Benvenuto Cellini

By Christian Wasselin
© 2004 Christian Wasselin

Translated by Michel Austin
© 2004 Michel Austin

    November 7, 1832: Berlioz is back in Paris. The trip he has just made to Italy has not been immediately productive, but it has filled the composer’s imagination with images and impressions that will have a lasting impact on him: many of the great works still to come, from Harold en Italie to Les Troyens, will bear the imprint of Italy. And it was Italy that came to his mind almost naturally when he set out to achieve final recognition as a composer, that is to say as a composer of operas. In Paris at the time, for any musician who was not an instrumental virtuoso like Liszt and Paganini, or a celebrated singer like Adolphe Nourrit, the only serious way to make a name for himself and gain wealth was through opera. Performing symphonies could only lead to short-lived triumphs, whereas an opera performed with success over a period of weeks, or even repeated from one season to the next, was a guarantee of fame. Rossini had experienced this, and Berlioz understood it. His regular contributions to the Journal des débats and to the Revue et Gazette musicale, which were about to begin, were only meant by him to be a provisional solution, until such time as he could make a living by music; he was far from imagining that on the contrary journalism would be his main source of income for thirty years.

    He therefore started looking around for a libretto. Les Brigands after Schiller, and Hamlet were set aside in favour of a subject taken from Shakespeare, but a light subject in a Sicilian setting, far from the mists of Denmark. On 19 January 1833 Berlioz wrote to Joseph d’Ortigue: "By the way, I am going to write a very lively Italian opera, on Shakespeare’s comedy Much ado about nothing". Subsequently he said little more about this, and the project was quickly discarded. Berlioz had just discovered another subject which excited him far more: on the advice of Vigny he read the autobiography (the Vita) of Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) which had just been published in a French translation, and the book captivated him. "The very lively Italian opera" after Much ado about nothing was set aside, though it resurfaced nearly thirty years later to become Béatrice et Bénédict, the last score written by Berlioz for the theatre.

    By reading the Vita like an adventure story and a manifesto to the glory of the artist who reigns supreme, Berlioz found the opportunity to compare his own destiny to that of the Florentine sculptor and goldsmith. (His view of patrons and political figures is well known: "The Medici are dead, and it is not our deputies who will replace them.") He thus lost no time in requesting from Auguste Barbier (the author of Les Iambes) and Léon de Wailly (the translator of Lewis’ The Monk) that they compile a libretto for him derived from a few episodes in the book. The authors also drew on one of Hoffmann’s tales (Il Signor Formica, sometimes called Salvator Rosa), and were assisted by Alfred de Vigny, whom Berlioz had first approached as librettist in his own right but who at the time was deeply involved in the writing of Chatterton.

    The libretto was at first intended for the Opéra-Comique, but was refused by its director Crosnier in July 1834. It was then augmented with episodes and amplified to the dimensions of a drama. The following year it was accepted by the Opéra thanks to a change of director: Duponchel had replaced Véron at the head of the institution. Admittedly Edouard Bertin, son of the owner of the Journal des Débats, was also on the management committee of the prestigious theatre. Believing the authors to be lacking in experience, the new director nevertheless persuaded them to reduce the work to what he thought were more modest proportions (two acts instead of four or five) and to give it a semi seria tone.

    "This is the great challenge of my life", observed Berlioz, though unfortunately he had little leisure for composition: journalism was eating up much of his time, without counting the preparations for various concerts he was giving and the rehearsals for La Esmeralda, the opera by Louise Bertin (sister of Edouard), which he was supervising (the work was performed at the Opéra in November 1836). All the same the score of Benvenuto Cellini was in the main completed by early 1837, with the composition of the Requiem (first performed on December 5 of the same year) causing one final distraction.

A resounding failure

    Berlioz delivered his score to the Opéra’s copyists in February 1838. Rehearsals for Benvenuto started on 8 March; the first performance was scheduled at the time for June. At last, Berlioz thought, the time had arrived for him to come face to face with the real public – no longer the restricted and enlightened public of the concert hall, but that of the Opéra: "The great challenge is the public that is indifferent and impartial; my aim is to win it over." He was also aware that his work was one of sparkling novelty and no less daunting difficulty, and that he had to be prepared for the ill-will of various sectional interests. Habeneck in particular, who conducted the first performances of the Symphonie fantastique and of the Requiem, and who was in charge of the musical direction, was visibly no longer up to the task.

