Berlioz in London
Benvenuto Cellini at the Opera on 25 June 1853
Two contemporary reviews
In 1853 Berlioz staged his Benvenuto Cellini at the Royal Italian Opera Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House) at the invitation of Frederick Gye, the director of the Opera. The first and only performance of Cellini (Weimar version, sung in Italian) took place on 25 June, in the presence of members of the British and Germany royal families and princes, critics and music-lovers from London and abroad. But the performance was met with a noisy organised body of opposition determined to ruin it. Berlioz withdrew his opera the next day.
The Times published an unsigned review of this performance in its issue of 27 June. At the time, James Davison was the music critic of the Times, but, although he did not normally sign his reviews, it is not certain that the review of Cellini is by him. On 2 July another unsigned review of the performance appeared in the Illustrated London News. This page reproduces the text of both these reviews.
The 2 July review has been transcribed from our own copy of the Illustrated London News of 2 July 1853. We have transcribed the 27 June review from a print-out of the article in a database accessed at the British Library (Colindale site) in London. We have preserved the syntax and spelling of the original text of both reviews, but corrected type-setting errors.
Illustrated London News, 2 July 1853, No. 630, Vol. XXII., p. 530
ROYAL ITALIAN OPERA.
Hector Berlioz has failed to make an impression on an English audience, by his three-act opera, “Benvenuto Cellini.” He was equally unsuccessful with the same work at the Grand Opera in Paris, some fifteen years since; and it met with but little success in Weimar, in the spring of 1852; but revived, under the composer’s supervision, and under the direction of Liszt, on the 17th of November last, “Benvenuto Cellini” was received with the greatest enthusiasm. No stronger sensation was ever created in any art-capital in Germany than was made by the performance of the opera in Goethe’s artistic town. Let it be recorded that, on this occasion, Weimar was filled with connoisseurs from almost every country; it was a kind of musical congress in fact; and Berlioz and his lyric production enjoyed a perfect triumph. Saturday was the reverse of the medal; not only was the opera received with no applause, it was assailed with signs of disapprobation rarely heard within the polite precincts of an Italian Opera-house. The bitterest opponent of Berlioz, as an operatic writer, will admit his undeniable claim to be treated with distinction. Into the opera itself it is useless to enter at this moment at any length. With such a daring innovator, there could be no medium between a great triumph or a complete failure. The latter has been the case; but our opinions remain unchanged as to Berlioz’s pretensions. We have already witnessed in this country a complete revolution in the public judgment as regards his instrumental works—we do not despair of seeing the day when he will take his revenge for Saturday night’s reverse. He who attempts a complete transformation in art ideas and art forms, must not be dismayed by a check. The composer of the “Romeo and Juliet” symphony, the “Harold” symphony, the music to Goethe’s “Faust,” the “Requiem,” the overtures to the “Francs-Juges,” the “Waverley,” the “Tempest” of Shakspeare, the “Carnival Roman,” and “Benvenuto;” he who has grappled with the colossal conceptions of Scott, Pylon, and Goethe, and has sung the melodies of Moore, has nothing to fear for his future fame.
