ENO @ The Coliseum, London, 21, 27 February, 1, 5, 8, 13, 16 March, 4, 6, 11 April 2002
A Masked Ball (photo by Bill Rafferty)
Goodness, what a lot of fuss. Looking back at my review of the last ENO production by Spanish director Calixto Bieito - Don Giovanni - there was plenty of controversy then, but nothing on this scale.
It seemed the whole of London was talking about fourteen men sitting on lavatories in the opening scene, the homosexual rape and murder, and the withdrawal of the lead tenor because he reputedly didn't want his family to see such a production.
If nothing else, the Coliseum management had ensured that this was a hot ticket.
I can only assume that the team took note of some of the criticism and toned the production down a tad - certainly there was no nudity for the lead tenor, as previously reported, and no mass Nazi salute for the chorus, though plenty of aspects remained that would upset disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. However there was no backlash at the final curtain as there apparently had been at the premiere in Barcelona. In fact, quite rightly, the audience was enthusiastic about a production which was, a few silly antics aside, intelligent and absorbing, and brought life to one of Verdi's less engrossing works.
Bieito has translated the story of the assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden to Spain in the immediate post-Franco era - I'm not sure why, I must admit, but for a plot that bears very little relation to historical fact anyway it is no tragedy. The curtain rises to reveal the famous lavatorial fourteen - they are the conspirators, conferring in that most suitable of places, the gents adjoining the King's council chamber. Why all the fuss? Goodness knows - I thought it worked well.
The council chamber itself is a splendid space, with three tiers of semicircular seating that can be raised and lowered for a variety of scenic needs. Here we meet Gustavus for the first time, as portrayed by the excellent John Daszak, who impresses more every time he appears at the Coliseum. He is that rare thing, a strong, straightforward tenor who can also act terrifically well. Gustavus' friend and ally Anckarstroem, who later becomes his murderer after the King's affair with his wife Amelia is revealed, is beautifully sung by baritone David Kempster. Oscar, the King's assistant, has had a sex change.
This is the only aspect of the production that really didn't work - the direction makes Oscar the most unfathomable of characters. What on earth is she supposed to be doing when she virtually lap-dances for the wheelchair-bound Minister of Justice? Later in the opera she is beaten up by the conspirators, but still doesn't seem to recognise the danger her master faces from them. Mary Plazas makes the most of her diminutive figure to play up the sex-kitten aspects of the role but it really doesn't make a lot of sense, and her usually excellent soprano sounds a little uncomfortable too.
The second scene transports us to the lair of Madam Arvidson, who in this production presides over satanic rituals, mostly sexual in nature, and whose clients include a sailor enjoying a blowjob while waiting his turn. Her female followers are a horrendous look back to the 1970s (think hot pants and platform boots) and her major domo is a midget in a devil costume. It's all very colourful, if a trifle over the top, but in general it works, and Rebecca de Pont Davies is terrific as the spectrally voiced Madam Arvidson, looking the part too in her slinky black-sequinned gown. The courtiers having disguised themselves to enter her den of vice, we also get the fun of Panajotis Iconomou as Horn (one of the key conspirators) in drag, displaying a very impressive pair of legs.
The major complaints about this production have concerned the homosexual rape that opens Act 2. Purists moan that this Act is set underneath a gallows (Amelia, Anckarstroem's wife, has been sent there by Madam Arvidson to collect a herb at midnight). True we have no gallows here (tricky to find nowadays, in Europe at least), but surely the equivalent in terms of revulsion is the rape and murder of a young man? Again, this was an aspect that I found brought the opera alive. The set itself is empty for this scene, using nothing but superb low-key lighting to convey an atmosphere of horror.
Amelia is sung by Claire Rutter, who in a recent interview endorsed the production - good for her. She's in good voice, and while she looks a little matronly to have inspired such love in the King, she is moving when all is revealed to her husband and she begs to be allowed to see their child once more. We're back in the bathroom for this scene - this time a high-tech stainless steel version in the Anckarstroem house - and again it works, at least for the domestic row. Whether or not Anckarstroem would have received the co-conspirators and Oscar there is another matter, but only a slight quibble.
The final scene, the eponymous masked ball and the death of Gustavus, is rather an anticlimax. Bieito has set this conventionally, with the court wearing elegant evening dress and identical white masks, the conspirators being helpfully colour-coded by sashes. John Daszak comes to a sticky but moving end, and the ENO team must have been relieved by the warm (and well-deserved) applause. Of course, the critics will still hate it - after all they can't be seen to change their minds having been so vitriolic before it opened. If there's a ticket left to be had after all the hype, go and make your own mind up.