    Obstacles quickly multiplied. The censors required that Pope Clement VII be replaced by a cardinal (the chorus in Latin, in the first tableau of the second act, was also within inches of disappearing), the music alarmed choristers and orchestral players, and the date of the first performance was put back several times. The singers also made their demands: Berlioz had to replace the aria sung by Teresa in the first tableau ("Ah ! que l’amour une fois dans le cœur") by a cavatina and cabaletta of a rather less disconcerting kind, and to compose a supplementary aria for Ascanio, which he placed at the very beginning of the last tableau ("Tra-la-la... Mais qu’ai-je donc?"). Fieramosca on his side had his aria in the second tableau ("Ah, qui pourrait me résister?") modified several times. As for Balducci, his aria in the first tableau ("Ne regardez jamais la lune") was also distorted and then cut out. Other changes were made, especially in the overture: the overture that is known nowadays is rather more concise than the original version, which Berlioz probably never heard.

    Gilbert Duprez, the acknowledged star of the Opéra ever since the retirement and suicide of Adolphe Nourrit, kept making capricious demands. Later he wrote: "When you get tied up in the kind of complicated and learned music that Berlioz would write, it is not easy to find your way around. I did not emerge too well from this adventure." And yet a few months earlier he had sung the Sanctus of the Requiem. To delay the opening performance by a week he alleged an indisposition, to give Berlioz time to compose at the eleventh hour a romance ("Une heure encore... La gloire était ma seule idole") which comes at the start of the second tableau of the first act.

    When the work finally received its first performance on 10 September, two or three pieces were greeted with rousing applause while the rest was hissed. A further two performances took place on 12 and 14 September followed by a last one on 11 January [1839], after which only the first act was performed three times in February and March, followed by a ballet. And that was all. In the meantime Duprez had withdrawn: after three performances he understood that the score would not earn him the plaudits he was expecting. He had also just had a child, and as a young father he was (understandably!) overcome with emotion. Changes also took place in the course of the performances (in particular the scene with the innkeeper and the pantomime in the second tableau were cut), but success though just within grasp proved elusive. Berlioz drew the consequences when writing to the director of the Opéra on 18 March 1839: "I have the honour to inform you that I am withdrawing my opera of Benvenuto. It is my deep conviction that you will be pleased to hear this."

The trip to Weimar

    Nothing further happened for thirteen years, except for the composition of two instrumental pieces: Rêverie et Caprice for violin and orchestra (or piano) in 1841, which reuses the original aria of Teresa, and the overture Le Carnaval romain in 1844, which utilises two themes of the opera. Berlioz also wrote two short stories (Révolution du ténor and Le Premier Opéra), later reproduced in Les Soirées de l’orchestre, which deal with the composer’s unhappy experiences; the second one is concerned particularly with the Requiem.

    In 1848 Liszt had become musical director at Weimar; he now warmly assumed the mission of defending the music of his contemporaries. In the first place there was Berlioz who, despite the geographical distance, had remained his close friend, and about whom he had written at the end of 1838 an article called "The Perseus of Benvenuto Cellini". In 1852 Liszt decided to stage Benvenuto in Weimar, which he did twice, in March and April, then in November. In spring 1852 Berlioz was unfortunately detained in London and had to write numerous letters to his friend to advise him on how to conduct the opera; it was performed in a German translation but more or less in the state it was at the time it was first staged in Paris. But even before the end of this first series of performances, and with the agreement of Hans von Bülow the conductor, Liszt convinced himself that the score needed modification, and in particular had to be drastically shortened. This the two men set out to do, though at the cost of many convolutions inflicted on the dramatic argument. Liszt suggested solutions to Berlioz, always by letter, and Berlioz, who had full trust in his friend accepted them for the most part. The new version of the opera, the so-called "Weimar version", was put together for the November performances at which Berlioz was present. David Cairns, the biographer of Berlioz, does however suggest that the performance on 17 April 1852 already resembled in many ways those that were to be given in the autumn. The implication is that Bülow and Liszt had imagined and put together themselves, in the author’s absence, the version of Benvenuto which is now called the "Weimar version", and had then pretended to suggest to Berlioz the cuts and changes which they had already implemented without telling him.

    Be that as it may, Berlioz was applauded as much in the autumn as in spring. He believed that his unfortunate opera, fourteen years after its disastrous first performance and even though it had lost some of its corrosive power, had now found its final shape and character: "As he is now, Benvenuto is a nice lad", he wrote to Auguste Barbier. This view held sway for over a century, through all the occasional performances of the opera in the world (mainly in Germany), until the day when a century later English musicologists and performers had the idea of returning to the scheme and the sequence of numbers of 1838. The fact is that the Weimar version played havoc with the score even more than had been the case during the rehearsals and performances in Paris in 1838-1839. This time the last two tableaux were unhesitatingly merged together (they form the original second act) to become the third act, while the two tableaux of the first Paris act became the first two Weimar acts. When thus condensed the action required that Berlioz should cut several numbers, which he did without protesting too much, though this involved displacing those he insisted on keeping, and changing the words at the risk of creating confusion in the dramatic coherence of the whole work.