In the “Benvenuto,” whilst we recognise the manifold beauties of the composer’s ideas, we are not insensible to the faults and exaggerations into which the composer has fallen. He has been justly compared with Martin and Turner, so varying are the shapes and shades of his musical painting. We can but rapidly point to the lovely duettino between Cellini (Tamberlik) and Teresa (Mdme. Jullienne), in the first scene; to the admirably dramatic and ingenious trio with Fieramosca (Tagliafico), the rival of Cellini; to the thoroughly original drinking-chorus in the second act; to the amazingly graphic concerted finale of the Carnival, in which Cellini kills Pompeo (Mei) in the affray; to the characteristic chorus of founders in Cellini’s studio, in the last act, with the singularly appropriate accompaniment of the sculptor’s chisel; to the vivacious and sentimental ditty of Ascanio (Mdlle. Didiée)—redemanded, despite of clique; to the magnificent music of the Cardinal (Herr Formès); and to the impassioned aria of Tamberlik, prior to the casting of the statue of Perseus, on which his hopes of the Pope’s pardon rest. Berlioz’s two overtures to this opera—especially the one in the Carnival—would alone stamp him as one of the greatest orchestral writers of the age. His great defect has been in essaying the almost impossible of execution in the parts allotted to the singers, and in the abuse of the instruments of percussion. Then, again, the libretto of MM. De Wailly and A. Barbier is very badly constructed. No doubt the fancy and imagination of the composer were struck with the notion of setting to music a situation in which the renowned engraver is casting a statue to save his life; but, however such an incident may tell in description, it fails to excite powerful sympathy when depicted by sound. Something more human is required to move an auditory than the congealing of metal for a bronze Perseus. Whether the “Benvenuto Cellini” will be shelved for eternity, on account of a bad libretto, we take leave to doubt. The score abounds in too many striking beauties of conception, contrast, and combination to admit of its being extinguished so easily as superficial sceptics or systematic detractors have ventured to assert. Let it be understood, that the compositions of Berlioz cannot be compared with any other standard. His style is entirely his own—erratic, eccentric, daring, innovating—fatiguing to follow for those who hear his works for the first time—setting all conventionalities at defiance—baffling all attempts at instantaneous analysis—most puzzling to the most erudite professor, most tantalizing to the veriest tyro; and yet are his writings brimful of genius, replete with the most poetic imagery, and raising at times the descriptive subjects, in which he most revels, to the highest order of musical painting.
The Times, 27 June 1853, p. 5
ROYAL ITALIAN OPERA.
It is not an agreeable task to announce the failure of a work upon which great time, pains, and thought must have been bestowed, still less when that work is one of high pretensions, its author a man of standing, reputation, and known artistic enthusiasm. It is our duty, nevertheless, to record that the semi seria opera of Benvenuto Cellini, by M. Hector Berlioz, which was played once in Paris without success (in 1838), experienced no better luck on Saturday night, when it was produced at the Royal Italian Opera before a crowded audience, among whom were her Majesty, Prince Albert, and the King and Queen of Hanover. Having stated the circumstances of the failure, let us endeavour to account for it.
The libretto of Benvenuto Cellini, by MM. de Wailly and Barbier, is among the very worst ever intrusted to a musical composer. We cannot, indeed, understand how one with the experience, judgment, and literary attainments of M. Berlioz could possibly have been induced to accept such a book; how one so quick to detect the weak points and absurdities of others, should have been so blind when it came to his own turn. The subject was highly promising. The life of the celebrated sculptor of Florence presents a choice of incidents sufficiently romantic and striking to form the basis of a libretto as good as any in the repertoire of French Grand Opera. The episode selected by M. de Wailly and his collaborateur, however, is totally unfitted for music; and the conduct of the plot, of which the casting of the statue of Perseus is made the culminating point, is as clumsy as the plot itself is meagre and uninteresting. A few words will explain. Benvenuto Cellini, attached to Teresa, daughter of Balducci, treasurer of Pope Clement VII, admits his pupil, Ascanio, into his confidence. Another sculptor, Fieramosca, is, however, the rival of Benvenuto, and his pretensions are favoured by the father. Teresa herself preferring Benvenuto, a plan for elopement is arranged between them, which is overheard by Fieramosca. It is agreed that Benvenuto and his associate, Ascanio, are to assume certain disguise, to be recognized by Teresa at the Carnival, during the bustle and festivities of which the lovers hope to effect their purpose. Fieramosca, resolved to counteract the plot, engages a friend