medallion of Benvenuto Cellini

Two Geniuses.... Berlioz and Cellini

Written by Dieter Schoop

You are about to discover the most brilliant and fascinating opera "Benvenuto Cellini" by Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869).

This opera is Berlioz at his most witty and exuberant. It describes periods in the life of Cellini, an Italian Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith.

Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886), Europe's most renowned pianist of that time, was a great champion of the "Benvenuto Cellini" opera. Liszt said: "Berlioz remains the most vigorous musical mind in France".

  • You will hear a present-day conductor talk about the exciting overture to "Benvenuto Cellini".
  • You will read what the composer Hector Berlioz said in his Memoires - his auto-biography - about the Cellini score, and why this pearl of an opera has been undiscovered for so long.
  • I will explain the particularities of the composition that I know well. There's also a recommendation of a first-class performance on CD.
  • A few carefully chosen musical examples from Berlioz' opera are presented as videos.
  • There's a link to a resource about the famous Italian artist and rake, Benvenuto Cellini (1500 - 1571).
  • At the bottom you'll find the synopsis to see what the play is all about.

Exciting Overture

The well known English conductor, John Eliot Gardiner, said: "Berlioz was a huge dramatic genius with a flair to compose music in a theater style".

But let's first listen to another professional in the video below. It's Mr. Bornstein - conductor of orchestras and festivals - talking about Berlioz and the vivid Cellini overture...

What Did Berlioz Say About His Cellini Opera?

Hector Berlioz was not only a highly gifted composer and one of Europe's greatest conductors, but also a successful writer. His autobiography entitled "Memoires" is his most famous publication. In it he says the following about his first opera...

"I had been greatly struck with certain episodes in the life of Benvenuto Cellini". Why did Berlioz say this?...

Simply because his own life had so many parallels with Cellini's. Both men knew about their outstanding natural gifts, both had powerful enemies and both were prepared to fight to the utmost in overcoming any obstacles on their way to success.

Berlioz continues: "I was so unlucky as to think these episodes offered an interesting and dramatic subject for an opera". Why unlucky?...

Because the Parisian audience rejected all but the overture, or in Berlioz' own words, "The overture received exaggerated applause, and the rest was hissed with admirable energy and unanimity. However the opera was performed three times.

The musicians at the close of the last rehearsals - before the first performance in the fall of 1838 - applauded several parts of the music. Some even declared my work to be one of the most original they had ever heard".

After having enjoyed "Benvenuto Cellini" several times, I couldn't agree more with those Parisian musicians of 170 years ago. They had of course a much better understanding of the composition after all the rehearsals than the opera-goers had.

And it should be born in mind that bringing Benvenuto Cellini to the stage is a complex project in every way. The action and the score are overwhelming.

Listen now to the following aria "La gloire était ma seule idole" meaning "Glory was my only idol". I'd suggest you pay particular attention to the brilliant orchestration...

Back to the Memoires of Berlioz...

In 1852, fourteen years after the first performance at the Opéra in Paris, the composer wrote: "I was thus dragged to execution at the Opéra; and on re-reading my poor score with strict impartiality, I cannot help but recognising in it a variety of ideas, an impetuous verve, and a brilliancy of musical colouring which I shall probably never again achieve, and which deserved a better fate".

One of the reasons why Berlioz' new score was so poorly received is based on the fact that in 1838 the Parisian opera-goers preferred the familiar style of Rossini, who was particularly popular at that time. Furthermore, it was not easy to play Berlioz' composition. The conductor John Eliot Gardiner explained it this way...

"The technical demands of Berlioz' music are so great that there's never the likelihood of just routine performance. The composer exploits a range of expression and a range of timbre and colors even more vividly than does Beethoven.

Berlioz is taking Beethoven's example of using this newly transformed "animal" - the symphony orchestra - as it was evolving in the early 19th century, and extending its expressive range by writing symphonies in a way that no other French composer had dared to do before him".

To illustrate how the genius of Berlioz was appreciated by the contemporary and now world-famous violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782 - 1840), we find the following account in the Memoires...

"One day after performing my symphony, featuring an extensive part for solo viola, Paganini fell to my knees before a startled orchestra, kissed my hand, and declared me to be the successor of Beethoven".

The Beauty of this Opera and a CD Recommendation

I have been a great admirer of Berlioz for many years and most of his works are in my CD collection. Benvenuto Cellini was my last and by no way least discovery. What I'm so enthusiastic about this great work of art is this...

