Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz’s Baptism of Fire

Long-awaited acclaim

By Valère Etienne / BmO 29 March 2018
Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz’s Baptism of Fire
Inspired by the life of the celebrated Italian goldsmith and sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini by Hector Berlioz suffered, from its very first performance in 1838 at the Paris Opera onwards, from a bad reputation. Judged unplayable, scabrous and too far removed from the canons of Grand Opera, the work never gained favour in the eyes of either audiences or critics during the composer’s lifetime, despite numerous revisions. A story of missed opportunity.    

Every performance of Benvenuto Cellini on the stage of the Paris Opera today is a small triumph for Berlioz over history. Indeed, it is important to remember that the first performance of the work at the Royal Academy of Music in September 1838 was a memorable failure, to the extent that the Opera never again opened its doors to Berlioz during his lifetime: The Damnation of Faust in 1846 had to be performed at the Opéra-Comique and at the composer’s expense; Béatrice et Bénédict was initially only performed abroad, in Baden-Baden in 1862; as for The Trojans, it was premiered in 1863 at the Théâtre-Lyrique, once the score had been heavily reworked.

The premier of Benvenuto Cellini, Berlioz’s first really accomplished opera, must be considered in context: during the 1830s, the fashion in Paris was for grand, historical opera, after the pattern of William Tell by Rossini (1829), Robert le Diable by Meyerbeer (1833) or The Jew by Halévy (1835), generally speaking, pretexts for productions full of pageantry with grandiose choruses and a rather demonstrative exploitation of the picturesque in the sets and costumes. Beneath the polite compliments he addressed to Meyerbeer and Halévy, Berlioz sometimes gives one to understand what he really thought of the new direction taken by the Parisian operatic stage: “Dramatic art already has scarcely any other object than to provide grand scenes like a magic lantern; the large chorus of the Opera is no longer considered as anything but a mass of stooges that must somehow be costumed and arrayed upon the stage in a picturesque manner; the orchestra is good for nothing […]. Thus, little by little, opera is being demolished”. It is with these thoughts in mind that Berlioz worked on Benvenuto Cellini, the work that should have allowed him, in his turn, to make his entrance onto the stage of the Paris Opera…

The subject, “Benvenuto”, was inspired by the composer’s personal experience: in 1830, winner of the Prix de Rome, Berlioz left for his period of residence at the Villa Medici, and was to remain marked by his experience in Italy, as many of his ulterior works demonstrate (Harold in Italy, Romeo and Juliet). In particular, Cellini’s Perseus, which Berlioz saw in the Piazza delle Signoria in Florence, made a strong impression on him. But it was only towards 1834, after his return to Paris, that he began work on “Benvenuto”. Léon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier undertook the writing of the libretto, which was inspired by Cellini’s autobiography, Vita, although they modified numerous elements: the action is set in Rome rather than in Florence, the love intrigue and the carnival scene have been added… The subject was, in any case, conducive to the creation of highly picturesque costumes, of which drawings by Paul Lormier, the costume designer for the first performances in September 1838, give some idea:

But the production was a veritable fiasco: the rehearsals were chaotic and marred by the overt hostility of the musicians towards the score, which the conductor, Habeneck himself, struggled to master (Berlioz was obliged to rewrite it and make cuts at the eleventh hour), the opening night on 10th September was a disaster and after the third performance, the tenor, Gilbert Duprez refused to sing. “Never will I forget the torments I was obliged to endure”, Berlioz wrote in his Memoires… Liszt decided to give the work a second chance by putting it on in Weimar in 1852, in a version slightly revised and shortened by Berlioz himself, then at Covent Garden in London the following year, with Berlioz conducting. Once again the work was resoundingly booed.

How does one explain this initial incomprehension? There is of course the extreme difficulty of the score and the discrepancy between certain aspects of the work and the tastes and mores of the period (the language of the libretto was offensive to some and the censors demanded that the Pope, who commissioned Cellini’s statue, be replaced by a cardinal…). But one can also see in “Benvenuto” a rather too bold first attempt by a young composer who, at his very baptism at the Paris Opera, raised such essential questions as the role of the artist in society and the feasibility of creating the ideal masterpiece; already, the ambition of a musician who, unwilling to compromise, wanted totally mastery of the performing space is evident. As he said himself later: “Opera, as I conceive of it, is, above all, a vast musical instrument; I know how to play it but if I am to play it well, it must be handed over to me unconditionally. Which will never happen.” Benvenuto Cellini, certainly, had to wait until 1972, almost a century and a half later, before it reappeared at the Paris Opera.

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