to accompany him to the carnival, under a similar disguise—anticipating that, if he can arrive before Cellini, he will be enabled to carry off the prize. The two pretenders and their companions confront each other on the appointed spot; a scuffle ensues, and Pompeo, the friend of Fieramosca, is slain by the hand of Benvenuto. The latter is immediately apprehended; but the cannon of St. Angelo gives the signal for the termination of the Carnival, and he contrives to escape with Teresa. Benvenuto conveys the girl to his home, and while engaged with his pupils and assistant workmen in completing his great statue of Perseus, for which he has been paid in advance, Balducci appears with Fieramosca, and insists upon the restoration of his daughter. In the meantime, a Cardinal arrives from the Pope to inquire about the completion of the statue. Balducci arraigns Cellini for murder and abduction; and the Cardinal, believing the charges, declares that the statue shall be cast by another hand. Stung by the thought of such indignity, Benvenuto takes up an anvil, and threatens to break the mould in pieces. The Cardinal, fearing that he may carry his threat into execution, commutes the sentence, on condition that the statue be cast within an hour—strengthening his argument with the assurance that, if this be not effected, Benvenuto shall be hung for the murder of Pompeo. The sculptor accepts, and at once sets to work, sided by his pupils—Fieramosca himself being pressed into the service. There not being metal enough, Benvenuto heroically orders every work of art which he possesses in gold, silver, and bronze, to be consigned to the furnace; and before the appointed time the work is accomplished, and the finished statue of Perseus triumphantly displayed. The pardon of Cellini by the Cardinal, and the consent of Balducci to his union with Teresa are the sequel. The opera is divided into three acts. Act I. presents a scene in Balducci’s house, where Benvenuto and Teresa arrange the means of elopement. Act II. begins with a scene, in which the sculptor and his companions, carousing at an inn, sing choruses in honour of their art, and concludes with the grand tableau of the Carnival, of which the death of Pompeo and the elopement are the crowning incidents. Act III. is confined to the studio of Benvenuto Cellini, and comprises the arrival of the Cardinal, the arraignment of Benvenuto, and the casting of the statue.
The material thus described might, certainly, with better management, have been made more dramatic—although they offer few chances for the effective exercise of the musician’s art; but the authors have overlooked almost every opportunity for effect, spinning out scenes destitute of action to an intolerable length, and failing to invest any of the personages with the smallest degree of interest. M. Berlioz was really to be pitied. The task he undertook in setting such a libretto was most ungrateful, and more especially difficult to one entertaining his peculiar and original views on the art of musical composition.
We have said that the opera failed to win the sympathies of the audience; and we have to add that the fall of the curtain after each act, and indeed the termination of the majority of the pieces, was accompanied by hisses and other marks of disapproval, from a large party, who, to the evident annoyance of those desirous of listening before condemning, and without deference to the illustrious occupants of the Royal box, kept up an obstinate opposition from one end of the performance to the other—even venting their displeasure upon the instrumental prelude to the second act, a splendid piece of orchestral writing, which, under the title of the overture to the Carnaval Romain, has been performed at all the great London concerts with distinguished applause. Why this piece, applauded at Drury-lane, at Exeter-hall, and at the Hanover-square Rooms, should be hissed at Covent-garden, where it was magnificently played by the band, it would be difficult—nay impossible, to explain. Without professing to be the advocates of M. Berlioz, whose music may be safely left to rest upon its own merits, we may say, without inconsequence, that such an incident must have led many to suspect the entire sincerity of those continued marks of disapproval, dealt indiscriminately by a resolute and determined party, on almost every morceau, good, bad, and indifferent. It may also be suggested that M. Berlioz, who, whatever the conflicting opinions entertained of his music, has for more than a quarter of a century laboured with unmistakable devotion in the conscientious pursuit of his art, and long enjoyed a position of the highest eminence on the continent, the acknowledgement of which in England his hospitable reception in this country has hitherto tended to establish, was not the kind of man to be visited—a stranger, in his place in the orchestra, during the performance of an opera of his composition—with such manifestations of contempt as are exhibited in the noises proceeding from penny whistles, door-keys, and other artificial instruments of sibillation, which would scarcely be allotted to the antics of an unsuccessful clown.
