OPERA NEWS - Guillaume Tell
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Guillaume Tell

Royal Opera House

In Review Guillaume Tell hdl 915
Finley and Fomina, father and son in Covent Garden’s William Tell
© Clive Barda

THE ROYAL OPERA'S new production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (seen June 29), directed by Italian stage director Damiano Michieletto, made the national news bulletins in the U.K., as well as the front pages of newspapers. The reason? At one point in the opera’s third act, to the music of one of Rossini’s ballet movements, the Austrian soldiers are supposed to force the Swiss women to dance with them. Here, this was presented in a much more sexually violent manner than anything envisaged in the libretto.

In Michieletto’s staging, the Austrians seized one woman, forced her to drink with them before pouring champagne all over her, then stripped her naked and simulated gang-raping her on a table. Booing started quickly during this spectacle — unthinkable, of course, on the public stage in Rossini’s time, and perhaps also (one discovers) in ours. Instead of being a brief gesture confined to a few individuals, the loud and unequivocally negative reaction was protracted and clearly involved large numbers of audience members. From this point on, there were walkouts. Meanwhile, noisy hostility to the show continued, with one person shouting, “Shame on you, Tony!” — a remark clearly aimed at the Royal Opera’s popular and much admired music director, Antonio Pappano, who was in the pit.

At the end of the show, all of the principals, along with the chorus and Pappano himself, were well received — and then the directorial and design team came on. Michieletto and his designers — Paolo Fantin (sets), Carla Teti (costumes) and Alessandro Carletti (lighting) — were greeted by a sustained volley of booing that easily drowned out the clapping and cheers of other audience members. In forty-three years of regular attendance at the Royal Opera House, I cannot recall so violently negative a reaction to any previous production.

The feelings of the audience, though, had probably been building for some time. In its new stagings over the past season or two, the company has experienced a series of semi- or outright failures — far too many, indeed, to be regarded with equanimity by the regular Royal Opera House public. This particular show was merely the worst — though by some distance — in what is by now a long line of poor productions.

Teti’s costumes implied the modern era (Bosnia, someone suggested), though a silent figure continually stalking the stage wearing medieval dress and with a feather in his cap clearly represented the legendary Swiss hero, despite the fact that baritone Gerald Finley also had that particular function, since he was singing the title role, and he fulfilled his duties well. Russian soprano Sofia Fomina’s Jemmy dressed like an ordinary teenage boy of a few decades back, frequently reading from an English-language comic book about his father’s exploits, while also playing with multicolored toy soldiers. Fantin’s set was based on a floor of something apparently called “crumb” — a realistic, black, foam-based material simulating common-or-garden soil. Carletti’s strip lighting made everything and everyone onstage look pallid and sinister. Altogether it was an ugly spectacle.

Michieletto’s direction did nothing to redeem it — quite the opposite. Characterization and interaction between the individual performers were weak. The result felt emotionally crass, intellectually poverty-stricken and theatrically inert. This was a pity, because the cast achieved something genuine and, in better circumstances, could certainly have done a good deal more. Finley’s stern, firm-toned Tell provided a solid vocal lynchpin. Malin Byström’s Mathilde rose to passionate heights during the course of the evening, even if one did not really believe in her from a dramatic point of view, especially in terms of her relationship with John Osborn’s Arnold, who hit all the high notes without ever really establishing a clear character of his own. Eric Halfvarson made an angry and abrasive Melcthal, both living and (later on) when dead, as a nonsinging ghost. Fomina’s Jemmy was vocally clean and physically boyish. Enkelejda Shkosa’s Hedwige was ample of tone and maternal in manner. The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra had a good evening under Pappano, though not quite a great one.

As of June 30, Royal Opera’s director of Opera, Kasper Holten, remained unrepentent. “We are not going to change the production, nor do we apologize for it,” he said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper; well, it’s good to know that someone is listening.  Meanwhile, Michieletto — who has enjoyed a substantial career in Europe, with productions at La Scala, Salzburg and many other top addresses — is due back at Covent Garden in December for a new Cav & Pag. Let’s hope they’re good.  —George Hall

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