Anyone who is tempted to overcome a natural aversion to opera, and see the production of Cellini at the ENO purely because Terry Gilliam has directed it, will not be disappointed. He’s obligingly tried to cram every trademark quirk of his best know films onto the stage. Peasants wearing medieval skullcaps with elongated earflaps – pompous nobles with bizarre wigs styled into a point – obviously fake backdrops, which still inspire a sense of monumental grandeur – not to mention an entire carnival, cavorting and grinding through the action.
The opera itself, unfortunately, remains an opera, by noted hack Hector Berlioz. You know the drill. There is a man – we like this man. There is another man – we don’t like this man. There is a pretty girl – both men like the pretty girl. People sing, etc… Fortunately the girl in question is played by Corinne Winters, who is thin and conventionally attractive enough that at least she won’t have to endure a slew of verbal sewerage from what passes for critics in the opera world. Her singing also seemed pretty good to me, but who gives a shit right?
The problem for me was that, as a die-hard Gilliam fan, the experience felt like a waste of a good Gilliam film. As an artist, the man’s medium is cinema – having him direct an opera seems like hollow opportunism, in the same way as exhibiting paintings by Anthony Hopkins, or manufacturing a cologne endorsed by Antonio Banderas.
That said, if there were ever an opera tailor-made to appeal to this particular director, this seems like a good choice. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a famed sculptor who, having been over-indulged by his adoring public, has lost himself in hedonistic procrastination. The fact that the opera is set during the Mardi Gras festival of Rome gives Terry all the excuse he needs to have giant, inflatable deaths-heads floating above the audience, and a horned Pan-figure in a fat-suit thrusting his oversized symbolic genitals (comprising a cucumber and two tomatoes) all over the stage.
Faced with the prospect of not only losing his bride-to-be, but being executed by the Pope – who has commissioned a statue of Perseus that has yet to materialise – Cellini is forced to pull himself together, completing the work under pressure and evading the threats of his menacing backers by proving that he isn’t just a wannabe. It’s a plot that has come to serve as the endlessly prophetic archetype of Gilliam’s career – albeit a self-fulfilling one. As anyone who has studied the tortured production history of films like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Brothers Grimm, or The Cabinet of Dr Parnassus knows, this is a magic trick that must be very close to Gilliam’s heart by now – having made a name for himself by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat (except for Don Quixote of course – but the clock hasn’t run out on that one yet…).
As the two lovers are reunited, rising above us on the gigantic head of Perseus – being hoisted into position atop a statue which is so big, we can only just make out its Classically modest genitals at the top of the stage – even a hardened opera-hater like me can’t deny that Gilliam seems to have somehow pulled it off again.