That the music of Benvenuto Cellini is composed on principles in opposition to those of the acknowledged masters is true. But because a thing is new, this is no proof of its being bad. For our own part, amid much that was objectionable, according to received notions of art which we have always been the first to uphold, we detected much that deserved to be admired. The instrumentation is often unnecessarily intricate, and oftener unnecessarily noisy. The cymbals and big drum, except in the Carnival overture, are a nuisance, and more than once—as in the music which accompanies the entry of the Carnival—go far to damage what is otherwise intrinsically fine. The rhythm is often broken and irregular, so as to torment and puzzle the ear; and several of the melodies, which begin happily, are spoiled by being tortured into strange and unexpected cadences. The scene of the Carnival, though full of life and colour, is decidedly too long; and the contortions of the polichinello, together with the satirical dumbshow directed against that very uninteresting personage, Signor Balducci, occupy a considerable space of time without offering any attractions to the audience. And yet, there is some excellent music in this scene. All that part which is a repetition from the overture is striking and characteristic; while the choruses of the people, and their exclamations of pleasure, as the pieces in the theatre of Cassandro is being enacted, are picturesque and dramatically appropriate. Granting that there are many things to offend the prejudices of those who look exclusively to the accepted models of dramatic musical composition, that there is much that sounds prolix and monotonous, that the voices are at times injudiciously taxed, and that there are many odd combinations, with a great deal of straining after effects not always obtained, we find, on the other hand, enough of pleasing, original, and effective to counterbalance these drawbacks, and to entitle Benvenuto Cellini to consideration, if not approval.
With regard to the management and the artists, we have only to say that the representation of Benvenuto Cellini, on Saturday night, reflected credit on all concerned. The costumes were, for the most part, new and characteristic; while the scenery, if not all new, was at least appropriate, and one tableau (that of the Carnival by moonlight) beautiful. The band—conducted by M. Berlioz himself, with that admirable skill for which he is renowned—was faultless throughout; and an almost equal amount of praise is due to the chorus, whose task, though arduous and difficult, was performed to admiration. The principal singers laboured zealously in their vocation. Tamberlik (Benvenuto), upon whom fell the weight of the opera, was untiring in his efforts. Not a point that could be made in dramatic action escaped him, while his singing was beyond reproach. In the air, “Son solo afine” (Act III.), he sang with such intense feeling and expression that the audience could not help applauding him enthusiastically. His costume in this scene suited him wonderfully, and he looked like one of Titian’s portraits endowed with life. Tagliafico, who made quite a character of the sculptor, Fieramosca, was not less entitled to praise. He was perfect to a note in the music, and produced a marked effect in the air (in E), “Ah ! chi potrebbe oppormisi” (Act II.), where the coward apostrophizes his own valour in the style of Ancient Pistol. Formes (the Cardinal) had only one scene, but it was one in which his powerful voice was of the highest importance, and he gave the necessary weight and solemnity to the admonitions of the Pope’s messenger. M. Zelger did everything in his power for the singularly ineffective part of Balducci. The very difficult music allotted to Teresa was efficiently sung by Madame Jullienne. The allegro of her first aria, “Quando del senno, avro l’età” (the only movement in the opera which approaches the hackneyed style of caballetta belonging to the minor band of Italian composers) was executed with great fluency, and the opening larghetto, which is really expressive, with the utmost sentiment. Mademoiselle Nantier Didiée (Ascanio) has the most effective and the prettiest air in the opera—“Tra la la, non so quel che ho,” in which the roguish pupil of Cellini mimics the love scene between his master and Teresa. When Benvenuto was produced in Paris this air, which was sung by Madame Stoltz, made a furore. Without instituting comparisons, we may award unqualified praise to Mademoiselle Nantier Didiée, who gave it with a fluency and arch liveliness which delighted the audience, and obtained the only encore of the evening.
The business connected with the casting of the statue, though not ill-managed, was naturally ineffective, which, added to much more that was tedious and undramatic in the last act, had doubtless its influence in strengthening the unfavourable verdict of the malcontents. The attempt of a part of the audience to bring forward M. Berlioz after the fall of the curtain was without result; neither the composer nor the principal singers responded.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created on 18 July 1997 by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin; this page created on 10 May 2009.
© Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb. All rights of reproduction reserved.
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