Benvenuto Cellini

Opera semi-seria in two acts by Hector Berlioz to a libretto by Léon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier, assisted by Alfred de Vigny, after the memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini; Paris, Opéra, 10 September 1838. Revised version, Weimar, Grossherzogliches Hoftheater, 20 March 1852; with further revision in three acts, 17 November 1852.

T'he first cast included Julie Dorus-Gras as Teresa, Gilbert Duprez in the title role, and Prosper Dérivis as Balducci.

Benvenuto Cellini, a goldsmith tenor

Giacomo Balducci papal treasurer bass

Teresa his daughter soprano

Ascanio his apprentice soprano

(mezzo-soprano in 1838)

Fieramosca a sculptor baritone (tenor in 1838)

Francesco tenor

Cellini's artisans bass


Pompeo a swordsman baritone

Innkeeper tenor

Cardinal Salviari bass

Setting l6th-century Rome during the papacy of Clement VII

Cellini was composed with comparative ease, even abandon, though opportunities to concentrate on it were limited by Berlioz's increasing activities as journalist and promoter of his own symphonic concerts. Censorship in Paris did not allow a pope to be represented on stage, so the part became that of Cardinal Salviati at the première and in all subsequent versions. The overture, a triumph of rhythmic imagination, portends the general vivacity to follow; among the themes are allusions to the cardinal's arioso and to the lovely 'Ariette d'Arlequin of the dumb show.

Act 1, tableau 1 opens on Shrove Monday in the home of the papal treasurer, Giacomo Balducci. He is vexed that Clement VII has commissioned a bronze statue of Perseus from the libertine genius Cellini instead of Fieramosca, the papal sculptor and suitor of Balducci's daughter Teresa. Passing maskers sing of the carnival and toss Teresa flowers, along with a billet-doux from Cellini. To be torn between love and duty, she complains in her cavatina "'Entre 1'amour et le devoir," is no laughing matter; but at the age of 17 it would be a pity to behave. (This replaced an earlier cavatina, "Ah, que 1'amour une fois dans le coeur.") Cellini comes to pay Teresa court, but their duet becomes a trio when Fieramosca tiptoes into the room and takes cover behind a door. (Berlioz re-used the melody of the duet "O Teresa, vous que j'aime plus que ma vie" as the English horn solo in the overture Le carnaval romain; the other theme in the concert overture is the saltarello from the carnival scene.) Fieramosca overhears the lovers planning to elope to Florence (the trio 'Demain soir mardi gras'): the following evening, at the camival, Cellini and his apprenrice Ascanio will come disguised as monks to the Piazza Colonna, there to effect a rendezvous with Teresa. Balducci enters, surprised to find his daughter still awake; Cellini slips out of the open door. Teresa, stammering an explanation, says she has heard a prowler, and to her great surprise it is Fieramosca who is found in her room. Servants and neighbors are summoned to capture the seducer, but in the confusion he manages to get away: They chase him towards the public fountain.

Tableau 2 begins at nightfall in the Piazza Colonna, with a tavern on one side and Cassandro's theatre, a place of lampoons, on the other. Cellini reflects that while glory was once his only goal, now Teresa alone rules his heart. The two ensemble scenes that follow--the goldsmiths' chorus ("Honneur aux maîtres ciseleurs") and the Roman carnival--are the musical high points of the opera, summarizing in orchestration, rhythm and organizational device the growth of Berlioz's style since his Italian sojourn. There is revealed, moreover, a bright sense of humor that until then had only been heard in the Abruzzi serenade from Harold en Italie. The smiths' apostrophe to their noble art, for example, is interrupted by the cross old inn-keeper, who tallies a list of wine consumed and will deliver no more until the account is paid. Ascanio appears with money from the papal treasury, surrendering it only after Cellini's oath that the statue will be cast the next day. But the amount tendered by the parsimonious Balducci is scarcely enough to pay the innkeeper.