    It is in this condition, though with a few changes, that Benvenuto was staged at Covent Garden (in Italian!) on 25 June 1853: this was another failure, this time because of a cabal led by fanatics of Italian opera. Some final changes of detail were made up to the last performances in Weimar, in 1856. After this the opera was never again performed in Berlioz’s lifetime: a plan to stage the work at the Théâtre-Lyrique, possibly with spoken dialogue, did not materialise. Basing themselves on this unfulfilled plan, and on the original conception of the work as a comic opera (which never existed outside the imagination of Berlioz and his librettists), a group of dedicated English enthusiasts in the late 1950s, did not merely go back to the original 1838 scenario and resurrect many passages expunged at Weimar (which was judicious), but introduced spoken dialogue in the place of recitatives (which was much less so). This was tantamount to being more royalist than the king and doing in reverse what Berlioz had done when he composed the recitatives for Weber’s Freischütz in 1841! This explains why for some two decades Benvenuto was often performed in this way at the end of the XXth century, whereas it never was a comic opera in Berlioz’s lifetime, whether in Paris, Weimar, or London. Admittedly the Paris scheme with a few passages of spoken dialogue is, all things considered, preferable to the lame conciseness of Weimar, but the new edition of the full score published by Bärenreiter in 1994-1996 disposes once and for all of all these initiatives.

The work

    If Les Troyens is the opera of water, Benvenuto Cellini is the opera of fire. The libretto, tautly cohesive in its episodes and highly alert in its play with words, mingles with abandon different modes, from the burlesque to the tragic. "Everything in it is serious but in a comical way, including the Pope", as Hugh Macdonald says. The libretto has nothing in common with the bombast and flabbiness of those by Scribe, which gave its shape to grand opera in the manner of Meyerbeer (Robert le diable, 1831; Les Huguenots, 1836) or Halévy (La Juive, 1835). The libretto is entirely at the service not only of Berlioz’s opera, but of Berlioz himself, as it celebrates the daring of an artist who, though besieged on all sides by censorship and pettiness, nevertheless triumphs over every obstacle. "Cellini is as it were a XIXth century invention. He was the perfect answer to the conception which contemporaries needed to have of the Italian Renaissance, in polemical opposition to clerical obscurantism", as says a character in the film of John Lvoff La Salle de bains (1988). Hence Berlioz gives the part of Benvenuto Cellini to a tenor whose technique must combine flexibility and stamina, and thus express the heroism, melancholy, irony and fearless courage of the character.

    Berlioz’s music does of course transcend the story. It draws on earlier compositions (the Messe solennelle, the opera Les Francs-Juges, the cantata Cléopâtre, Le Ballet des ombres, the romance Je crois en vous and a Chansonette written on a text by Léon de Wailly); the song "Bienheureux les matelots" is for its part borrowed from Italian folklore. "There is terrific fire in this score", as the composer acknowledged, and he says in another place: "It is full of panache and bravado, Italian and Gascon, it is true!" Fire was put to the service of temerity.  The profusion of melodies, in arias and ensembles, but also in more furtive passages (Teresa’s prayer at the heart of the trio in the first tableau, the phrase in the strings when Arlequin arrives) is dazzling in its prodigality, and the tangle of rhythms is among the most complex that Berlioz ever invented. "There are rhythmic dissonances, rhythmic consonances, and rhythmic modulations", Berlioz wrote in 1837. And lastly the orchestra is anything but an operatic orchestra which does no more than provide a bland accompaniment to the singers. It is enough to listen to the whole of the first scene to convince oneself of this, with the strings’ fugato, the comments by wind and horns, and then the guitars and tambourines in the wings. The brilliance of the conception is manifestly perfectly under control; the closing pages of the second tableau, during the night of the carnival, are a model of precision and clarity while the music is the most hectic and boisterous imaginable and the action of the most tumultuous kind. But the genius of the music requires an outstanding performance, and as David Cairns observes, all these difficulties mean that the score is still nowadays reserved for virtuoso soloists, choristers and instrumental players.

Which version to choose?

