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Benvenuto Cellini at the Met
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Matthew Paris

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Post Thu Jan 29, 2004 2:49 pm - Benvenuto Cellini at the Met

One rarely has a chance to attain the ambitions of a lifetime; in fact most existences are spent finding consolations for never reaching the journeyís end in pilgrimages that ere for one reason or another never taken up in the first place. Like Yeatsí character in The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland I had always hoped to see Benvenuto Cellini in a posh opera house among the many hungers of my early puerility. On December 9th of 2003 I at once achieved this intent I had once though remote to impossible and yet simultaneously, given its outrageously perverse Met production, also didnít quite reach it.
I was prepared from some of my disappointed in the production by a remarkable review by Albert Tomassini in the Times in which he mentions politely ďthe mixed receptionĒ the Andrei Serban production of Benvenuto Cellini got at its premiere the week before. People I knew who had been there told me that this was a very civil description of what happened. The audience rightly congratulated the singers and the orchestra. When Serban reached the stage he was assaulted by a caterwauling and booing such as the Met, usually an overly well mannered public cowed by its own lace curtain feeling of provincialism has never yet heard.
Tomassini spoke guardedly of this reaction to a production of such disastrously extrusive character that it had relegated Benvenuto Cellini into a pretext for the ability of the nefarious Serban to put up a spectacle that had little or nothing to do with Berliozí intent and achievement. He also mentioned that the produced was much more cluttered in its rehearsal; he implied a rebellion at some point among the rest of this musical crew forced Serban to tone it down.
Tomassini referred to a display of ďnaked AdonisesĒ and a general clutter of stage business enveloping any of the action as well as somebody impersonating Berlioz as if Berlioz himself were walking through the action at times with a scroll, apparently writing, a rose attached to his quill. It sounded horrible, vulgar and stupid from the review; it was all of that and worse.
I suppose Serban got this idea from hearing about the infamous production of Tristan in Rio in which the director had Seigmund Freud wandering through the action. There is evidently a school of such directors; they continually get jobs. Perhaps they even sell tickets. People want to see how these assassins publicly execute great operas the way they formerly went out to view a hanging.
Given other such catastrophes that have ornamented the opera and theatre scene in New York and elsewhere one suspects that many would come to hear Benvenuto Cellini merely to see the with a surgical detachment, savoring the gross pathology of a local opera company that cannot restrain the rampant and wildly egotistical excesses of its directors like a great rancid cheese. It would have all the aesthetic attractiveness of a butcher showing up at a hospital table set for exquisitely difficult surgery, taking out an ax and chopping away randomly at the patients and doctors. In this environment instead of being carried away by the police such as Serban would be rewarded by the administrators as a very interesting man, asked to come back and hack away at a few more patients and stray pigs for an encore.
That is pretty much what happened. The production had the incoherence and imbecility along with the taste for fey soft porno that characterizes many opera productions these days to the point where one wonders whether killing composers and librettists twice is taught in some school for aesthetic carnage and genocide as a fit punishment for those perished geniuses whose spirit still hoped to amuse us. Benvenuto Cellini was mounted as if it all took place in a crowd cluttered as an army of subway travelers stuffed into a car in rush hour. Half the time one literally couldnít find the singers among the constantly milling carnival revelers.
Even when the principals were supposed to be offering their inner life to another in private, they were listening a few feet away and upstaging them with their antics. if that werenít enough while the singers were trying to advance the slender plot the vast stairways of the set moved, the revelers on them upstaged the action continually with distracting bits of business, and the whole action seemed to take place in a crowded world cluttered as the bleachers in Yankee Stadium.
I don think Iíve ever seen such a tasteless production in my whole life, I am very old man and Iíve seen many capable endues in aesthetic atrocity by other directors. Who, one may ask is the terrible and destructive Andrei Serban? Some cruel and perverse lout from the street perhaps? No, Serban he is from his credentials the apogee of European culture, a man of education and intelligence, a professor at Columbia, a man with a minor reputation as a humanist. The rest of these flaming megalomaniacs these days always have those sort of unimpeachable cultural credentials.
