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“A mix of futurism à la ‘Metropolis,‘ fantasy à la ‘Batman‘ and quotes from Piranesi‘s ‘Carceri,‘ juxtaposed in the form of photo montages, enhanced with ... robots, a helicopter, a shark and the winged vehicle of a pop star Pope,“ effuses critic Marianne Zelger-Vogt (Neue Zürcher Zeitung). The object of her rapture is not a Broadway musical but a French opera written in the 1830s, Hector Berlioz‘s “Benvenuto Cellini. The absence of the work in the operatic repertoire is certainly due in part to its musical excesses: the work is so complex, richly detailed and prolifically imaginative that Berlioz‘s contemporaries considered it unplayable and unsingable.

This is resoundingly proven false in the 2007 Salzburg Festival production of director Philipp Stölzl, conductor Valery Gergiev (“the wild man of music“) and a high-caliber cast accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic and its chorus. Stölzl, above all, has poured his experience as director of music videos (for Madonna, Mick Jagger and others), commercials and films into this project, termed “science fiction for Grand Opera“ (Süddeutsche Zeitung), “breathtaking“ (Der Standard), and “spectacularly successful“ (F.A.Z.)

Berlioz whips the action forward by disguising his hero, the celebrated goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571), as a monk and having him attempt to elope with Teresa, the daughter of the papal treasurer, during the night of the carnival. In the turmoil, a man is killed. Cellini is accused of murder and can only be saved if he finishes a statue for the Pope within a few hours. In a prodigious effort, he melts all his other works to have enough metal and completes the statue – saving his life and winning the hand of Teresa.

With its many vocal ensembes and massed choruses, the music sometimes recalls Gounod and Offenbach. But the orchestration is typically Berliozian: excesses of sound, razor-sharp contours, jagged breaks. Conductor Valery Gergiev “pulled out all the stops. He whips the Vienna Philharmonic into a delirium similar to that which possibly took hold of the composer. The result was an unremittingly exalted atmosphere...“ (Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, Der Standard). Of vital importance to this concept are the bravura performances of Burkhard Fritz as a supple, temperamental Cellini and the 26-year-old Latvian soprano Maja Kovalevska as Teresa, a “vocal delight“ and “Salzburg discovery.“ Kovalevska, however, is only one of countless discoveries to be made in this rousing production.

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