  • The orchestration is extremely imaginative, colorful and rich. Simply stated, it's one long string of enchanting musical surprises. And the orchestration is absolutely brilliant.
  • The plot of the opera is gay, sometimes dramatic and highly entertaining throughout.
  • Most melodies are so beautiful that you want to bask in them.
  • Many wild and enthusiastic chorus scenes are spead across this musical fireworks display.

To get a first impression, you can listen for free to the first 30 seconds of every part of the opera by clicking here. The "Orchestre National de France" is playing, conducted by John Nelson. I highly recommend this perfect recording, available on 3 CDs from the link above.

Listen now to the following witty aria sung by Ascanio, Cellini's apprentice, "Mais qu'ai-je donc", meaning "But what have I?" on...

Next, listen to... this musical pearl "Les belles fleurs" sung by Anna Netrebko, the Russian opera singer who is enchanting audiences around the world...

And for a last sample of this outstanding opera, listen to "Justice a nous, seigneur et maitre", meaning "Justice to us, Lord and Master", which is Cellini's final meeting with the Pope in the company of Teresa. It is set in a veritable musical torrent of a sextet.

About the Italian Artist Benvenuto Cellini

Read about Cellini's autobiographical memoirs and a detailed account of his singular career in the Italian art centers Venice, Florence, Rome and in France.


Act 1 Scene 1 - Monday before Shrove Tuesday; Balducci's House.
Teresa is watching the carnival festivities against the express orders of her father, Giacomo Balducci, the papal treasurer, who takes her by surprise. Furthermore he is annoyed because the Pope has summoned him at a late hour. It again has something to do with the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who gets on Balducci's nerves because he is lazy and lecherous. Nevertheless the Pope has commissioned Cellini to cast a statue instead of Fieramosca, who is in the employ of the Pope and whom Balducci has in mind as a husband for Teresa.

Hardly has Balducci left his house before Cellini and his friends, wearing masks, approach the house. Teresa's heart beats excitedly because she has long been in love with Cellini and he loves her.

Balducci returns unexpectedly and in view of the row going on outside his house gives vent to his fury. The crowd throws confetti over him and his suit is soiled whereas Teresa is showered with flowers. Balducci is enraged and chases the noisy crowd away so that he can finally depart for his appointment with the Pope.

Among the flowers Teresa discovers a letter from Cellini in which he announces his arrival. At first she is horrified about his audacity but the prospects are too enticing and the hour favourable. She indulges in her lovesick day- dreams until Cellini appears. He knows that Balducci wants to marry Teresa off to Fieramosca and is resolved to abduct her the following evening during the hustle and bustle of the carnival celebrations.

Unnoticed by Cellini and Teresa, Fieramosca has approached in order to make a courtesy visit to Teresa. He is absolutely furious to hear how the two have only bad things to say about him.

Cellini explains his plan to Teresa: he and his assistant Ascanio will dress in a white and a brown monk's habit so that Teresa can easily recognise them. They intend to meet at the Piazza Colonna, where everyone will gather to see the latest play by Cassandro's troupe; from there Cellini and Teresa plan to flee together. Fieramosca strains to eavesdrop and find out what they are planning, and then Balducci returns.

With Teresa's help Cellini manages to escape whereas Fieramosca, who had to hide in Teresa's room, is discovered by Balducci. He is greatly agitated to realise that Fieramosca has visited his daughter at night and calls in the neighbours who attack the alleged monster with great delight.

Scene 2 - Shrove Tuesday: a tavern .

Thirsty workers, metal engravers, have gathered outside the tavern. They exuberantly sing the praises of their art and order more wine but the innkeeper presents them with the bill they have run up so far. Cellini's assistant Ascanio arrives just at the right moment with a deposit from the Pope for the cast of the statue. However, the sum of money is so small that it only covers the debts with the innkeeper.

The workers are angry, most of all Cellini, and they resolve to take revenge on the miserly treasurer Balducci. In the evening they intend to ridicule him on the stage of Cassandro's theatre. Fieramosca, who has overheard everything, is furious about this additional conspiracy against Balducci.

His friend Pompeo, whom he has informed about Cellini's abduction plan, has a solution. He and Fieramosca will also wear monks' habits and thwart Cellini's plan to abduct Teresa. Fieramosca is enthusiastic and already sees himself as an irresistible victor in winning Teresa's favour.

Scene 3 - Carnival on the Piazza Colonna

In the evening the people of Rome gather to attend Cassandro's play. Balducci arrives accompanied by Teresa, who is now plagued by pangs of conscience because of the forthcoming abduction. Cellini and Ascanio, disguised as monks, mingle in the crowd of pleasure-seeking people who are excitedly awaiting Cassandro's performance.

