Rossini’s operatic swansong Guillaume Tell is not the easiest of pieces to produce because, even ignoring the vast orchestral forces that it demands, no opera house could ever muster the resources required to stage it literally. Given this difficulty, Damiano Michieletto’s new production at the Royal Opera House proves reasonably successful by introducing metaphors, analogies and even anachronisms which enable the staging to work, despite being relatively low-tech.
The floor is covered in earth, which throughout the drama represents either the wholesomeness of nature or the dirt of despair. Michieletto’s take suggests that Tell sees the liberation of the Swiss people as an obvious duty, but takes no pride in any associated ideas of belligerence and valour. The Overture and start of Act I see Jemmy playing with toy soldiers and reading a Children’s Illustrated comic book all about the heroic exploits of William Tell. Tell, played by Gerald Finley, looks saddened at his son believing all of the propaganda, and throughout the opera an actor presents the popular image of Tell alongside Finley’s more sombre character, thus contrasting the myth with the reality.
This has to be anachronistic because Jemmy could never really follow the legend of Tell at a time when he still sees him day to day, but since the idealised Tell is made into a fourteenth century figure while the main action is set broadly in the modern day there is a degree of sense to the idea. In particular, the medieval Tell plays a major part in each of the archery episodes, which themselves now enjoy legendary status.
In the storm sequence towards the end, the medieval Tell gives his clothes to Finley as if to say that this is the time for him to assume his heroic persona. While, however, he removes his garments Finley never dons them, suggesting that he is willing to fulfil his duty but does not want to be idolised for doing so. Indeed, the final chorus of ‘Liberté, redescends des cieux’ is presented as if to suggest that liberty is a gift for which to be eternally thankful, not something about which to feel overly triumphant.
Not everything about Michieletto’s approach works.For example, Jemmy brandishing his sword around the entire stage as Tell, Walter Furst and Arnold lament the death of Melcthal in ‘Quand l’Helvétie est un champ de supplices’ makes sense in terms of contrasting the tragic reality with Jemmy’s naïve excitement at thoughts of war, but does prove rather distracting. It remains a positive, however, that the basic idea is followed through, with the emphasis throughout being on how everything that unfolds will affect the next generation. At the start of Act II the Austrian occupiers positively encourage their youngsters to play at soldiers, while during ‘Sauve Guillaume! Il meurt victime de son amour pour son pays’ the Swiss children are bathed in an act of cleansing.
There are a multitude of other thoughtful touches. For example, at the end of Act I the Austrians uproot a small tree that by Act II, despite being dead, has come to dominate the entire stage, suggesting that the spirit of Switzerland has grown in the face of adversity. Alessandro Carletti’s lighting designs are excellent and play a pivotal role in generating atmosphere. During ‘Oui, vous l’arrachez à mon âme’ the hues cast across the stage change to create three distinct sections to the duet as Jemmy and the medieval Tell look on during the central one. Diagonal lighting also proves strong at key moments in highlighting faces and bodies while still casting the majority of the stage in shadow. This is particularly effective when Finley and half of the male chorus strip to the waist at the end of Act II as they proclaim ‘Jurons, jurons par nos dangers’.
The Act III ballet is replaced by a sequence in which a Swiss woman is increasingly taunted by the Austrians, ending in her being stripped and nearly raped. The routine is reasonably paced as the brief nudity at the end represents the culmination of a lengthy sequence in which the sense of fear is ratcheted up degree by degree through increasingly sinister actions. On opening night it prompted booing not only at the end of the sequence but actually during it. I am fully aware of the reasons why not everyone would take to this section, or indeed the production as a whole, and nor do I suggest that everyone ‘should’ subscribe to my interpretation. Since, however, opinions will differ on anything, surely people could register their protest through withholding applause at the end, and feeding back afterwards via the multitudinous options available, rather than by booing during the sequence?
If people feel it is their right because they have invested a lot in a ticket, why is it their right to ruin the music, let alone overall experience, for others who have spent just as much? Various mutterings were audible at the start of Act IV and there were boos for the production team at the curtain call, but nevertheless Kasper Holten’s statement released immediately afterwards that ‘We are sorry if some people have found this distressing’ is misleading in one respect. The noise was surely directed at Michieletto interpreting Rossini’s ballet in this way, as I doubt that many of those who booed were offended in the sense of feeling they had been exposed to something that went beyond all realms of acceptability. At least, that is my conclusion from hearing several of them mutter ‘we’ve seen this before’, and I suspect that anyone who was genuinely shocked by the sequence remained silent.
If the production has after just one performance become embroiled in controversy, far less disputable is the strength of the cast. All of the principals understandably pace themselves across the evening, but this means that the singing just seems to get better and better as the night goes on. John Osborn faces the toughest task because Arnold’s hardest moments come so late on, but he really takes the opportunity to blend his voice with Malin Byström’s Mathilde in ‘Oui, vous l’arrachez à mon âme’. Then in ‘Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance’ he smoothly conquers the sustained high Cs while also bringing immense sensitivity to the aria. Byström’s soprano in turn is smooth, resonant and polished, and her phrasing is impeccable.
Gerald Finley is an outstanding Tell whose sense of mission walks hand in hand with a weariness that derives from the state of the world around him. His voice is broad yet subtle and nuanced, and his performance of ‘Sois immobile’ particularly persuasive. Sofia Fomina as Jemmy is possessed of a clean, pure and yet formidably striking soprano, Nicolas Courjal proves a fine and frightening Gesler, Erik Halfvarson is a class act as Melcthal while Alexander Vinogradov is a highly accomplished Walter Furst, his own bass working very well with Finley’s bass-baritone. In the pit Antonio Pappano conducts with a keen attention to detail, tempi, balance and the singers’ needs, and in key moments including the end to the Overture he achieves just the right sense of chaos precisely by exerting such strong control over the proceedings.