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Benvenuto Cellini: Isabel Bayrakdarian (Teresa) in the Metropolitan Opera production.

If you listened to the Saturday afternoon broadcast of the Met's new production of Benvenuto Cellini, mounted as part of the house's Berlioz celebration in 2003, you might have wondered why there was so much ambient stage noise. If you saw the production live, you'll know why. This is one of the busiest, most frenetic productions imaginable. With a cast of hundreds, director Andrei Serban, making his Met debut, took the opera's Carnival scene as a cue to treat the whole opera as a boisterous extravaganza. Visually, this production mirrored the exuberance of Berlioz's music--to the point of distraction for many. Aided and abetted by the playful geometry of George Tsypin's large-scale sets, Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili's equally colorful costumes and James Ingalls' theatrical lighting, Serban created a riotous world teeming with fantastic life, like a Hieronymous Bosch painting. He also showed a virtuoso flair for blocking the legion of choristers, dancers and supers. The work is uneven in its dramatic impact because the Carnival scene that concludes the first part of this production (Act III as Berlioz originally structured it) is so fraught musically and dramatically that the second part, which takes place in and around the sculptor Cellini's workshop, seems an anticlimax. Even the quite spectacular casting of the statue of Perseus at the end just can't live up to the energetic animation of part one. Berlioz himself appears periodically in this production, as if he's writing the work as it plays out. At the final curtain, he slides down a long rope to the stage. It wasn't so much theatrical as circus-like, which is the aftertaste this production left me with.


James Levine led the Met orchestra in a splendidly vivid account of the score, which was an amalgam of the Berlioz original and subsequent revisions, largely from a Weimar production led by Franz Liszt. Though clearly a difficult production for the singers, the soloists for the most part distinguished themselves vocally and dramatically amidst all that was going on around. Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian has the coloratura technique, the range and refined control of melodic lines that served well for the contrasting music of her part as Cellini's lover, Teresa. She also has the pert personality for the role, even though there were a few points where the size of the house, the production and the score all conspired to cover her. Equally impressive, Kristine Jepson, in the trouser role of Ascanio, held her own with fine articulation, rich tone and a strong stage presence. In the title role, Marcello Giordani took a very Italianate approach to the music, but navigated its sometimes treacherous reaches with a certain heroic panache. The other male principals--John Del Carlo (Balducci), Alan Opie (Fieramosca) and Robert Lloyd (Pope Clement)--though effective, struck me as a notch or two less vivid in their roles than the female leads and Giordani.

No question, this extravagant production is important and an excellent portrayal of Berlioz's complex musical personality. The work is so uneven and flawed in its structure that I wonder if anything other than Serban's over-the-top approach can bring it to life effectively. The surrealism and the visual anarchy of this production may seem mad, but they make this opera make sense.
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Title Annotation:New York
Author:Gooding, Wayne
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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