The play begins: the actors stage a singing competition between Harlequin and Pierrot. A spiteful caricature of Balducci appears on stage as the judge who in the end rewards Pierrot's bad performance with gold whereas the poetic Harlequin only receives a small coin. Balducci, exposed to ridicule by the people, is beside himself with rage and throws himself onto the stage.

Cellini and Ascanio want to make use of the general confusion in order to escape with Teresa but then Fieramosca and Pompeo appear wearing identical habits. Teresa is faced with four monks and is confused. A fight breaks out between the rivals, during which Cellini kills Pompeo. The crowd is horrified and tries to catch the murderer but cannon shots fired from the Castle St. Angelo proclaim the end of the carnival.

The candles are extinguished and Cellini just manages to escape. Fieramosca is erroneously believed to be the culprit and is almost lynched. Ascanio takes Teresa to safety; Balducci searches for his daughter in vain.

Act 2 Scene 1 - Ash Wednesday: Cellini's studio.

Teresa has fled with Ascanio to Cellini's atelier. She is afraid for his life. At dawn monks pass by, praying. Teresa also prays. Cellini, still wearing his monk's habit, leaves the procession and enters the atelier. He has been able to escape but he now insists that they should both escape to Florence. Even his uncompleted statue cannot hold him back.

While Ascanio is sent to find a horse, Cellini and Teresa assure each other of their love. However, their dream of a future together is abruptly disturbed by Balducci, who--assuming Teresa to be with Cellini--has rushed over to demand that Cellini release his daughter so that she can marry Fieramosca. The heated conflict is interrupted by the arrival of the Pope who generously bestows his blessing on everyone present.

When Balducci and Fieramosca accuse Cellini of murder and abduction, the Pope initially remains calm. However, when he discovers that Cellini has still not completed his statue, he angrily threatens to commission another sculptor. Cellini is enraged by this and intends to destroy the model of the statue but the Pope relents. He grants Cellini grace until the evening and then he himself intends to be present when the statue is cast.

If the work is successfully completed he promises to fulfil Cellini's demands: he is to be acquitted of the murder of Pompeo and is to receive Teresa's hand in marriage. However, if Cellini does not complete the work within the allocated time, he will be hanged that very evening.

Scene 2 - The Coliseum

Ascanio desperately tries to see the cheerful side in what has happened: it was after all really funny the way Cellini forced the Pope into a corner. Nevertheless Cellini is aware of the seriousness of his situation. He would dearly love to exchange his life with that of a simple shepherd.

The journeymen Bernardino and Francesco return to work having spent the night drinking; the furnacemen can be heard from the melting room singing a gloomy song which the journeymen interpret as a bad omen. Cellini impatiently urges them to hurry but at that moment Ascanio rushes into the atelier and announces the arrival of Fieramosca. He is followed by a powerful troop of thugs, and for the humiliation he has been caused, he challenges Cellini to a duel in a nearby monastery. Despite being under enormous pressure of time, Cellini accepts the challenge.

Teresa arrives--she has run away from home and is prepared to flee with Cellini--but even she cannot hold him back. She remains alone and hears the songs of the exhausted workers. They feel they are being exploited by Cellini and intend to go on strike. Teresa implores them not to let their master down at this of all times.

Fieramosca unexpectedly enters the atelier. This can only mean one thing: Cellini has been killed by him in the duel. Ascanio and Teresa incite the workers to avenge Cellini's murder. The workers attack Fieramosca and find gold in his pockets: he wanted to bribe them to stop working. They are furious and ultimately loyal to their master and so they prepare to throw Fieramosca into the furnace. Before it gets that far, Cellini turns up again; he waited in vain for Fieramosca at the monastery.

When Cellini finds out that the challenge merely served to give Fieramosca an opportunity to prevent his workers from casting the statue, he gives Fieramosca the chance of either burning in the furnace or of helping him. Fieramosca takes his place among the crowd of workers. The Pope arrives. Among his entourage is Balducci who immediately tries again to take possession of Teresa. The Pope calls him to reason; he is now only interested in the project of casting the statue.

Scene 3 - The Furnace

The workers, among them Fieramosca--much to the amazement of Balducci--are eagerly heating up the furnace. However, shortly before the melting process, they run out of metal. Balducci, cannot withhold his derision. Cellini struggles for inspiration and makes a desperate decision: all his previous works should also be melted down. The cast succeeds, the form explodes and reveals the statue concealed beneath it.

The workers rejoice. Cellini has now won everything: papal absolution, artistic fame and the hand of his beloved Teresa. Balducci takes his daughter to Cellini--he did indeed always believe in him.

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