Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Berlioz claimed to despise Italian music, but the 15 months he spent in the country in the early 1830s proved a source of inspiration throughout the rest of the decade. Romeo and Juliet, Harold in Italy and his first opera Benvenuto Cellini all drew to some extent on his experiences of Italy.
His trip was a consequence of his finally winning the prestigious Prix de Rome at his third attempt in 1830. Learning from his previous entries, he had composed a cantata in a deliberately tame style so as not to annoy the judges. He felt ashamed of the piece, and later destroyed it. Despite his aversion to its music, Italy itself proved highly amiable. The prize money also came as a welcome relief at a time when he was struggling to make ends meet. Unfortunately, by 1836 when he was hard at work on Benvenuto Cellini and most needed financial security, the money had run out. He was therefore forced to take up a second career as a critic, a role which his considerable talent for it did not prevent him from loathing.
The opera is based - very loosely - on the memoirs of the eponymous 16th century sculptor and goldsmith. Cellini was a colourful character, whose life also encompassed painting, music, a period soldiering and accusations of philandering with both sexes. Berlioz identified with the idea of artist as hero that Cellini propagates in his writing. While highly entertaining, not to say scandalous, Cellini's memoirs are arguably not greatly suited to dramatic adaptation. This might partly explain why the opera's first performance at the Paris Opera in 1838 was an unmitigated disaster.
It cannot have helped that even before its première the opera was subject to derision and hosility, not least from its cast. The principal tenor abandonded his part after three performances, which the Opéra took as confirmation of its failure. Berlioz wrote to the Director, "Sir, I have the honour to announce to you that I withdraw my opera Benvenuto. I am absolutely convinced that you will receive this with pleasure. I have the honour, sir, to be your devoted servant, H. Berlioz."
Revising it many years later for revival in 1852 did little to make it more popular. It was performed at Covent Garden in front of Queen Victoria, and was as unsuccessful as at its first staging. It remains a rarity in opera houses today, although its ebullient overture has found more success as a concert piece.