Cellini goes off to arrange an appropriate evening's entertainment with Cassandro, impresario of the adjoining theatre, as the goldsmiths' chorus is reprised. Fieramosca, beaten and bruised, has engaged a henchman, the swordsman Pompeo; they plan to appear at the carnival in habits identical to those of Cellini and Ascanio, in which dress they hope to succeed in abducting Teresa. Fieramosca practices his swordsmanship.

Trumpet fanfares summon the public to Cassandro's theatre, and the piazza begins to fill with revellers. Balducci and Teresa enter, then Cellini and Ascanio, in white and brown habits respectively; the conversation of the four intermingles in a réunion des thèmes. In the famous saltarello Cassandro's players attract the crowd ("Venez voir! venez voir!") as the women and children dance. The pantomime of King Midas, or The Donkey s Ears, begins: a papal treasurer unmistakably resembling Balducci remunerates Harlequin's lovely arietta and the buffoonery, including ophicleide and bass drum, of the donkey-eared Pasquarello (Polichinelle in 1838). A single coin goes to Harlequin, much as the pittance had gone to Cellini for the wine account; the rest is paid to the ass. Balducci, recognizing himself, assaults the players; the rival friars converge on Teresa. During the confusion Cellini stabs Pompeo. Just as the crowd sees that a monk has been killed, the cannon of the fortress of Sant'Angelo sounds the end of the carnival and the beginning of Lent. The revellers extinguish their candles, and in the ensuing darkness Cellini escapes and Ascanio spirits Teresa away. Fieramosca, mistaken for Cellini, is arrested for murder.

The foreboding entr'acte is a sinister version of the "Chant des ciseleurs" from the previous act.

Act 2, tableau 3, opens in Cellini's studio at dawn on Ash Wednesday. A model of the statue of Perseus dominates the .stage. Ascanio and Teresa pray for Cellini's safety as White Friars pass in the street chanting a litany to the Virgin. Cellini, still in his white habit, has been of their number. Reunited with Teresa, he describes his escape; the statue, they resolve, will be abandoned as they elope together. Ascanio tries to warn of the arrival of Balducci and Fieramosca, but it is too late. The principals encounter each other in a sextet, the centrepiece of the tableau; just as Balducci gives Teresa's hand to Fieramosca, the cardinal enters with his retinue. Finding the statue unfinished and Celliru accused of murder and kidnapping, the cardinal orders the casting to be done by someone else. Cellini, in audacious defiance, threatens to smash the plaster model. The gesture is impudent but effective: the cardinal has no choice but to return that evening. If by that time the Perseus is not cast, Cellini will hang.

Tableau 4 opens later that afternoon, in Cellini's foundry in the Colosseum. Ascanio feigns optimism at the situation ("Tra-la-la . . . mais qu'ai-je donc?"); Cellini pauses to long for a pastoral life far from the city's din ("Sur les monts les plus sauvages"). Offstage, the foundry workers sing symbolically of sailors at large on the sea. (Here there followed a "scène et choeurs" including further reverses, excised by Berlioz before the first performance. The later Weimar version, sanctioned by the composer, conflates and reorders tableaux 3 and 4 for Act 3.) Balducci and the cardinal return to observe the casting, but metal is in short supply and the meld begins to congeal. Cellini, on the verge of losing everything, orders his assistants to fetch all his artworks--gold, silver, copper, bronze--and throw them into the furnace. The crucible explodes and the molten metal flows through the trenches and into the mold. The statue is done, Cellini pardoned, Teresa's hand earned, and the reward of the maîtres ciseleurs is immortal glory


The clumsy second act was the primary cause of the vicissitudes that befell Benvenuto Cellini. Not even the Weimar revisions could fully correct the confusions of the denouement. Moreover, the work was of surpassing technical difficulty. Berlioz behaved gracefully after each failure of Benvenuto Cellini, but "I cannot help recognizing," he wrote in 1850 or so, "that it contains a variety of ideas, an energy and exuberance and a brilliance of color such as I may perhaps never find again, and which deserved a better fate."