    Benvenuto Cellini was performed complete fourteen times in Berlioz’s lifetime, though almost every time in a different version. As Pierre-René Serna observes1, "no other work of Berlioz has undergone such a disturbed gestation. Although it was the composer’s practice to refine all his scores until the final version, and none of them had its definitive look at the time of creation, in this case the recasting was deep and continuous and changed its appearance significantly." That is one of the reasons why up till now few conductors and opera houses have had the conviction to defend a work whose score long resembled a construction site, even more tangled than that of The Tales of Hoffmann. This compels far more drastic choices than Idomeneo or Boris Godounov, affecting structural choices (this particular sequence of scenes, this particular aria, etc.) but also countless choices in detail. The situation has been considerably clarified with the edition published by Bärenreiter under the direction of Hugh Macdonald. This new edition sets out the varied transformations that the work had to undergo, but suggests three successive versions which help to clarify the situation:

– a first version, the so-called "Paris 1 version", which corresponds to the score as delivered by Berlioz to the copyists at the Opéra early in 1838, for use in the rehearsals and the first performance;

– a second version, the so-called "Paris 2 version", which corresponds to the score copied at the Opéra, as was the practice at the time, to reflect the last evenings in 1839, and which obviously takes into account the numerous modifications that were made in the course of the rehearsals and performances;

– a third version, the so-called "Weimar version", which takes account of the redivision into three acts, the disruptions thought up by Liszt and Bülow (and sanctioned by Berlioz, as we have seen), and minor changes introduced subsequently.

    Any conductor who wishes to put on Benvenuto Cellini must now choose one of these three versions, subject to further changes to his chosen version in the light of his own conception of the work. One may admittedly take the view that Paris 1 corresponds to Berlioz’s first wishes, before circumstances, the whims of some and the shortcomings of others played havoc with it; one may also believe that Berlioz, in the light of the success of his opera in Weimar, was of the opinion that the version represented in autumn 1852 (which was subsequently slightly modified but not drastically changed) was definitive. But nothing suggests that deep down he did not regret the breadth of the four Paris tableaux and the musical and dramatic logic which was disrupted when he wanted to rescue at the eleventh hour arias which in the new scheme do not find their logical place in the unfolding of the whole story.

    For the concerts in December 2003 at Radio France, John Nelson elected to use the so-called "Paris 1 version", thus presenting Berlioz’s first thoughts in all their creative freedom, and at the same time revealing many passages unknown to all... and which Berlioz himself never heard, since some of them were disfigured or cut from the start of the rehearsals: as we have seen, this applies to the overture, which is given here as originally cast. The original aria of Teresa in the first tableau will be more familiar to devotees of Berlioz who are fortunate to travel and were able to attend performances given in various places in recent years by exacting conductors. But, to cite only a few examples, Balducci’s aria in the same tableau and such choral passages as the finale of the first tableau in the form it will be played, or the additional bars in the carnival in the second tableau, will come as a discovery for most listeners.

    But it was John Nelson’s wish to take into account two subsequent additions made during the rehearsals in 1838: the romance of Cellini at the beginning of the second tableau, and Ascanio’s aria at the start of the fourth. Admittedly these two pieces were written by Berlioz to show off two of the singers who made possible the première of the work. But subsequently, even though he was forced to make cuts in his score to keep it within the limits of a normal opera in Germany, the composer was never willing to remove these two numbers, which must therefore have meant a great deal to him. What is more, he displaced Ascanio’s aria and changed the words at the risk of defying all logic (one small and amusing detail: as the censors had required from the start that the Pope should be made into a cardinal the words of this aria never allude to anybody except to "His Eminence"; it is Hugh Macdonald who suggests replacing this expression with "the Most Holy Father"). Lastly, as an exquisite concession, we will also be able to hear the brief but wonderful orchestral prelude which follows the scene between Fieramosca and Pompeo in the second tableau and leads to the fanfare announcing the carnival (this prelude was added for the performance given in London in 1853). In addition, John Nelson has also included a few minor corrections derived from "Paris 2" and "Weimar" which self-evidently were made by Berlioz without any compulsion but freely and with a clear mind in order to improve his score.

Christian Wasselin


* This article was written for the concert performances of Benvenuto Cellini on 8 and 11 December 2003 at Maison de Radio France (salle Olivier Messiaen), Paris, conducted by John Nelson. We are very grateful to M. Christian Wasselin and to Radio France for giving us permission to reproduce it here.

Hector Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini, H76; opera in two acts and four tableaux / libretto by Auguste Barbier and Léon de Wailly / composed in 1834-1838 / first performed on 10 September 1838 at the Paris Opéra under the direction of François Habeneck / dedicated to Her Royal imperial and royal Highness Maria Pavlovna, Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar.

NB: The performance at Maison de Radio France was recorded live by EMI and released on CD in autumn 2004.

1.  In his Berlioz de B à Z [published in 2006]

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