As a result the man who had the best set in the house the night I was there was a blind fellow with a seeing eye dog a few seats next to me who couldnít see what a mess the Met made of this opera. Benvenuto Cellini had other problems as well. The lead, Marcello Giordani, has a great Italian voice, took all the high C easily, even gave us a high D Flat in full voice, physically looks very virile and heroic like Cellini, but he has only rudimentary notions of acting and character. He also speaks French with a heavy Italian accent and apparently has no idea of the nasalities that Berlioz expected as the French style in this sort of grand opera. He belted out the areas as if he were singing Il Trovotore.
A real director, which Mr. Serban plainly in a thousand ways is not, would have made sure that the central character in a form which Berlioz invented, heroic comedy one might call it, was the mocking, swaggering, witty fellow Berliozís characters talk about and often become annoyed with. Without that character the responses of the actors in Benvenuto Cellini to the hero makes no sense.
Benvenuto Cellini is great absolute music; as a theatrical spectacle it lives or dies on the ability of its lead singer and protagonist to project a unique character, a mix of the real Cellini and Berlioz, a soul that was never seen in this production. To discover this character the lead has to wrestle with not only the desperations of Cellini by the pope and his loverís father in the opera but should read carefully both Celliniís and bailoutsís memoirs themselves and the way Berlioz almost certainly read Celliniís account of his life. Celliniís autobiography testifies to a bravo in his life and thought who was a very dashing and adventurous fellow who combines a hunger for artistic perfection unknown to the time with a sort of Sir Richard Burton or Casanova flair for action.
Besides, reading this amazing book of Celliniís, sometimes grisly, sometimes comic, must have seen a chance to mount a very innovate character in opera, a mocking soul somewhere between Mephistopheles and Don Giovanni but sympathetic and charming as pone of the rakes in Cosi Fan Tutte. Yet he is also possessed of a great talent and a hunger for making Art that as far as I know has no model in opera. The style of Benvenuto Cellini would savor at times of opera buffa yet also include the kind of feverish and ardent elements of hectic inspiration that Wagner might have thought of when he imitated some of the idea from Cellini he might have hard in conversation with Berlioz since they were friends to make his considerably more sober Die Meistersinger. As august as Wagnerís drama is, Berliozís Cellini has to breath the very wild fevers that he recounts as well as he does in his Memoirs. One has to fell about Colleen that he was in all things one who was intrepid in enthusiasm from love to Art.
Like Dei Meistersinger, any other opera looking into an ideal past, Berlioz has put all sorts of inside jokes into Benvenuto Cellini that are almost his signature in comic opera. After the overture, the opera opens with some contrapuntal music that was Berliozí parody of the monumental style of Cherubini, his teacher, one whom Berlioz trashes in his Memoirs as a curmudgeon Academician yet in some ways in his opera as well as his choral works, was still fuming at Cherubini, parodying him as late as his old age in Beatrice and Benedict.
One should say that Berliozí Memoirs is one of two books equally without genre, the other, Evenings With The Orchestra that are masterpieces that havenít yet made their way much into the English speaking world. The Memoirs really are a kind of Henry Miller remaking of ones life into a kind of novel; Barleys did his work a hundred years before Henry Miller. The sui generis Evenings With the Orchestra, hard to come by today, was not even available in translation when I was a kid. Who coddle say what this book is like anymore than one should categorize Berliozí music? If Thorne Smith and Italo Calvino collaborated on a book about musicians with lots of metaphysical resonance they might have produced something like it
Berlioz probably saw Cherubini as an extension of his own tyrannical father, a sire who had wanted him to become a doctor. Itís not central to pick up these little jokes in Benvenuto Cellini; they do add to the general air of pleasant and amusing mockery the opera means to offer as a proper setting for the satirical Cellini. Itís also sometimes intriguing to savor when Berlioz was kidding about contrapuntal devices and when he wasnít. For somebody who denounced old tools of making music he certainly ran enough fugue, canons, and long looks at the past including the bedfellow sculpted orchestral polyphony and counterpoint all through Benvenuto Cellini as much as anybody.
Berliozís librettists as well as Berlioz himself worked hard to create this background. Cellini does not appear in the first scene until he is roundly denounced by Teresaís father, Berliozí manifestation of Cherubini, as a wild man and scoundrel. One of the unexpected astonishments of this production is that once Marcello Giordani appears on stage he shows absolutely no sign of the qualities the composer, librettist and all the characters in the drama attribute to him.
