The archives of the Metropolitan Opera can seem like some kind of pharaonic tomb, packed as they are with theatrical treasures. Back in 2009, as Joan Acocella related at The New Yorker, a 1944 backdrop by Salvador Dalí measuring a staggering 27 by 45 feet was pulled from this trove. Created for choreographer Léonide Massine’s Mad Tristan ballet, which is set to music from Richard Wagner’s 19th-century Tristan und Isolde opera, it portrays the doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde as broken bodies against a desolate landscape. Cracks crawl down their sides, poor Tristan’s oozing blood and ants, while Isolde reaches towards him. Only Tristan has a shadow, and a face consumed by a dandelion.
The backdrop was loaned in 2012 to Daniele Finzi Pasca of the nouveau cirque Compagnia Finzi Pasca. They’re currently performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Gilman Opera House, where you can see the Dalí backdrop front and center as the inspiration for the company’s La Verità.
Although the backdrop is awesome to see in La Verità, the show also has plenty of gasp-inducing feats by the acrobats, contortionists, and aerialists who move over its stage. What the production lacks is a real embrace of Dalí’s weirdness, instead favoring whimsy over surrealism. The most dreamlike moments aren’t sustained for long, broken up by the kind of slapstick clowning that’s familiar from Cirque du Soleil and doesn’t entirely embrace Dalí’s bizarre, uneasy sense of humor. We’re talking, after all, about a man who thought it was great fun to take an anteater for a walk around Paris on a leash or put a lobster on a telephone, with its sexual organs not so subtly positioned at the speaking end.
There are, however, beautiful moments, as when a woman slowly balances on a grand piano played by two rhinoceros-headed humanoids, while a person attempts to grab at papers sent soaring on a hidden air blower. If it had gone on for another 15 minutes, the scene could have fit seamlessly into a Philip Glass opera. And an early battle between a matador dancer on hand crutches and a bull represented by a cart subtly pulled imagery from the backdrop onto the stage in a vivid way. The huge horse head positioned in the middle of the first scene is possibly a reference to one of the three goliath equine figures that loomed over the 1944 stage. Those progressively moved aside to reveal bodies going into their tombs; here it’s nothing so ominous, just a setting for some confusing bit of purposefully bad, Las Vegas–style sideshow dancing.
I longed for La Verità to go full-on Dalí. Sure, they had guys in tutus wearing his face as a mask, but why not something truly weird, like a flaming giraffe just creeping in the background? Nevertheless, the performers were undeniably impressive and versatile. And when they started spinning on double helixes above a field of human dandelions as wine corks rain down, it wasn’t quite a surrealist revival, but it was a stunning spectacle.
La Verità continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through May 7.