The last new production of this Royal Opera House season, Guillaume Tell is also its third Rossini, together with Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Il Turco in Italia. Having not being staged at Covent Garden since 1990, and having Antonio Pappano in the orchestra pit, this production has stirred up high expectations and fears of a cataclysmic failure.
Damiano Michieletto, known for his modern-set opera productions, directs Rossini’s last opera and attempts to do just that: present the story in a way that makes it seem relevant today. However, the production feels irregular all the way through, and provides little interesting visual dynamics, which is not ideal in a four-and-a-half-hour opera. The story of William Tell and the Swiss resistance to Austrian rule is staged in a no-time, no-space set, floored with dark soil. The white cube with hanging fluorescent lightsgives an aseptic air to the action, depriving it of any emotional connection with the audience except for a very few and far apart moments. Some tables and a gigantic tree that could revolve are the main elements on stage, together with two video projections that introduce and conclude the story.
From the glorious overture and a first projection showing Jemmy – Tell’s son, sung by Sofia Fomina – playing with toy soldiers and reading a comic book on William Tell, we are told there is a difference between the mythical Tell (from a distant past) and Guillaume Tell now: the production will focus on the latter. The link between ‘hero’ Tell and ‘real’ Tell is a period-dressed character that takes part in the action and also makes ‘real-life’ Swiss folk fall into the story. Maybe more pretentious than innovative, it is one of the many good ideas that are not properly developed, and it is at times rather confusing. Some other good but wasted ideas are the importance of children as war victims exposed to violence, and the intense, almost physical relationship between the Swiss and their land, among others. Falling into the anecdotal in one case, or the nearly laughable in another, these rich sub-text concepts are lost in a sea of immutable dullness. The stillness of the sets, given the epic length of the opera, does not help in regaining the energy of the overture, which is only occasionally recovered particularly towards the end.
On the bright side, there are some moments of beautiful visual lyricism, such as the very last scene where hope comes back to the Swiss in the shape of a new-born life, or the attack of the oppressed on the Austrian soldiers. Yet the truth is that the weight of last night’s performance was all on the cast and chorus’s shoulders, who give outstanding performances. Gerald Finley and John Osborn, as Guillaume Tell and Arnold Melcthal respectively, are in top form. Osborn in particular is just fantastic, with steady and powerful high notes that are received with well-deserved applause. Female leads Enkeledja Shkosa (Hedwige) and Malin Byström (Mathilde), although starting somewhat irregularly, grow into their roles and deliver dramatically intense performances, with Mathilde’s ‘Pour notre amour’ being one of the few highlights of the evening.
In all honesty, it was not the production, the singing or the conducting that defined last night’s performance, but (sadly) the audience. When the Austrian soldiers are in the Swiss town of Altdorf celebrating the 100th year of their rule, they celebrate with music – the mandatory ballet present in Grand Opéra. However, Michieletto decided not to perform a ballet but to use the music as a background for a scene in which the Austrian forces sexually assault a Swiss woman. As per usual when scenes of a violent or sexual nature occur in opera, a wave of discomfort swept across the audience; it continued with occasional catcalling that grew to a generalised booing, which grew even louder when the ‘ballet’ finished, including several shouted remarks. However disgusted, affronted or just plainly annoyed by a performance audience members can get, this episode was incredibly rude and disrespectful to those performing on stage, the orchestra and Pappano, who had a rough time conducting amid the noise.
The violent reaction to last night’s performance can also be read in a positive light. The way an opera performance can ignite a passionate debate (the hashtag #ROHTell became a trending topic on Twitter in the UK after the performance) says a lot in regards to the power that opera still has as a means of creating mixed opinions and shocking audiences. Whether audiences accept opera as a reflection of themselves, showing real situations (however violent or discomforting), is an interesting conversation that must be had. Sadly for some, opera at times is not a still life of period dresses and lavish sets, but quite the opposite, and it can still be enjoyed. In fact, some other productions at the Royal Opera House have had violent and sexual content in them and did not get quite the same reaction. However, in this particular case, the many flaws of Michieletto’s Guillaume Tell predisposed the audience towards condemnation.
It is safe to say it is not a great production: it is dull at times, it does not develop its initial concepts and it is rather static. However, it does have some good ideas in it and performance-wise it is a total triumph. The production team was solemnly booed at curtain calls, but the audience had this time the decency of expressing their opinion just to the production team. Big applauses for Finley and Osborn gave some fairness to what until then was pure lynching.
Guillaume Tell is playing at the Royal Opera House until 17 July. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo by Clive Barda.