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S & H Opera Review

Verdi, 'A Masked Ball' English National Opera, February 21st. (ME)


Ditch the dwarf, would be my advice for future nights; the line 'Ah! I am dying' is always a risky one in terms of bringing forth the laughter of the crass, but the tenor uttering it has no hope at all if his last moments are accompanied by a spangled devil - let prancing around and seemingly mocking the king's dying blessing. This jarring moment at what should be the noble climax of the music was not the only time during this evening when I felt that too much was being done on stage, but the production as a whole was nowhere near as shocking as we had been led to believe, and certainly looked positively tame beside the same team's 'Don Giovanni.'

It is now a matter of record that the originally scheduled Gustavus, Julian Gavin, withdrew because, as a 'family man,' he felt he could not take his children to see such a production. It is news to me that the criteria for taking on a role in opera, an adult entertainment if ever there was one, seemingly includes suitability for one's kids; one wonders if, perhaps, that ever entered Matthias Goerne's head before he assumed his shattering portrayal of Wozzeck? I think not, and trust that his tinies were safely tucked up in bed as he slit Marie's throat. One cannot help but wonder if Gavin allowed his kids in to see his unctuous Pinkerton - now there's a moral fellow, children - a quick bit of rumpy-pumpy with a charming 15 year old, pop back to the Land of the Free, marry a strapping Yankee gal, then go back to the land of the slitty -eyed and remove the poor little Jap's only treasure, causing her suicide along the way.

So, what of those much - touted shock - horror scenes? Here's the thing; yes, there was sex and debauchery onstage, but, apart from a couple of bits of gratuitous groping, it all fitted into the director's concept, that of a corrupt, venial court headed by a rather frivolous yet ultimately noble king - not too far away, in fact, from the character of the real Gustavus, who was renowned for his love of 'theatricals' and was actually shot at one of his costume balls in his own opera house. What I object to in so-called ' shocking' scenes, is a lack of direction, a sense that they are there merely to titillate, and I did not find that either in this production or indeed in the 'Don Giovanni,' which seemed to me a perfectly valid reading; to this day I still cannot see why there was such objection to such things as drunken sex at a wedding, and snorting cocaine at a party, and can only conclude that all those who frothed at these things must lead very sheltered lives. A perfect example of what I mean about a scene which irritates me with its gratuitous sex n' violence, would be the opening of the recent ROH 'Rigoletto,' where the chorus just tumbled about, tits n' bits flopping everywhere, carrying on for all the world as though the director had said 'ok darlings, orgy please, more orgy!' (he probably did.....) and the principals semaphored as though they were at La Scala circa 1955, but without of course singing like it.

The absence of Julian Gavin, excellent actor-singer though he is, was not grievously felt since we had in John Daszak as fine a Gustavus as one might reasonably expect could be fielded by an opera company called English National; that is, one which expects singing in English by someone who can act, rather than singing in Italian by someone who (usually) can't, but who produces lots of juicy tone. Daszak's voice may lack italianitá, but he compensates for this with some ringing top notes, wonderful clarity of diction, and natural, unforced phrasing. He was not helped by having to undo buttons and whatnot during 'O qual soave ' but he still managed to sing it with delicacy, and overall his was a notable assumption of a difficult role; his death was very touching, and would have been heart-rending if it had not been for that pesky little devil - let.

The other principals were cast from company strength, with especially fine singing from David Kempster as an anguished Anckarstroem and Rebecca de Pont Davies as Madame Arvidson. Graeme Danby's Ribbing was yet another superbly acted cameo to add to his gallery of similar roles, and Mary Plazas was a spirited Oscar, although I have yet to hear a singer in this role who succeeds in not setting my teeth on edge, for Oscar must be just about one of the most irritating characters in all opera. Claire Rutter sang with plenty of dramatic edge as Amelia, but her voice lacks the necessary sweetness and she sometimes becomes shrill under pressure. She was once again hideously costumed, in a very similarly unflattering outfit to the one she had to contend with as Donna Anna; I felt for her when Gustavus removed her coat.

The orchestra was in the capable hands of Andrew Litton, who I was surprised to find has not conducted here since 1995. The playing seemed, at times, to be affected by First Night nerves, especially at the beginning, but by the second act things had settled down, and the orchestra gave a lively account of the closing music, as indeed did the superb chorus. The arias were given sensitive support, although I felt that a certain zip, a feeling of exhilaration was at times lacking; perhaps this will come with time.

The production is set in Spain at around the time of the Transition, which one might regard as apt since there are parallels between Gustavus and Juan Carlos, and it is generally well thought through, beautifully lit and vividly costumed; such matters as the opening set, with the now-notorious toilets, were very well staged, and in fact not really meriting all the shock-horror copy; have none of these writers read their Seneca recently? Was it not the case that the ancients did most of their plotting in the 'Cloacae?' So, there was a satanic ritual, but it was chaste to the point of being positively pre-Raphaelite; there was a bit of w*****g, a bit of b*****y, a bit of - well, everything, really, but so what? This is a court of mostly corrupt wantons, and they do carry on like that, you know. The chorus was superbly managed, with a few nods towards Peter Sellars' 'Giulio Cesare ' and all the supernumeraries carried conviction. What I like about Bieito's direction is the way he manages the real contestations between people; the crucial moments of personal and public drama which can be so limply done in opera, are here handled with real theatrical skill, so that, for example, you find yourself gripped by Anckarstroem's bitter treatment of Amelia, and you feel genuine pity for the King's dilemma despite what you know about his veniality. This director knows how to use singers on stage, and that, in the end, is what a director is for.

Melanie Eskenazi

See also Interview with Calixto Bieito by Martin Hoyle

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