Gilliam's Gonzo Opera: Benvenuto Cellini

A Monty Python alum’s second stab at Berlioz.

Legend has it that during the 1838 Paris première of Berlioz’s first opera, Benvenuto Cellini, the audience broke into a riot, while the musicians pronounced the epic score unplayable. Based loosely on the memoirs of Cellini, a Florentine goldsmith, sculptor and libertine, the work is an uneasy hybrid: part picaresque romp, part philosophical reflection on the nature of art. Despite its musical innovations, it has never found a happy place in the standard repertoire.

If anyone can rise to the challenge of breathing dramatic life into such a tricky work, it’s surely director Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), who brings his maverick imagination back to the English National Opera (ENO) and London’s largest theater, the Coliseum. Critics relished Gilliam’s first foray into opera in 2011, an ingenious take on Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, also for ENO. This time around his anarchic vision will be unleashed with even more exuberance.

Under the baton of conductor Edward Gardner, a Berlioz specialist, the musicians of ENO and a cast that includes Sir Willard White and Michael Spyres look set to prove their 1838 predecessors wrong. We are promised such Gilliamesque scenes as a wild carnival, acrobats and the forging of Cellini’s statue of Perseus for the Pope. Amid the romantic japes and comedy, there’s high drama, too: Cellinimust finish the statue by the end of the day or face execution.

Considering Gilliam’s summer schedule—including the release of his latest film, The Zero Theorem, as well as a run of ten Monty Python reunion shows at London’s O2 arena—perhaps the director can sympathize with Cellini’s professional pressures.Benvenuto Cellini opens June 5 (screens in select theaters worldwide June 17); St. Martin’s Ln., Charing Cross;