The Salzburg Festival has been responsible for three of Berlioz' masterpieces; for that I suppose we must be thankful. The Damnation of Faust is, of course, not an opera. The only staged version I have seen is one from Brussels with Jonas Kaufmann, Susan Graham and Jose Van Damm. It is worth seeing and owning. I have the Troyens and now Cellini. The former is currently available in three sets, but the Cellini has no challenger and is not likely to be contested. This is a pity since the work is clearly a masterpiece, but one that is difficult to bring off. Ideally it should be sung by French trained singers, or those who have an awareness of the style and the importance of the text. The orchestra and chorus should also be French. Berlioz created a unique sound; it deserves to be honored.
Where to start? Updating frequently can add interest and make the auditor rethink his/her ideas about the work in question. In this particular case it is simply silly. Cellini makes his appearance in Act I via a helicopter! The setting is a rooftop (in Rome?) and Balducci has two robots as servants. Oh yes, Ascanio is also a robot. An hommage to Star Wars? Don't ask. If the updating were witty, imaginative, artistic and relevant I would probably sound less churlish. As it stands, however, there is nothing about the staging that I find engaging or likeable. Salzburg became (under Mortier) a showcase for outrageous staging. Sometimes it worked and sometimes not.
All of this would be academic if the singing were world class. According to the notes, Burkhard Fritz has sung Cellini before. I understand that he sings frequently at Bayreuth; no matter, as the voice is not a beautiful one nor one that is used artistically. Maija Kovalevska, Teresa, is one of the second generation of singers from the former Soviet Union. It is generically pretty, without a hint of the singers' ethnic background, e.g., slavic shrillness. Brindley Sherratt, from the UK and a voice I was not familiar with sings Balducci; the role is not a showcase for the singer, but he makes the most of what is really an ungrateful role. The only Frenchman in sight is Laurent Naouri as Fieramosca. The best singing of the evening came from the American Kate Aldrich. Vocally she was stunning; dramatically she was hamstrung by having to be a robot.
Unfortunately Cellini does not have what can be called a performing tradition. It is difficult to sing and doubtless expensive to stage. Early on its history was one of failure for the composer. Add to that the variety of textual differences. Initially it was intended for the Comique and included dialogue. For the Opera recitatives were required. And in Weimar Berlioz shortened the text eliminating "buffo" elements. The first recording (and in my estimation still the best sung) under Colin Davis includeds dialogue and a bevy for French trained singers. Gedda was, of course, not French trained, but was sensitive to the text and the style. The most recent recording on Virgin was conducted by John Nelson a sensitive Berliozan. Why he chose Gregory Kunde is a mystery as the role truly eludes him as it eludes Fritz--although differently. Nelson includes about twenty minutes of music that had never been heard. Since the notes for the DVD (more generous that most) do not make reference to the edition used, on that there are a number of textual difference, the listener is required to be a bit of a musicologist.
In spite of the above criticisms and the "three star" rating I have to recommend the set simply because you are not likely to see another in the near (or distant) future. The Met has never revived its first production even though Troyens has had two investitures. After watching this DVD listen to the first recorded performance to give you an idea as to what could have been.