The more you read about the life of Salvador Dalí, the more tragic it seems. After an unconsummated homosexual love affair with Federico García Lorca, Dalí married Gala, formerly the wife of the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard, whereupon, as John Richardson wrote in Vanity Fair in December 1998, “What little was left of [Dalí’s] integrity as an artist was sacrificed to Gala's nymphomania and greed for tacky aggrandizement.” Richardson’s vicious article detailed many of Gala’s extramarital affairs, including the topic of Ergo Phizmiz’s small opera Gala: her overwhelming passion for Jeff Fenholt, the original star of Jesus Christ Superstar, who was a ‘boy toy’ for Gala when she was 79 and he was 29. Fenholt, by now a Christian TV Evangelist, was so angry about Richardson’s article that he complained to Vanity Fair; I suspect he would be no more pleased by Gala, were he ever to see it.  

Gala is set in Gala's private castle in Púbol, Girona, Spain (now the Gala-Dalí Castle House Museum). We are seated around three sides of the stage, which is dressed opulently with a large Turkish carpet, a red velvet chaise longue, a scattering of Victorian occasional tables and a large gilt mirror. The opera opens with Gala waiting for Fenholt to arrive from a plane, while a decrepit Dalí is wheeled around in a bath chair by a nurse. Fenholt duly arrives, hungover and the worse for wear. Partly restored by a Bloody Mary, he hurls Gala around the room in a frenzied dance, sings her a short and stomach-churningly bad love ballad, then leaps onto her and enthusiastically humps away at her on the chaise longue, while Dalí, still sitting in the same room, is given a hand job by his nurse, wearing a black rubber glove and an unconcerned expression. Fenholt wakes up, writes himself a cheque and leaves. Gala, awaking to find Fenholt gone, is naturally cross. Dalí (a spoken role, in a strained and squeaky voice with the occasional token Spanish consonant) has a little soliloquy in which he claims that “Because death is so close, it is possible to make erotic every moment of my life.” Well, maybe for him. The opera closes with Gala performing her favourite party trick to a chorus of sycophantic party guests: dropping a fluffy white rabbit into a saucepanful of boiling water (don’t worry, it’s a toy, though it is unsettlingly lifelike). The bunny is the big finish: Dalí rings his invalid’s bell to close the piece.  

If all this hasn’t put you off yet (and I promise you the double geriatric sex scene is no fun whatsoever to witness, let alone the rabbit-boiling), the music, acting and direction are all disappointing, the singing likewise. No programme or cast list was produced, so I can’t tell you who was responsible for what. Phizmiz’ piano accompaniment never gets beyond a piano-bar tinkling: perfectly harmless against background noise, but not strong enough to bear focused attention. The soprano singing Gala often went flat, and had a tendency to shriek; the Nurse was also flat, and conversely doesn’t project successfully, seeming to sing through clenched teeth much of the time. Fenholt had the best voice on this stage (which wasn’t saying much), but it’s very much a rock-singing voice (huskily reminiscent of a young Dave Grohl), devoid of technique, and the utter coarseness of his part didn’t endear him: he’s not even a lovable antihero, he’s just plain loathsome. The party guests, dressed in wonderful glittering costumes, sang with robust determination rather than skill.

The libretto makes the common mistake of confusing scatological humour, or swearing, with wit: just because it sounds “shocking” doesn’t make it innovative, particularly in opera, and nothing profound comes out. Direction is flaccid and complacent, the piece lurching along awkwardly without achieving any mood, building anything or going anywhere. Once the forty minutes were up, I just kept thinking of the Mechanicals’ description of their play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which makes Theseus laugh so much: “A tedious brief scene.” Gala is both tedious and brief. With luck, Grimeborn has other, better things in store. 

 

Cast details now received from the promoter and listing updated [Ed]