How would one play this if an ideal production? Itís in the liens but the protagonist should most times seem mercurial and witty as Marched, be outrageously narcissistic and a clown, pose and even make fun of himself. Itís in the lines. For example Marcello Giordani sings in his scene with the pope as if he really was concerned with sacred matters; he is in fact trashing the pretension of Clement VII, an old degenerate aesthete. Giordaniís lack of humor completely destroys the comic effect of this scene. One really shouldnít miss that the popes aim, the reasons why he absolves Cellini of murder and lechery along with blasphemies we donít see executed in this production is that he wants a statue for his palace of the pagan hero Perseus. Cellini isnít making an icon of anything in Christianity for him. IN life Berlioz was always astounded when anybody ever believed the religions of his time. He himself like Cellini in his opera composed many sacred works in the spirit of invoking effects that had nothing to do with their apparent spiritual source. Itís not impossible to offer the portrait of the mischievous Cellini himself although as one can see from Gounodís Faust, it makes a diabolical character sympathetic than the earnest and impossibly dyspeptic lead. Busoni has some of the same idea in Arlecchino; Karl Nielsen has a glimmer of it Maskerade, a comic opera of his own. Stravinsky attempted something like it in The Rakes Progress. In each case the subject is taken form the past and exhibits a kind of classical nostalgia for a world long perished. The juxtaposition of buffa and tragic loss is Morartean. Berlioz who had already been tinkering with his own Damnation of Faust poem might have seen in his own portrait of Mephistopheles something he wanted to carry forward on the ample shoulders of the swaggering Cellini.
Cellini in his autobiography and the opera is not only an Artist and lover, he is a swordsman and has several other skills. He has a kind of impudence and braggadocio with all his excellences that at once charms and makes a few other characters in this opera annoyed at how much he is always full of himself. Berlioz is placing Cellini in the line of such flamboyant geniuses as graced both the Renaissance and the romantic era in paris of the 1830s. To make this clear, Cellini has to seem aery and fantastical as his work. Instead we got a beautiful rendition of a Verdi tragedy nobody had been singing.
One should say in passing that style in general, good or bad, was hardly the concern of this production. It goes without saying that the composerís intent was thought of merely as a trivial point of departure for the very different whims of the director. The French in this spectacle was all done with heavy foreign accents; nobody among the principals seems to be French or have studied the language more than cursorily.
It creates a peculiar blur in style along wit the lack of French more nasal methods of articulating the voice that gave a coarse generic flavor to the sonics on stage if James Levineís orchestra was impeccably idiomatic. The substantial virtue of levinís conducting emphasized in spite of itself the paucity of sensitively to cultural values on the stage as a be beautiful woman when entering a room suddenly makes pain or ugly ones seem instantly less attractive than they really are.
As I saw it on this evening the music and libretto went one way with its own integrity, the stupid and inept prediction not only was at war with the opera publicly but should have been subject to some criminal law that gives the dead even if they are geniuses the right and franchise not to be devoured by hacks and body snatchers.
Itís hardly the first time one has had the uncomfortable John Cage-like experience in Western capitals of watching two theatre spectacles at once, one fashioned by its legitimate authors, the other by its rascally director. At bottom perhaps such productions represent our couture with its moral egoism and careerism rampant, its honor for the past and its respect for traditions hardly our ageís chief virtue.
All this dourly being said as it has to be, how good is Benvenuto Cellini as an opera? was its failure in the 1803s and its interment ever since then until the 1980s a fair assessment of this work? Certainly as Coin Davis showed in his recording of the opera the music is great. It has an unfailing intensity and ingenuity when it chases, a heartbreaking melodic power at other times. It even has a kaleidoscopic variety of styles within its compass, even one bel canto virtuoso aria. I think also it is the first opera to portray workers going out on strike.
Its genre, heroic comedy, was composed by one of the audience I spoke with as similar to Hans Sachs as protagonist in Die Meistersinger. Itís an interesting idea, I think more intellectually cunning than true. It gathers energy unlike anything of Wagnerís from its invocation of Italian popular life; it has an audacious populist brio unthinkable to Wagner. It resembles if anything later woks like Aus Italien of Richard Strauss and Busoniís quotes of popular Italian music in his great C Major Piano Concerto. It breathes the virile air of nature in cities much as a painting of Courbetís or a poem of Whitmanís speaks for that some flow of dionysiac energy.
