Warwick Thompson talked to legendary filmmaker and Monty Python member turned opera director Terry Gilliam ahead of his English National Opera production of Benvenuto Cellini. The show screens live across Picturehouse Cinemas on Tuesday 17 June as part of our weekly strand Discover Tuesdays.
‘I hate Benvenuto Cellini. I hate Berlioz. I hate everything about opera,’ says Terry Gilliam. Then he flings himself back in his chair and roars with laughter. ‘Sorry. This is the period of rehearsals we call The Despond. I’m completely gaga.’ He gives a childlike grin. ‘I love Berlioz.’
The reason for these rollercoaster emotions lies in Gilliam’s new production of Berlioz’s lavish comedy Benvenuto Cellini at English National Opera, which opens June 5th and which will be broadcast live into UK cinemas on June 17th. The work demands every resource – and then some – that a large-scale opera house can throw at it. There are challenging arias for all the principal singers, extravagantly huge chorus scenes, and spectacular scenic demands. This is why performances of the opera, which contains some of Berlioz’s most captivating music and a popular, brilliantly skittish overture (check it out on YouTube if you don’t know it), are as rare as hens’ teeth. No wonder Gilliam is feeling the strain.
But if ever there were a director who would seem to be a shoe-in for this particular work, it must surely be the cheerfully dishevelled and wryly humorous man whom I meet in a backstage room at the London Coliseum. His 2011 staging of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust (his first foray into opera)demonstrated a particular affinity with the composer’s quirky, left-field musical universe, and proved him a master of spectacular stage effects. His films, such as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, and 12 Monkeys, show an artist unafraid to tackle imagery and ideas on a huge scale. Judging from his previous form, Berlioz + Gilliam = Smash Hit.
Is he also working on the cinema screening of his production, I ask? ‘At the moment, my complete focus is on the opening night,’ he says. ‘It’s an enormous and spectacular show, with lots of projections, so that’s where my energy is going. But I’ll make my wishes known about camera angles, and types of shot, and so on.’
The 1838 work, very loosely based on a celebrated sixteenth-century autobiography, tells the story of a brilliant maverick sculptor based in Rome. After he kills one of his enemies in a brawl during a carnival, he is given the chance to earn a pardon by casting a huge bronze statue of Perseus for the pope. (The real-life statue still exists, and is now in Florence.)
What sort of look has Gilliam created for the opera? ‘I’ve always loved the etchings of imaginary prisons [‘Carceri d’Invenzione’] by Piranesi, and we’re using them as a basis, but in a chopped-up, collage-type way: the heroine Teresa is effectively a prisoner in her father’s house. The setting is late nineteenth-century, very rigid, very strict and dark, and it’s a very monochrome world. Cellini brings colour to it.’ The opera is famous for its huge carnival scene at the climax of Act 1, and the huge statue-casting episode at the end of the work. Gilliam won’t offer spoilers about how he’s going to approach these set-pieces, but offers some tantalizing hints. ‘The statue will be a real coup de théâtre, and be bigger than anything Cellini himself dreamed of making, I can promise you. And the carnival will arrive in the auditorium during the overture. We’re going to be invading the theatre. Certain audience rows will be warned that they’ll have to move to let the crowds through.’ What about the cinema audiences? Will they be able to see all the mayhem in the auditorium? ‘I’m sure there’ll be some cameras shooting the audience at that point,’ he replies with a mischievous smile.
Gilliam and conductor Edward Gardner have assembled a crack cast for the show. The fresh-voiced young tenor Michael Spyres, after his recent triumph in La donna del lago at the Royal Opera, takes on the title role. The superb singing-actress Corinne Winters is his lover Teresa, and the Jamaican bass Willard White is Pope Clement VII. ‘I really dug my heels in. It always bothers me in opera when singers are cast who look nothing like the roles they’re supposed to be playing. A young prince and princess should look reasonably like a prince and princess. I’ll try hard to suspend my disbelief but, come on, meet me half way. So I wanted singers who could act, and who looked suitable for the roles. And we’ve really got that. I’m pushing them all through their paces, and they love it.’
One of the cast members, the American baritone Nicholas Pallesen, is a recent replacement for the ‘villain’ role of Fieramosca, Cellini’s rival in love. ‘We didn’t know much about him, and I was worried that we might be getting second-best. But he’s absolutely brilliant. He plays the comedy totally straight, and he’s created a character you really care about. He gets the sentimental vote.’
To finish, I return to the wheels-within-wheels paradox of an ‘operatic’ film-maker producing an opera which will be screened in cinemas. What, for him, are the main differences between the two genres? ‘It’s a completely different rhythm. You’re lucky if you get a week’s rehearsal for a film, and even then it’s not a proper rehearsal, just a read-through. But I’m on the set, prepping all the time, so on the day we start shooting, we’re ready to go. In opera we have six or seven weeks for rehearsal, but still nothing’s ready. You don’t know if you’re going to have a show until you see it on opening night.’ A cloud passes over his face, but the sun quickly returns. ‘Do you know, I read Cellini’s autobiography years ago and all I did for ages was dream of making a film of it. And then along comes Berlioz, and this fantastic opera… I hope we’ve created something outrageous,’ he says.