On Friday we went to London, to go to the opera, to see Terry Gilliam's version of Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust, performed by the ENO.
I've never been one of those nerdish Python heads but I'm definitely a Gilliam fan (I once gave a worse-for-wear Terry Jones a lift to a hotel, though that's another story). I've seen all Gilliam's films (with the exception of the execrable The Brothers Grimm, which I abandoned halfway), many several times. I know Jabberwocky back to front. Not uncontroversially I still think Baron Muchausen is his best, though perhaps that's because it arrived at a time when its 'pro-imagination' message particularly spoke to me. Don't get me wrong. I'm not uncritical. All his films are flawed - it's what makes them so watchable.
I was a little disappointed to see that so few people had dressed up. I'm not sure what I was expecting. Cigar smoking gentlemen in tailcoats and cravats, perhaps. Courtesans in whalebone corsets, fanning themselves and looking on disdainfully. Frottage in the boxes. Maybe I've seen too many Gilliam films.
If the audience were disappointing, the production was not. It had everything you'd want from Gilliam: stunning costumes, ingenious sets, tricks of lighting and perspective, mockery of Nazis, breathtaking projections and imagery (Faust's damnation and Margarite's ascension), and emotional punches too.
But the opera? Oh my. I could just about cope with Berlioz' plot, which made little sense (remember, I'm a Gilliam fan), and the turgid, endless music. But - and maybe this is because I am steeped in the naturalism and narrative conventions of film - opera is just ridiculous. Haven't they heard of character development? Backstory? Storytelling? I can suspend my disbelief with the best of them, but opera stretches credulity too far.
Example. Margarite discovers that Faust, her love from afar, is hiding behind the curtain in her bedroom. Is she just a teensy bit freaked? Nope. She starts singing that if he leaves her she will die.
'Someone's coming I must go!'
'If you go I will die'
'I have to go, don't die'
'They are coming. You must go. I will die.'
And that, I suppose, is opera's problem. In it's day it was powerful, revolutionary, relevant, sexy, the best immersion in sound and light and drama that money could buy. But it's been totally eclipsed by cinema (which, if some commentators are to be believed, is just about to be eclipsed by computer games). Sure, it still looks stunning, and when the soprano is at full tilt and the chorus belting it out, yeah, it's pretty electrifying. But I never once cared about Faust and his woes, which, given the archetypal nature of the story takes some doing.
So, classic Gilliam. Impeccably flawed.