It has certain an ironic tipping of the aesthetic hat to tradition also. Baldcuci, the father of Celliniís lover Theorize as well as Celliniís Roman rival, the ironically named Fieramosca, are stock opera buffa characters. Cellini and Teresa are typical lovers if at least in Berliozí opera, Cellini has a swagger and humor more like Don Giovanni then the normal sentimental qualities of such protagonists written by hacks. Perhaps the always anti-clerical Verdi had thought of Berliozís low bass accompaniment to these satirical pope scenes when Verdi wrote the terrifying Grand Inquisitor scene in Don Carlo. One should say that Berliozí anti-clericism never had a more direct manifestation in his operas than this devastatingly comic and sinister portrait of Pope Clement VII. There was a nun in the audience close to me; I wondered how she reacted to this delicious bit of papal trashing. Of course given Marcello Giordaniís earnest portrayal of Cellini she might not have noticed that Cellini is successfully mocking of this messenger of God and ultimately makes a total fool of the pope.
If Verdi takes some of the same musical and dramatic ideas, even to the use of the trombones in closely voiced low register to create a great tragic episode in the Grand Inquisitor scene in Don Carlo, we shouldnít minimize Berliozí sense of how terror and buffa farce are allied in Benvenuto Cellini. It was more well known in Berliozí time when one could still appreciate how powerful Don Giovanni, the Conte de Luna and the other noble and priestly figures in such satirical operas were in their day. We donít even know who leads us, much less have the temerity to make fun of them in public.
Though we are now apparently pretty much free of the old tyranny of priests and kings, we wouldnít be as quick to mount an opera featured a pope as an aesthetic degenerate. Berliozí time was freer than ours. Yet one has to guess at these effects in this production. Itís hard to gauge the dramatic value of Benvenuto Cellini at any time; this version didnít present it to us. Certainly the first scene is perfect, romantic languorous, comical, heartbreaking all at once. Since one never sees Cellini in this spectacle as the scabrous and witty fellow Berlioz and his librettists called for, one doesn't get the turn in the plot at all when Cellini decides to substitute love for a hunger for artistic achievement and fame as the center of his life. Without the character there and the singer playing him only trying to make effective vocal music more in the manner of Verdi than Berlioz, one can't resonate to what is not there. I would imagine an authentic an coherent production with an intelligent and well crafted direction as well as good singeing actor as Cellini would make that case.
Berlioz knew that all theatre of any kind is fantasy. opera, is a genre of theatre in which everyone is singing nearly all the time is conspicuously fantastical even among theatre productions. Unless the piece can enthuse the audience and take them into the action the work must fail unless it is cruel and coarse farce. Itís particularly lethal to run extrusive jokes and stage business that create detachment to Benvenuto Cellini, an elevated and philosophic spectacle that attempts to explore Art, fame, love and even runs some amusing religious satire.
In this predication one literally cannot even find the main action physically half the time; it takes place in a vast and dense crowd like a subway rush hour. Lacking the main action, all the set pieces take on an inordinate important place and have a formal extrusion that the composer in his calculations never intended them to have. The spectacle I saw breaks up into a series of episodic moments strung together with no connection. To give some idea of the devilish Andre Serbanís ineptitude one might recall that all competent directors look for the main action in anything they do; they know that is what will keep the audience in involved from the beginning to the end if anything will.
A crafted director also always makes sure nobody upstages the focus of the action once heís established that it is. Serbanís production upstages everything and everybody on satanic principle from the composerís intent to the parallels aims of the singers. With all the people in the world who have these basic skills the Met picked Mr. Serban to do as much damage as Serban could do to both the dead and itself. Go figure.


As I saw the sold out crowds for this previously never given opera on two nights I reflected that I was plainly not the only one in New York whose life was change irremediably by Berliozí Memoirs. I probably was privately living out the same dream as armies of New Yorkers who came out to see Benvenuto Cellini after they had finally heard this great score in the Sir Colin Davis recorded performance.
