French grand opera in Berlioz' time was a spectacle that drew admirers from all over Europe to the Paris Opéra. It was an art form of unrivaled grandeur, with an elaborately contrived plot in which personal dramas are enacted against the backdrop of great historical events. Scenic extravagance, fabulous costumes, generous ballet and great vocal display were de rigueur. Staged at the Paris Opéra in 1838, Benvenuto Cellini ran counter to this trend since it possessed no political or religious backdrop and was concerned more with the theme of the artist's devotion to his craft and yet seemed frivolous to many. Intrigue and incident dominate the action, moving at a furious pace to music of quite unprecedented virtuosity. One reason for the opera's spectacular failure in 1838 was its origin as a comedy, intended for a smaller theater; another was the complexity of the orchestral writing and the rhythmic intricacy of almost every scene. Rhythmic impetus is the hallmark of this score, as well as Berlioz' usual virtuosity in orchestration. Furthermore, as disappointed dilettanti observed, the vocal style was different from anything anyone had ever heard or sung before. Berlioz was rewarded for his originality with a barrage of sour reviews in which his 'system' was rancorously decried.
In 1830, at the age of twenty-seven, Berlioz had won the Prix de Rome and gone to Italy as a laureate of the Institute with the purpose of composing in suitably classical surroundings. Many of his works thereafter carried echoes of his Italian sojourn, none so vividly as Benvenuto Cellini. But he did not plan it while he was there, even though he saw and admired Cellini's masterpiece, the Perseus, in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence (where it still stands). After his return to Paris he searched for opera subjects. In 1834, just as he was finishing Harold en Italie, Alfred de Vigny suggested an opera based on Cellini's autobiography. Since de Vigny was unable to supply a libretto himself at that time, Berlioz sought the help of the dramatist Léon de Wailly and the poet Auguste Barbier, who initially devised an opéra-comique, loosely using events from Cellini's autobiography.
Paris' Opéra-Comique refused the libretto, so the authors set their sights on the more prestigious Paris Opéra instead. Their subject allowed plenty of scope for the incident and color that the large stage at the opera house demanded, and it was probably in enlarging the plan that they introduced the carnival scene which contributes such a spectacular episode to the finale of Act I. When Berlioz witnessed the carnival in Rome in 1832 he was disgusted by the squalor and debauchery, so in his opera he presented a much more animated and joyous scene. The opera's historical setting (sixteenth-century Rome) provided an excellent opportunity for colorful costumes and décor, and although all dialogue had to be presented as recitative, not speech, the colloquial language and the unheroic tone of the verse was retained. There was no attempt to conform to the prevailing style of verse practiced by Eugène Scribe in his librettos for Auber, Halévy and Meyerbeer.
The libretto has surprisingly little basis in Cellini's Vita, although several elements of the opera are found there, including the casting of the statue of Perseus by throwing countless artifacts into the furnace. But the action of the opera is transferred from Florence to Rome and the statue is commissioned by Pope Clement VII, not by Cosimo de' Medici. Teresa, Fieramosca and all the amorous intrigue are newly invented, so too is the carnival scene and the action at Cassandro's theater, which is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Signor Formica. Berlioz' regard for the finished libretto was honest: "The result, according to even our mutual friends, lacks the essential ingredients of what's known as a well-made play, but I liked it even so, and I still can't see in what way it is inferior to so many others that are performed every day of the week."
The Paris Opéra accepted the reworked libretto, which Berlioz set in 1836 and early 1837. It was staged in September 1838. "Never," he later wrote, "will I forget the torment I had to endure during those three [actually six] months of rehearsal. The indifference and obvious distaste of most of the singers who were convinced it would be a failure, the ill-will of Habeneck [the conductor], the malicious backstage gossip, the stupid comments of those illiterate people about the libretto‹all this revealed a general hostility which I was powerless to fight and which I had to pretend not to notice."
The censors insisted that the Pope be replaced by a Cardinal; the chorus and orchestra grumbled at the difficulty of the music, and many last-minute changes and cuts had to be made. The first night was a famous disaster, and after three performances the tenor, Duprez, withdrew. Another tenor sang one more performance, then Berlioz withdrew the work, and it was not staged at the Paris Opéra again until 1972.
Fortunately, Liszt, without having seen the work, put his faith in it. From his travels he wrote what might be called an absentee review, comparing Berlioz to Cellini himself as an artist defiantly struggling to complete his statue. Fourteen years later, in 1852, he revived it in Weimar as part of his program for fostering a vital new repertoire. He suggested a number of modifications and cuts which Berlioz approved of and which were included in a version heard in London, at Covent Garden, in 1853. Despite the presence of Berlioz on the podium and Queen Victoria in the audience the opera was resoundingly booed by an audience that liked only Italian opera. Berlioz withdrew it immediately and left London in a state of bitter disappointment. Some further performances in Weimar in 1856 were the last in his lifetime.
The swift pace and light touch may be attributed in part to the work's origins as an opéra-comique. The comic trio in the first scene, for example, where Fieramosca tries to overhear Cellini and Teresa as they plan to meet later that evening in the Piazza Colonna, is a classic comic piece brilliantly set to music. Balducci is clearly a figure of fun; Fieramosca is the traditional clumsy rival who always loses in competition with the hero; the Pope himself is a curious mixture of ecclesiastical dignity and farce. Cellini is at the center of the action, fully serious about his love and his art, ready to kill or to die for either. He has the bravado to defy the Pope, confident that he will win Teresa's hand and complete his masterpiece in the end.
Berlioz made few concessions to the adulation of the human voice displayed in Italian opera (which he despised) and to a certain extent also in French opera. In general he placed the dramatic action firmly in the pit and relied upon his masterly handling of a large modern orchestra. The bass clarinet, for example, heard in the overture and at the entrance of the Pope, was very new. The overture is a well-known specimen of Berlioz' most brilliant orchestral style, and there are many scenes in the opera, notably during the casting of the statue, when orchestral activity dominates the proceedings. Berlioz keeps the listener, as always, on his toes, finding an assortment of happy inspirations for every scene.
Throughout it all he never loses sight of the higher message, that art (particularly music) is serious, not be tampered with by cretins and idiots, but worthy only of the highest ideals. Men like Balducci who have more money than taste should be allowed no sway in artistic matters; the aspiration of the artist‹to create the perfect work of art at no matter what cost‹is his central duty. These were Berlioz' own ideals and he devoted his life to them. The failure of Benvenuto Cellini in Paris and London reflects the failure of Berlioz himself to raise his audiences to the exalted heights of appreciation and understanding which he longed, like Cellini himself, to inhabit.
Like many operas subjected to the eager tinkerings of their composers and others (Fidelio, Boris Godunov, Carmen, for example), Benvenuto Cellini has come down to us in a number of versions. Until the 1950s Benvenuto Cellini was always revived in the shorter Weimar version. In the last thirty years, however, there have been a number of revivals based on the original Paris version, and the full text was published for the first time in 1996. The present Met production offers a version based on the 1838 Paris text, restoring the Pope censored in 1838 and reverting to Berlioz' original plan to use spoken dialogue. In this form it is once again an opéra-comique, enlivened by the spectacle and variety of grand opera and touched by Berlioz' effervescent genius.