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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 11:07 GMT
Revamped opera fails to shock
Calixto's production at the Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen
By BBC News Online's Matt Slater

In a week when an EastEnders sex-and-drugs storyline rattled the nation's moral guardians on Fleet Street, London's opera set were largely unmoved by the more graphic fare on offer at the English National Opera on Thursday.

A new production of Verdi's A Masked Ball by Calixto Bieito, a Spanish sensationalist with quite a reputation in the moral outrage department, promised much for those looking for a fix of pomp and pornography.

But the general consensus in ENO's dress circle bar was more "I didn't get it" and "I was expecting (hoping for?) worse", than "It's a disgrace!"

Satanic sex rituals, homosexual rape, a demonic dwarf... Bieito, you are going to have to try harder than that if you want to shock an opera audience.

ENO in London
The ENO staged Bieito's production of Don Giovanni in last June
After all, ask for an opera without adultery, murder and mayhem, and you will get Gilbert and Sullivan.

There were, of course, one or two sour faces in the audience, but that could have had more to do with me crunching my peanut M&Ms during the overture than any indignation at Bieito's fast-and-loose interpretation of Verdi's original.

Perhaps the easily offended amongst the ENO family were kept away by the official website, which said: "Those who prefer something more traditional should be warned."

And anyone who had heard of Bieito's prior productions could have no real complaints about any of the controversial Catalan's more bizarre flights of theatrical fancy.

As unusual as A Masked Ball's opening lavatory scene was, it was positively traditional compared to Bieito's Don Giovanni at the ENO last June.

When we can get gay porn as comedy in Sex and the City, how shocking can a 19th Century Italian opera really be?

The 38-year-old Spaniard took Mozart's classic morality tale and added a liberal dusting of cocaine and oral sex - it was greeted by boos and programme-waving on its opening night.

The headline shocker in this year's production will surely be the rape scene in Act Two.

Verdi has the piece's star-crossed lovers - is there any other kind in opera? - meet for their key duet in a "place of execution".


Bieito illustrates this with four soldiers beating, and then raping, a thief who had picked the pocket of King Gustavus, the central character. Was it the director's indictment of corruption and summary justice, or just an example of throw-away sensationalism?

As unpleasant as this was to watch, I was more alarmed by the cast's inability to keep their trousers up - heard of belts, Bieito?

In fact, by far the most shocking thing I saw all night was a man in the audience wearing a pair of bright red trousers that he had no business even considering for at least 30 years.

It seems that our media-fed diet of scandal is making the lives of controversialists like Bieito much harder. As an ENO spokesman said in defence of the director last year, you see "worse things on TV".

When we can get gay porn as comedy in Sex and the City, how shocking can a 19th century Italian opera really be?

See also:

01 Jun 01 | Arts
Boos greet coke-snorting opera
27 Mar 01 | Arts
English opera sparks debate
22 Feb 02 | Reviews
A Masked Ball: Your views
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