When I was thirteen years of age a chance hearing of the Symphony Fantastique and subsequently found the memoirs of Hector Berlioz in the Brooklyn Public library changed my life as later the Moreh Nebushim of Moses Maimonides did. Hector Berlioz was the ultimate wild genius of the romantic era in the manner of Courbet, Delacroix and later Whitman in America that not only had changed the very language of orchestral music as a composer in the 1820; as a writer he took up equally if less known educates in his Memoirs and the sardonic and witty Evenings With The Orchestra. As a witling I was much less interested in Berliozí Iceland comic wit than the feverish and heroic Memoirs.
In a league with the earlier wagering Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, there isnít a volume extant in any literature in which a great genies and artist recounts his inner life in an absolute naked way that, in Beethovenís apt phase, speaks to the heart from the heart. It doesnít matter that Berlioz organized his materials to make a novel of his life, or that as Jacques Barzun pointed out in his Berlioz And the Romantic Century some of the outward facts in Berliozís life were altered to make an effect like his music. Berlioz wasnít lying or hiding anything; like Henry Miller he was reordering the substance of his life to fit an inner perception of himself and his place in the world that was more true than anything lacking that alchemy that had happened to him.
Berlioz lived in a time when people writing memoirs were being increasingly frank and expansive about their assessments of their existence. From Rousseau to Chateaubriand the more inspired creators of genies dared to say the unthinkable as well as the unspeakable. Iíve never read before or since such honest and naked descriptions of the creative process as Berlioz put into those pages. There is really nothing in any writing that anatomizes the fevers of inspiration as Berlioz did. There was nothing he wouldnít say in his memoirs because it might have been indiscreet. If he followed the path of Rousseau, Chateaubriand and Byron he portrayed the life of the artist in a way that nobody did before him, even Benvenuto Cellini.
For just reasons Hector Berlioz had been one of my adolescent spiritual guides after Beethoven, the latter my spirit guide from my third year, Berlioz from the day I read that book. To this day Hector Berlioz is one of my aery fathers, a savant from another world if his works in this one amply record his spirit in both music and words. Iím clearly not the only who feels this way.
I must say that in my old age I see Hector Berlioz in a different way than i did as tumescent Brooklyn early adolescent. The other side of Byronism, a view of life Hector Berlioz embraced in a variety of ways, is comedy and the sense of loss that Byron expresses beautifully in his unfinished epic Don Juan. I see Berlioz more wholly now as one who had that Byronic side expressed in the cynical and amusing prose of Evenings With The Orchestra a properly ardent romantic cannot entertain life without a state of balance; he must embrace as much as Byron and Berlioz did daily the sense of loss and assessment of vanity as wind that is the far side of ardor.
Berlioz lived to 66, had had the full opportunity of leisure to savor what Byron took in very well in his intriguing Venetian life between his 28th and 36th year. Berlioz could have been a Flaubert had he elected to be an novelist; we have in place of such imaginary work the excellent Les Troyens and Beatrice and Benedict as a testimony of meditation on sensual excess and the subsequent loss of such transports after a time. Yet at the center of his Memoirs is his struggle to mount what may have been his favorite opera, Benvenuto Cellini. After reading about this work and its fiery genesis one had to want to experience something of the inspiration Berlioz himself had said he put into it.
One perhaps had to resonate with his sense of failure to persuade an audience in Paris in the 1820s of its virtues as well as enthuse with its music. At thirteen I didnít have much access to any of Berliozí music beyond a few overtures and of course the Symphony Fantastique. The long playing record revolution was begin Nina to issue a little more including the Byronic Harold IN Italy and French recordings of The Damnation of Faust and the Requiem, but it was a slow expansion of repertoire that was never played in concert in New York.
Gradually in the late 50s and early 50s one heard the Te Deum done by Sir Thomas Beecham, the complete Romeo and Juliet and LíEnfance du Crist done by Charles Munch, that nastily cut but intriguing last half of Les Troyen done by Herman Scherchen. There was the remarkable Lelio in a melodrama form that itself was bizarre; the Berlioz Society was as well issuing some of the songs.
Now we have virtually everything Berlioz wrote on CD including the early and recently uninterred Mass; short of the complete score for his Judges of the Secret Court which I presume Berlioz burnt, we have as much as we want to hear of this inimitable genius. It certainly is a change from what one had to go through to have access to anybodyís music at all half a century ago.
