Thursday 16 August 2007

Salzburg Festival: Benvenuto Cellini, 15 August 2007

Benvenuto Cellini - Burkhard Fritz
Fieramosca - Laurent Nouari
Giacomo Balducci - Brindley Sherratt
Pope Clemens VII - Mikhail Petrenko
Teresa - Mija Kovalvska
Ascanio - Kate Aldrich
Francesco - Xavier Mas
Bernardino - Roberto Tagliavini
Pompeo - Adam Plachetka
Innkeeper - Sung-Keun Park

Phillip Stölzl (director)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Valery Gergiev (conductor)

We cannot say that we were not warned. The Festival's publicity trumpeted director Phillip Stölzl's background in pop music videos, advertising, and cinema. Stölzl trumpeted his belief in a programme interview that 'the cultural perception of my generation is very strongly related to film no matter what'. And this is what we got: a panoply of projection and special effects, introduced by a cinematic title screen. Some of this worked well enough; the carnival and forging scenes were undeniably thrilling.

Yet the whole 'show' - the word seems unusually appropriate in this case - sometimes degenerated into what Wagner accused Meyerbeer of creating: 'effect without cause'. (Nietzsche turned the accusation round onto Wagner, utterly unjustly, but therein lies a different tale.) Now it might be claimed that Benvenuto Cellini is not an inappropriate case for such treatment, that it was written for Paris after all, and may even qualify as grand opera. And is not grand opera a forerunner of the movies? Well, the latter may be the case - Adorno once said as much - but as for the rest: the most charitable answer must be 'not really'. Cellini is an extraordinary work, drawing inspiration from a range of sources one might have thought incompatible, but Les Huguenots it is not, still less Aida (thank God!) Even at this stage of his career, long before the neo-Gluckian Les Troyens, the Romanticism in Berlioz thrives on the dialectic with his Classicism.

Moreover, some aspects of the stage action were simply bizarre, detracting from whatever coherence the basic approach might have yielded. Why on earth was there a walking vacuum cleaner during Teresa's Act I romance? Why did Stölzl's 'post-futuristic Rome' - whatever that might mean - look more like New York? (We do have cinema in Europe, I think.) Perhaps most bafflingly of all, why was Ascanio a robot? As for the Pope, he resembled Willy Wonka, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, regaled by some very odd male dancers. To say that the Pope's presentation jarred with the dignity of Berlioz's music, so very different from that written for other characters, would be the understatement of the year. It was very 'all-singing, all-dancing', and doubtless entertained many in the audience, but to what dramatic end? I have no idea. If this were a way of demonstrating the empty banality of modern popular culture, there were surely better and certainly cheaper ways of doing this. However, I think it may actually have been a celebration of such trash: in which case, might we not leave Berlioz out of it?

It is not usually my practice to concentrate so heavily upon the production, but this hardly gave one a choice. One was treated like an infant with an attention span of a few seconds, since so much had to be 'going on' all of the time. This may be how one produces a pop video, but in the theatre less is usually more. The music was almost relegated to the status of a soundtrack. It was brilliantly, if breathlessly, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Gergiev. He could do with learning some lessons from his predecessor at the LSO, Sir Colin Davis. But maybe he was swayed by the production: there was certainly a virtuosic fit. The chorus was outstanding throughout, albeit in a similar fashion. It was splendid to have a Heldentenor of Burkhard Fritz's stature in the obscenely demanding title role. He rarely sounded totally at ease with the French, but it remained a virile, almost overpowering portrayal. Mija Kovalvska made a few slips as Teresa early on, but grew into the role, another challenge of extreme proportions. I must mention Kate Aldrich's feat of singing with great beauty and dramatic credibility Ascanio's aria, 'Mais qu'ai-je donc?', whilst having her head ludicrously severed from her robotic 'body'. I can only assume that this referred to the apprentice's fear that his master would soon lose his head. But whilst undeniably 'spectacle' of considerable order, it really added nothing other than confusion to the drama.

This work is intimately concerned with the artist and his relationship towards uncomprehending society. Here the relationship was in danger of being inverted. The fine cast and orchestra were not well served by this reversal.