Verdi's adults-only opera is barely flushed with success

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The Independent Culture

The controversial English National Opera production of Verdi's A Masked Ball, complete with homosexual rape and members of the chorus sitting on a row of lavatories, has alienated the traditional opera-going public, the company admitted yesterday.

The general director of the ENO, Nicholas Payne, said the production "has not done well" and added that "scandal does not help the box office".

The production is playing to half-empty houses with an average so far of 57 per cent of capacity, it emerged yesterday. A separate production of the perennially popular Mozart opera Don Giovanni, given a sex and drugs treatment by the same controversial director, has been playing to houses less than 70 per cent full.

The homosexual rape scene in A Masked Ball is not in Verdi's original. Julian Gavin, the first tenor to be hired for the production, pulled out because he was "a family man" and did not want his children to see the production.

Mr Payne said yesterday that ticket sales had been disappointing for the production, which has received considerable publicity for its more graphic moments.

"I don't believe a scandal helps the box office," he said, "and certainly on this occasion it didn't. A Masked Ball has not done well. There were aspects of the production I personally didn't like but I have to give directors the freedom to bring something new to the opera."

The production was directed by the Spaniard Calixto Bieto who also directed a Don Giovanni filled with drugs-fuelled sex and violence. Mr Payne said: "There's no doubt we have upset some of our traditional audience with the Mozart."

Mr Bieto attempted to defend himself in a recent interview, saying: "What really shocks me is the way people are outraged by the toilet humour yet applaud an aria in which a man brutally beats his wife."

Mr Payne said the ENO had an education remit and added that new interpretations would never please everyone. He said: "People write to me and say 'I've come to the theatre for an evening of delight.' I write back and say, 'You've come to the wrong theatre'."