Scandal? What scandal? The only scandal to be drawn from Calixto Bieito's new staging of Verdi's A Masked Ball for English National Opera was the wasted column inches of hyperbolic nonsense written before the event. And it is an event: a bold, gripping, highly theatrical realisation of Verdi's brooding masterpiece. Would Verdi have recognised his opera? Most certainly. Was it perverse, sensationalistic, gratuitous? Not at all. It was good, very good. Fierce, ironical, thoughtful, and most of all – exciting. When last I checked, that's what music theatre was all about.
So what's brought about all the fuss and bother? Well, Bieito's wholesale violation of Don Giovanni is undoubtedly at the root of it. Now that was shocking; an indefensible case of self-indulgence and misrepresentation. There were those, myself included, who hollered long and loud that this insensitive renegade should not be allowed anywhere near an opera house again, particularly not this opera house. But we were wrong.
Where Bieito's Don Giovanni sacrificed the opera to his theatrical vision of it, his Masked Ball gets right to the heart of the matter. Political upheaval is the issue here. A society in transition, on the cusp between fascist regulation and a new-found freedom. At the centre of that is a liberal monarch with a taste for theatre and, rather more covertly, men.
Bieito, a Spaniard, not surprisingly alludes to something he can relate personally to – the aftermath of Franco. But allusion is as far as it goes. The spirit of Verdi and his librettist Antonio Somma is intact. The opening image is audacious – a row of suited gentlemen on lavatories reading newspapers – but it sets up the uneasy air of conspiracy beautifully. Verdi's music is all surface at this point, a quiet elegance, but you feel the undertow. And in the shadows beyond this toilet are figures seated in row upon row of red leather seats, suspended on wires and set against the steel gantries on which the lighting designer Nick Moran has rigged his awesome battery of arc lights. The seating rises and falls like a floating auditorium, and the underside, trimmed with dozens of bulbs, lights up like the marquise of a Broadway theatre. So the stage becomes an arena for intrigue, indeed any arena the imagination chooses to make it: an execution stadium, a circus ring, a cheap burlesk, a house of ill-repute. And so unfolds the drama that is Gustavus's life.
He's quite a luvvie, of course. Any excuse for dressing up. So when the entire court set off in disguise for Madame Arvidson's (clairvoyant and brothel-keeper – a far more plausible explanation for her banishment in this context), that's his cue for a follow-spot and a rack of spangly costumes. His homosexuality is subtly conveyed, most tellingly in a chaste kiss for his best friend and betrayer, Anckarstroem. The Judas kiss in reverse. Oscar is no longer his androgynous page boy but a very female assistant – the excellent Mary Plazas.
Bieito's greatest strength here is an emotional scrutiny so woefully lacking in his Don Giovanni. That and his ardent physicality. Sometimes he plays daringly against the music, as in the much-publicised male rape and murder scene, the more shocking (and moving) for being underscored by one of Verdi's most serene melodies. Remember, this is "the place of execution" where Amelia and Gustavus have planned their tryst. The boy's naked corpse becomes the terrifying "apparition" of Amelia's big aria as she nervously waits for her lover.
That aria was delivered with scorching accomplishment by Claire Rutter – bags of intensity rising to a whopping high C. She alone here truly grasped the Verdi style, though John Daszak (Gustavus), David Kempster (Anckarstroem), and the dark, rasping contralto tones of Rebecca de Pont Davies (Arvidson) were all commendable by virtue of their total conviction. Andrew Litton, who seems to come alive in the theatre, conducted a beautiful and thrilling account of the score. Forget the hype. See the show.
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