London As the English National Opera held its breath for an outraged reaction to its radical new staging of Verdi's "A Masked Ball," London critics delivered a potentially more damning verdict Friday.
They dismissed the production which includes nudity, simulated gang rape and transvestism as simply silly.
In an open letter to the company's general director, Nicholas Payne, and music director Paul Daniel, Daily Telegraph opera critic Rupert Christiansen said the opera was perverse and irritating.
"Transvestites, dwarves, gratuitous sexual couplings and visits to the lavatory distract us in every scene, and although the action is driven with energy and executed with flair, it entirely lacks relevance to either Verdi's conception of the drama with its elegant melancholy and respect for the noble heart of King Gustavus or to Spain's traumas in the 1970s," wrote Christiansen. "Finally, it's just silly."
The production, directed by Spain's Calixto Bieito, created controversy even before the curtain was raised Thursday for the first night.
Tenor Julian Gavin pulled out of the lead role before rehearsals started, saying he was a family man who did not want his children to see him in an act of artistic vandalism.
"I don't think the 'Masked Ball' merits being staged anywhere in the world. It is a travesty," Gavin told The Daily Telegraph.
But The Times critic Rodney Milnes said the pre-opening huffing and puffing in fact belied a rather tame affair.
Milnes said the opening scene, which features a dozen men on toilets with their trousers around their ankles was "actually rather beautiful: at least there was some set to look at, and it was prettily lit."
But he said it was all downhill from there as the first scene was not replaced by "anything interesting" and Bieito completely lost the plot.
Milnes said he felt sorry for the cast who were better than the production deserved.
"If only they had all been in a proper, grown-up production," he wrote. "Oh dear, I do wish Bieito would go away and leave opera alone."
Christiansen said an apparent attempt by the opera company to draw in younger audiences had misfired and its directors should take the hint.
Bieito's production, which transposes Verdi's setting at the court of King Gustavus III in late 18th century Sweden to post-Franco Spain, was greeted with catcalls at its world premiere in Barcelona last year.