`Cellini' almost too exciting


December 23, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

As a listener, I welcome musical novelty in almost any form - new compositions, obscure oldies, even re-arrangements of familiar works (at this time of year, I always get a kick out of Duke Ellington's swinging take on Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, for example).

As a viewer, I'm no less interested in novelty. Unlike some folks, I didn't have any trouble with the abstract look of the Baltimore Opera Company's production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly last season; I found the new perspective as engaging as it was provocative. It's fun being forced to reconsider aspects of a work you think you already understand.

Last week, my musical adventurer side couldn't wait to attend the Kirov Opera's presentation of Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa, a work known to me only on recording. The chances of running into this piece again anytime soon in this country are pretty slim. I loved every minute of the score, even the few dull patches and the noisy battle interlude for orchestra; there was a keen sense of discovery at every melodic turn. But I kept wishing that the physical elements of the staging had the same pull. The production looked awfully limp and dated by contemporary standards.

There must be other ways to interpret and enliven Mazeppa on the stage, to keep it from seeming like a dusty period piece. But, in retrospect, traditional sets and costumes seem perfectly suitable for an opera precious few people in this country have ever explored. Unencumbered by any philosophical digging and stretching to fulfill a theatrical "concept," the opera was allowed to do its thing in an honest fashion.

That wasn't necessarily the case a few days earlier at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, where I caught its first-ever production of Hector Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini and its first revival of Fromental Halevy's La Juive since 1936. The Met presented both rarities in productions that couldn't have been much more unconventional.

The mission behind the Cellini venture seemed to be to fill every minute of this 1838 comic opera with distraction, lest anyone notice how unusual and, it has been argued, flawed it is. This sprawling tale of the eminent Renaissance sculptor, the love of his live, his artistic battles with rivals and Pope Clement VII became under Andrei Serban's guidance a Busby Berkeley-size extravaganza, complete with two huge swirling staircases, soaring columns and a giant object resembling a nuclear reactor that would eventually open to reveal a statue of Perseus.

Personally, I think that Cellini, with its consistently unpredictable edge, exquisite orchestration (Berlioz finds innumerable varieties of tone and texture) and often glorious melodies, is the product of genius. Even when the music or the story takes an odd turn, it's an amazing creation. I didn't need Serban to keep me entertained by sending in an army of commedia dell'arte clowns at every turn to scamper all over the place while the main characters were trying to sing. Or laying on so many layers of shtick, as in the luscious Act 1 love duet, that the unsuspecting opera-goer might have ignored the music entirely. Or having the pope pushed around on a wheelchair by a guy in a devil costume. Or having a young man looking like Berlioz take notes throughout the opera.

A more restrained staging could still have left room for plenty of humor and spectacle, and would have more effectively complemented the work of the cast. Marcello Giordani tackled the demanding title role with considerable vocal power and warmth of phrasing. Note, too, the imaginative, accomplished singing from Isabel Bayrakdarian (Teresa), Kristine Jepson (Ascanio) and Robert Lloyd (Pope Clement), among others, and some vibrant work from the Met orchestra. James Levine's conducting could have used more fire here and there, but the opera still had an awful lot going for it musically. Too bad about the theatrical overkill.

La Juive is a much more complicated case. The plot has posed problems since the opera's premiere in 1835. It concerns a Jewish goldsmith, Eleazar, and Rachel, who thinks she is his daughter. Her father is really a Catholic who became a cardinal after he thought his wife and child were dead. A conflict of religion, morality and decency ensues. Like Azucena, the vengeful gypsy in Verdi's Il trovatore, Eleazar doesn't reveal the true identity of Rachel until the moment the cardinal has her put to death.

On the face of it, the opera seems decidedly anti-Semitic, but Eleazar is too complex for snap judgments. How are we to take a man who is so hateful, yet so loving, so vilely stereotyped, yet so sympathetic? That's one reason the opera is such a potent work, and why it once attracted many celebrated proponents (Enrico Caruso's last performance, Christmas Eve 1920, at the Met, was in La Juive).

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