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Gay Gustavus and the horrible Hun

02/21/2002 -  and 27 February, 1, 5, 8, 13, 16 March, 4, 6, 11 April 2002

Giuseppe Verdi: A masked ball

John Daszak (Gustavus III), David Kempster (Anckarstroem), Claire Rutter (Amelia), Mary Plazas (Oscar), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Madame Arvidson), Toby Stafford-Allen (Christian), Graeme Danby (Ribbing), Panajotis Iconomou (Horn), Armfeld (Peter Kerr)

Andrew Litton (conductor), Calixto Bieito (director)

ENO orchestra and chorus

Royal Opera
02/04/02 and 6, 14, 16, 19, 22 February

Giuseppe Verdi: Attila

Paata Burchuladze (Attila), Robin Legatte (Uldino), Maria Guleghina (Odabella), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Ezio), Franco Farina (Foresto), Graeme Broadbent (Leone)

Mark Elder (conductor), Elijah Moshinsky (director)

Royal Opera orchestra and chorus

The ENO's new production of A masked ball by Calixto Bieito came with parental advisories and lots of scandalised press: the tenor originally cast as Gustavus withdrew after seeing the production in Copenhagen -- a year ago -- and there are toilets, buggery and Nazi salutes. The Royal Opera's Attila is a bog standard international house production that would be at home at the Met in both cast and expensive dullness. And, while the ENO is a nose ahead on dramatic interest and the Royal Opera a whisker ahead on vocal quality, they are both pretty good, though not revelatory, Verdi.

Bieito's ENO Don Giovanni caused a furore at its premiere last year by reducing Giovanni's life force to joyless hedonism (or possibly by not having pretty sets and costumes), and it was musically problematic. His production of A masked ball has had several runs already, and seems to have settled in. Perhaps also Verdi's grim melodrama sits better with Bieito's make-everything-Spanish approach, even though Don Giovanni is set in Spain and A masked ball is set in Sweden. The explicit (in the programme notes) parallel between the suddenly crowned cultured playboy Gustavus and Juan Carlos, raised for the throne by Franco although anything could have happened when the dictator finally died, is persuasive. But Bieito's setting could equally well involve the post-war juntas in Greece or South America.

The main point is the stress between the dutiful and popular but sensual ruler and the military-religious complex his rule displaces and threatens. (A version with Bill Clinton has been frequently suggested.) Bieito engages fully with the music to distinguish the intense and sincere emotions of Gustavus and Amelia, often expressed straight-to-camera just as Moshinsky would direct them, the more frivolous joie de vivre of Gustavus' set, especially embodied in Oscar, here a sassy female adviser or personal assistant, and the empty but forceful oompah fascism of the conspirators, consistently associated with things anal. (The scandalous men on toilets at the start are partly an allusion to the film noir convention of leaving a gun in the cistern and partly a joke about conspiracies happening in the gents.) Bieito got into the music in detail in Don Giovanni as well, of course, but for Da Ponte and Mozart style and form are in continuous tension with meaning and emotion, and Bieito's simple embodiments of the music didn't work.

The singers A masked ball also seemed happier in their roles vocally than those in Don Giovanni, although they are mainly ENO principals and far from Verdi specialists. Claire Rutter was a beautiful, centred Amelia, absolutely straightforward and very moving. Her styling was probably meant to be Madrid out of Jackie O, but she also suggested a blond Monica Lewinsky, an adult who knows what she wants but is out of her depth in the political cesspit. Mary Plazas was a fascinating Oscar, apparently a quarter of the mass of the hulking male principals, a youthful spirit but also a projection of their own desperation. Plazas has a huge voice that conjures thoughts of a Brunnhilde even smaller than Kathleen Broderick. Rebecca de Pont Davies played Madame Arvidson as an alluring brothel-keeper, rather more up-market than her Mother Goose in the Rake, but equally sinister if a little vulnerable.

John Daszak is definitely not a Verdi tenor, although his control of some of Gustavus' long lines was impressive. His timbre is often rough and ready, but his presence is striking, individual and strangely attractive. This Gustavus was definitely queer, like the historical one, and occasionally gay, certainly a more integrated spirit than either his pals or the conspirators. David Kempster, in contrast, has the makings of a pretty good (though not international-house) Verdi bass baritone as well as another strong individual presence. His Anckarstroem was inevitably wooden, which made his outburst of violence against Amelia all the more shocking. Graeme Danby was a suitably ugly Ribbing and Panajotis Iconomou a sinister Horn, awesome in drag for the visit to Arvidson's.

The chorus didn't all look particularly engaged in the devil worship, but they sang superbly, and the orchestra under Andrew Litton sounded as good in Verdi as they have for many years.

Un ballo in maschera is a contemporary drama that adds a grim style to everyday nastiness. Attila in contrast is a historical epic where symbolic figures confront each other in a clash of universals that just happen to unpack neatly into contemporary relevance. The Italians of the fifth century, weakly led and divided, were in the same position as those of the 1830s, while Attila was the acknowledged ancestor of the Austro-Hungarians occupying Lombardy. But of course it doesn't really work that way. Attila (a Hun, probably unrelated to either Magyars or Hapsburgs, though Verdi's librettists seem to think he is some kind of German) is the type of a noble savage, honourable in his violence, while the preference in the plot for grand scenes over coherence makes the Italians look devious or deranged. If there is a hint of Realpolitik in Ezio's attempt to claim Italy for the Romans and let Attila have the rest of the world, Odabella's rescue of Attila from the poisoned cup only to kill him herself a few minutes later is just daft.

Moshinsky's production, which was regarded as a revelation when it first appeared and seemed to stake a claim for Attila's place in the standard repertoire, is still powerful in a dull sort of way. Moshinsky takes the opera on its own terms, and the singers communicate using the rhetoric of the music without any external overloading of meaning. It would all have been a bit too tasteful if two of the main singers had not been from the former Soviet Union and added a thumping dose of oomph. Maria Guleghina looked suitably heroic, cropped like Joan of Arc, as Odabella, but she didn't sound remotely Italian. Nor, more excusably, did Paata Burchuladze in the title role. Although he boomed away entertainingly, you had to take Attila's nobility on trust. Anthony Michaels-Moore was a comparatively complex Ezio, hard-edged and intelligent. Franco Farina as Foresto made the role look like the makeweight it is, a template tenor for a template tenor role.

The Royal Opera chorus was less impressive than the ENO's, although their music gave them little to be impressive with. Mark Elder is an old hand with Attila, and he and the orchestra sounded as if they might have got bored with it.

H.E. Elsom



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