‘It’s not about them shitting’, the director assures
me. ‘Those 14 toilets aren’t about shit.’ A Masked Ball is about
a lot of things – private anguish and public dignity, high society and
low life, black comedy, clairvoyants, illicit love and assassination
– but it hadn’t occurred to me that defecation loomed large in Verdi’s
opera. Calixto Bieito explains about his new production. The curtain
rises on the toilets in parliament. Needless to say, there’s a row of
politicians doing what politicians are best at as they read their papers.
Then one produces a gun…The ‘dirty space’ symbolises the assassination
plot; it’s part of Verdi’s own dark humour; and, Bieito sums up proudly,
the touch ‘belongs to the surrealism of my country’. He speaks lovingly
Bieito’s stage work is full of film references, as
those who clamed down enough to think coherently about Don Giovanni
will testify. His production of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, or aptly
named comic drama, was very black indeed, reducing most of the press
to apoplexy at ENO last summer. There were constant references to Tarantino:
bloody, brutal and sexy, with an added dash of Ibiza man and Essex woman
as we followed the long night of bonking, boozing and bloodshed, complete
with orgasmic Donna Anna whooping out the climax of her Act Two aria
as Don Ottavio screwed her on a bar stool.
Bieito remains serenely unconcerned about the critical
fury. ‘It was a very happy rehearsal period,’ he recalls. ‘I was a little
sad at the opening because some people shouted….’ Baying disapproval
was countered by cheers in one of the noisiest first night receptions
I can remember. ‘I felt at ease with the piece. I thought it should
be a melancholy production, the portrait of a society’. I remember the
brilliant touch of the Don singing his serenade down a mobile phone,
fading into emotional emptiness that erupts into rage as he sweeps the
bottles and glasses off the bar: already in hell? Bieito’s production
has been a huge success in Germany, where the critics loved it. Even
in London, post first-night audiences ‘reconnected’, as Bieito puts
it, being more open minded than those journos who would rather sit at
home listening to CDs than be distracted by the stage business.
A Masked Ball comes with its own problems. Based
on the historical assassination of a King of Sweden, the libretto was
disallowed by the censors of Verdi’s day. The action was transplanted,
ludicrously to modern ears, to colonial America, where the hero became
Riccardo, Count of Warwick, governor of Boston. In modern times Stockholm’s
Royal Opera reclaimed its history by restoring the Swedish setting but
giving the tenor the homosexuality of the historical original – not
too appropriate for the stridingly hetero love music that Verdi gives
his main couple. For some decades, A Masked Ball has been a playground
for directors experimenting with time and place, emotions and politics.
‘For Verdi context wasn’t important’ says Bieito impatiently.
‘He’s talking about Italy, his country; he was a musician and a politician.’
The production has reverted to the characters’ Swedish names ‘but the
inspiration is in Spain – the ‘transition’ period after Franco’s death.
It was a moment like Verdi’s Italy, a moment of chaos, fear and insecurity.
I remember I was a child. We had a week’s mourning off school (we celebrated!).
But we asked: ’’Now that Franco’s not here, what will happen?"
‘That was the reference for me and my team. Gustavus
is obviously not the King of Spain , but the title’s A Masked Ball
not ‘’Gustavus and Amelia’’. We want to show what’s behind the mask
before that climactic ball…Gustavus is king but a human being, a victim
completely lost. He’s vain, he wants to be a king people love, but wonders;
Do I love this woman? This man? The original Gustavus was ambiguous.’
Bieito dismisses other directors’ gay interpretations (attractions towards
the sprightly page-boy or the best friend whose wife, in fact Gustavus
loves) as ‘too easy’.
The production merges the emotional with the political,
reflecting Gustavus’s mixture of steadfast friend, playboy and autocratic
king, slumming it in disguise, all conveyed by one of Verdi’s most varied
and colourful scores. ‘To Offenbach-like music, he goes off to play
– to escape!- in the most horrible place, the ‘’orrido campo’’’-
the eerie gallows hills. ‘I didn’t want to express this horrible space
through the set, more with theatrical energy.’ We reach it after the
soothsayer’s hovel, here like ‘ a Fassbinder or Fellini cabaret, a mixture
of witchery and brothel. A pimp flirts with the disguised king and lifts
his wallet. In the next scene - the orrido campo - three policemen
rape and kill him. But his friend can then hand the king back his wallet…I
see the place like the stadium in Santiago after Pinochet’s coup in
Chile. Or like the killing of Lorca in Spain: the story is they put
a gun up his arse. I didn’t want to use the set – bodies hanging up
and so on – to make the audience feel the horror of the place. When
his friend proudly hands the wallet back to the king, the king feels
how horrible it is to be in that position.’
The Anglo-Danish-Spanish co-production has already
been seen in Copenhagen and Barcelona, and was generally favourably
received. ‘Some thought it provocative. But it’s about power – very
important for Verdi’. And for young Spaniards, with dictatorship a real
memory just as the Civil war casts a shadow over a previous generation.
‘I know Franco destroyed culture in my country. We had a fantastic tradition
of writing and theatre.’ He’s philosophical both about history (‘Every
country has its black periods’) and current problems of identity. Unlike
many Catalans, he’s not a nationalist. ‘I’m conscious of myself as Spanish
but culturally Catalan. I think nationalism’s an old fashioned movement.
I believe in different identities, cultures, languages. My culture is
Catalan and Jesuit. My God!’ He laughs incredulously.
His culture also takes in both opera and straight theatre,
particularly Shakespeare; he’s just emerged from a love affair with
Macbeth as obsessional as with Don Giovanni. ‘But now
that I’m doing more opera, it’s very hard to go back to the theatre.
Opera goes straight to the stomach.’
He’s delighted to discover, as many straight theatre
directors have before him, that even the biggest opera stars love to
try new things on stage. ‘The new generation of singers want to act
well, they’re very, very open. My God, the Giovanni and Ball
casts are so open!’ Er – hence the 14 toilets? He laughs. ‘As Buñuel
said, you can do anything you like except be boring.’
© Martin Hoyle & Time Out Ltd, February 2002.
Verdi’s The Masked Ball opens at ENO on 21st February
2002. Visit www.ENO.org.