In any case nothing seemed more inevitable than Berliozí interest in Benvenuto Cellini. Like Berlioz, Cellini lived an adventurous and perilous life, had written an extraordinary memoir that has had no parallel before or after it, aimed at a perfection that was erratically appreciated by the eminences of his time. Cellini was like Berlioz gifted in a few Arts; he had been trained to be a flute virtuoso besides being a great sculptor and writer. Like Berlioz he flouted his father to take up a calling closer to his genius. Also Berlioz felt a freedom he had never known once he won the Prix de Rome and spent time there on the dole. He had all the alertness and sense of miracle one does when one lives in a feral and colorful foreign country. One couldnít imagine a more serendipitous adhesion than one by Hector Berlioz about Benvenuto Cellini.
Rather oddly this is an opera in which Berlioz did not also write the libretto. He might have felt afterwards this one was weak in ways he could remedy; writing his own texts as far back as the prose seguays of Lelio, Berlioz became as a result of this opera in his subsequent theatrical work his own librettist.
In one sense Benvenuto Cellini is an opera about a hero who is a creative genius, much as Berliozí own Memoirs is a true life novel about one, himself, in the form of an interior autobiography. It couldnít have escaped Berlioz though he had yet to write his Memoirs in 1834 that Cellini would have to be one of his inevitable models. He has the mocking humor, the swagger, the Byronic heroism that characterized Berlioz himself if late Renaissance Rome a few centuries before and 19th century Paris were different areas to be at once a hero and a genius.
Operas about creative people like novels on the same subject are always by their nature difficult at best to make persuasive. One does much better in any narrative form with characters who live lives of consonant action although achenial one can be both a major creative and reflective talent and still lead very a extrovert existence.
One thinks of Cervantes, Sir Walter Raleigh, Cellini, Byron, Sir Richard Burton and Aleister Crowley. Yet we value anyone with talent for the vigils they spend alone in a room with their canvas, music paper or the empty pages they fill with their verse. One cannot show their genius in an opera or novel; one can only refer to what they do off stage. Beyond that if one has a genius as a character in oneís narrative one has to make him talk as cleverly and audaciously as we expect genius to do; only composers and novelists who ar geniuses themselves can do that. Itís why almost any narrative form about genius fails.
The only successful opera I know which is always in the repertory about a genius is The Tales Of Hoffman. We see Hoffman occasionally on stage telling some exotic and sensual tales while showing us his bibulous talent as well. We donít see Hoffman writing his stories. Oddly, like Berlioz and Cellini, Hoffman was multi-talented; like Rousseau, another Berlioz model, he was also a pretty good composer. One might argue of course that Couvertes in Tosca and Rudolpho on La Boheme are geniuses also; they arenít the protagonists in Pucciniís opera about them. The beauteous Tosca and Mimi are. Hindemithís Mathis De Mahler takes up the central theme one has to wrestle with in the story of any creative talent: the need to get the work done in spite of the indifference and antagonism of the world. Itís a struggle to fashion personal order in chaos that ever Artist in every time understands. Itís central to Goddardís Contempt as well as Abel Ganzís Beethoven.
Berlioz didnít seem to have any of these problems either in his Memoirs or Benvenuto Cellini. Cellini certainly led an adventurous Byronic life; nobody burnt his memoirs either as Byronís friends did to Byronís autobiography. As islet one has all sorts of scenes in Celliniís account which like Berliozí have novelistic intent: the ghost episode, the Coliseum scene, none of which go into this opera.
Berlioz must have been especially struck by Celliniís mocking, swaggering manner such as one finds often in Renaissance and 19th century romantic creative talents. Itís the key to the comic as well as the romantic character of Berliozís here though sorrily one doesn't find any of these scintillating and dizzying Celts at all in Marcello Giordaniís rather earnest, humorless performance. Since Berlioz was at once like Byron a romantic and a witty sardonic comedian he found in Cellini as in Byron paradoxical and polar qualities to which he could enthuse and resonate.
Like Cellini great book, itís fascinating to see how Berlioz reorchestrated his own life in his memoirs to create artistic effects with the model of Rousseau and Chateaubriand in mind; it makes one think of how many ways facts can be selected and altered to tell the same story in a Byronic or Flaubertian way. Had he been somebody else with the same life Berlioz could have written a very different book.
