg, 2007)
CATALOGUE NO: 2.110271 (NTSC system; dts 5.0; 16:9 picture format)

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Filmed at the 2007 Salzburg Festival, this is the first commercially available DVD of Berlioz’s mercurial debut opera.

Whether you’ll want to add it to your shelves alongside either of Sir Colin Davis’s two CD recordings or John Nelson’s even more complete version of the original 1838 Paris score, depends on how often you think you can bear to watch this retro ‘futuristic’ production, set mainly on the rooftops of some Metropolis-inspired city in which our jean-clad, leather-jacketed artist-hero first arrives aboard his own personal helicopter.

His boy-apprentice is a metal-clad android (with exposed brain and belly circuitry); the papal treasurer maintains two cutely comical C-3PO and R2-D2 clones to shave his daughter’s armpits and paint her fingernails (plus a gang of baseball-bat-wielding bruisers to beat up unwanted suitors); and the Pope is a spangly-cloaked, frilly-shirted rock star permanently swapping high-fives and dispensing communion wafers.

Furthermore, the director has let the carnival spirit of the work’s central scenes run riot to such a degree that drunken revellers, in a variety of fancy dress, invade virtually every scene.

Musically, though, there are some rewards. If Burkhard Fritz’s burly sculptor sadly reveals more base metal in his increasingly over-taxed voice than the requisite molten gold, the other principals all deliver 24-carat performances, in particular the lustrous American mezzo Kate Aldrich, who has to deliver Ascanio’s hit number as a disembodied head.

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Most surprising is how idiomatic Valery Gergiev (conducting with just the tiniest toothpick and the most fluttering hand gestures) sounds in this quicksilver score – though perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising, given the influence Berlioz had on the Russian Nationalists, in whose music Gergiev has always seemed most at home. Mark Pappenheim