Berlioz married the girl of his dreams, Harriet Smithson, a Shakespearean actress of the time just as Douglas Fairbanks married Mary Pickford; both men lived out their dreams like Oscar Wilde. Both men in different ages experienced some large disappointment in trying to make illusion into reality, Art into life. Not having a patron except special bequests from weird sources from Paganini to an owner of a gambling casino, Berlioz never quite freed himself to the end of his life from his day job; he was the greatest critic of his day as well as his other talents; itís no wonder that newspapers wanted him to review everything and paid him tolerably for it.
Berlioz refers to this drudgery in his Memoirs with disdain. Actually he managed to produce extraordinary essays of criticism one still valued for their sagacity as well as wit. Itís very French to throw off creative effusions of brilliance and than shrug as if they were nothing or even a form of low slavery.
Berliozís marriage to Harriet Smithson, barely referred to after the wild courtship in his Memoirs wasnít a successful friendship, perhaps partially because Berlioz like other creative spirits from Benvenuto Cellini and Oscar Wilde and Douglas Fairbanks had hoped to manifest the antacid and perfection of Art in life to sate huggers that the engines of Creation could not satisfy. IN amour one can do that only for a while and at best in courtship. Berlioz didnít and couldnít perform that alchemy Bacchus he was human bring to his domestic life the more dour virtues one has to if one wants an intimacy that has none of the fragile designs of artifice.
Perhaps Harriet Smithson didnít have much to bring to that hearth besides her talents as an actress; we donít know. In the end after all Berlioz had fallen in love with a woman who had been reciting another manís lines and playing a character invented by herself but William Shakespeare. Luckily or unluckily Shakespeare was Berliozí favorite writer. Yet he couldnít make a marriage in the real world and the present of the words and characters fashioned by that perished genius.
We think of Barleys as the ultimate Parisian, urbane and hurrying from spa to spa of entertainment, occasionally touring as a conductor, living a life of studied and ferocious pleasure with some swagger, flaunting his great head of brilliant red hair. Most of us could hardly imagine a better material life than being a genius in the 19th century.
Yet it meant that with deadlines for his copy Berlioz rarely could focus with consistent energy on his own large scale music. He probably wrote a lot of music when he was tired. There is an occasional unevenness in inspiration to Benvenuto Cellini that may come from physical fatigue rather than a sudden lesion in talent. Berlioz was one of the first major musical talents in history to lack the craft of being an individual itinerant performer like Paganini, Liszt, St Seans and Anton Rubinstein, although he did tour as a conductor.
Since he wasnít born rich any more than these traveling virtuosos who rode the new railroad trains were, he was lucky he was also a great writer and critics and Paris appreciated him as a daily adornment to their existence while it read its morning newspapers. Like Cellini Berlioz produced musical work of such difficulty to mount that it militated against any easy success.
We might wonder at our own criticism in our day if we think that Berlioz, Baudelaire. Debussy all worked as critics for the Paris newspapers and magazines. Whom have we got or have we had of their caliber outside of Virgil Thomson? Donít ask.
Berlioz to this day requires a lot of rehearsals because his asymmetric style and constant musical surprises all need lots of work form the performers to bring off with any facility and style. One can't simply sightread his music and give an adequate account of it. It means that conductors, singers and erects that are always in a hurry and lack rehearsal time didnít look his way much when they were thinking of spectacles to amnesiac their public. Fro a producer easier is better.
In a curious way without embracing any of the transcendental notions of Liszt and Wagner Berlioz created an idiom that was complex within the opacity density of those two composers, ,much more like Mozart in its clarity of line, that still required as much work to mount as the strange, monumental and chromatic idiom of his two friends. Berliozí scores are more treacherous than those of this duo; nothing is more embarrassing in a performance than a muffed entrance. Berliozís witty and independently moving winds and brass with their linear contrapuntal cutting quality and oddly changing rhythms that give the astonishment he was aiming for.
Yet it is difficult for instrumentalists to play without wondering with a kind of continual terror like a man walking through a geography studded with land mines on a moonless night whether one is going to get through them without some dramatic and humiliating catastrophe.
In fact, given all these factors and the high quality of the music itís amazing Berlioz got performed as much as he did. It also explains partially why his music never really until the late 20th century was ever featured in the concert halls of the always under-rehearsed musical performers of New York.
Yet if one waits long enough and oneís achievement isnít interred somewhere a genius of the caliber of Berlioz may giving the seasonal turns of what is possible in a culture and have his day. From 1950 to 2003, the 200th university of his birth, Hector Berlioz steadily become a composer whose music and books could speak for themselves to a large public rather than a crank who had written one viable work, the Symphonie Fantastique in his middle 20s, otherwise was a kind of uneven eccentric peddling goods of erratic quality.
After the European-American Columbia pundit, Jacques Barzun, made Berlioz respectable in America with his Berlioz and the Romantic Century and wrote another book coupling him with Marx and Wagner, Berliozí longtime champions like Sir Thomas Beecbam, Charles Munch, then later Sir Colin Davis made that possible of course, with the aid of a mercurial technology that Berlioz could not have himself predicted.
Such are the paradoxical possibilities for access to the generosity of the once living who have left behind them enough of a means though the human tools of transmitting culture to resurrect as it were not them but their inner visions; we are among other singularities the only species to whom the dead can talk if some assume if they may not listen as well to us when we reply as civilly and with our comparably minor largesse to their viable ghosts.
We have had our own Ford and Rockefeller grants to Rome in the 1950s but with such Welfare for geniuses we havenít yet produced anything like Benvenuto Cellini. Berlioz certainly wanted in this opera to capture not the real Rome he knew when as a young man as he recounts in his Memoirs, but some feral energy he felt was at the core of that culture; one has to have the nose to sniff such things out and Berlioz had it. As Berlioz tells us, after several tries at getting to Rome he deliberately wrote a boring cantata he asked never to be played again that won him the Prix de Rome and a chance to live on a sinecure for awhile in a foreign country. Nobody here asks us directly to be boring to be successful; our musicians do that in America without any provocation or dole whatsoever.
We are definitely getting more Berlioz than Cellini in this opera. Cellini himself in his Autobiography doesnít talk very much about the Roman Carnival. Yet the very form of Benvenuto Cellini is suffused with the virility and brio of this ancient pagan revel. It is always carnival time in this opera; Black Orpheus has the same juxtaposition of a mythic tale of private passion and a great artist set against the background of a cosmic sea of public revels. Central to this contrast is the juxtaposition of very private scenes with public ones, a feature totally missing in this production. Yet if this version everything takes place in a crowded lobby of an unnameable hotel, we do get the flavor of an inexhaustible Bergsonian energy animating its world.
If the terminally wicked Andrei Serban apparently canít bear a scene with less than handed people in it even if it is a secret love tryst, the music is more powerful than he is. If this director constantly has legions of bystanders eavesdropping and crowding the set like cockroaches and worms on a dead rat festering in a ghetto utter, even when Berlioz called for a scene of delicate courtship, the power of Berliozí talent focuses our attention on the intimacy, not the shuffling static of the upstaging. As a result in one more way the egregiously hideous production I saw though it was centrally incoherent and out of balance, had a kind of counterpoint in its musical genius contrasted with the fussily dull furniture of an inept decorator.
All too often in this age one leaves an opera house mumbling to oneself that one wishes one day the spectacle one saw had a production that wasnít at war with and openly contemptuous of the composer and his music, that worked unobtrusively in the service of total coherence fashioned by the composer and the librettist. Perhaps such a morality these days doesn't make careers. One only after such a show remembers the composer. If one does something perverse and extrusive as this production, one may recall only the director and not notice who wrote the music. As long as the public humiliation and execution of operas by directors that has replaced public hangings in the selling of tickets doesnít cause a financial loss to a revolution, somebody will do it; thatís the equivocal genius of commerce.
It will only stop if at all when audiences realize they are being cheated out of coherence and sanity itself as well as the effects the music was supposed to have and stay away from such aesthetic nightmares. When that will happen I donít know. In an age where rage is common, cruelty an ordinary mode of expressing it, there might be nothing easier and more pleasing than to sit in the shadows, safe and invisible whiling watching some pathic hack kicking the visions of geniuses among the legendary dead into the gutter.
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