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Gerald Finley as Guillaume Tell [Photo: ROH / Clive Barda]
30 Jun 2015

Guillaume Tell, Covent Garden

It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.

Guillaume Tell, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Gerald Finley as Guillaume Tell

Photos: ROH / Clive Barda


Which is a shame for on the first night there much fine singing, strong musical direction from Antonio Pappano in the pit, and a convincing central trope. But, there was also a wealth of redundant stage business and an absence of meaningful stagecraft, with a series of tableaux replacing genuine dramatic development. And, then there is the director’s decision to foreground the sexual brutality of war, which so many in the audience — myself included — found sensationalist, distasteful and gratuitous.

Paolo Fantin’s plain white-cube set, with its soil-strewn sloping floor, evokes recent Balkan conflicts, though the context is widened by the costumes of Carla Teti which range from the 1940s to the present day. There is certainly nothing very pastoral about the opening Shepherd’s Festival — even though Michieletto repeatedly hammers home the need to connect with the spirit of one’s homeland as embodied in its earth. The villagers’ weddings celebrations are rather muted as they sit at bare tables, the dull brown alleviated by just a single unexceptional tree.

150626_1596-tell-adj-SOFIA-FOMINA-AS-JEMMY,-ENKELEJDA-SHKOSA-AS-HEDWIGE,-ERIC-HALFVARSON-AS-MELCTHAL-(C)-ROH.-PHOTOGRAPHER-CLIVE-BARDA.pngSofia Fomina as Jemmy, Enkelejda Shkosa as Hedwige, and Eric Halfvarson as Melcthal

But, this tree is Michelietto’s big idea. Uprooted at the end of Act 1 by a marauding Austrian soldier, the tree returns to dominate the stage in the subsequent acts: horizontal and enlarged, its twisting branches and gnarled roots etch and score sharp gothic shadows onto the bare skies beyond. It is a striking symbol of the threat posed by colonial terrorists to a land and its people, but Alessandro Carletti’s lighting design is fairly unadventurous — a few juxtapositions of yellow and blue but otherwise muted — and over the succeeding three and a half hours the shadows blend into the prevailing greys and browns. More problematic is the fact that the tree is a hindrance to movement; so, the fallen trunk can revolve to reveal different locations but there is little meaningful choreography within those locations.

Perhaps we are supposed to imagine the various scenes as a sequence of story-book stills? For, as is made clear to us by the film projection which accompanies the overture, what we are witnessing is actually taking place in the imagination of William Tell’s son, Jemmy. This also helps to explain how and why the silent Robin Hood-figure who roams the stage, flamboyantly stabbed arrow-heads and later a shining cutlass into the table tops and soil, has found himself amid these rather bland mid-twentieth century insurgents. Thus, this feather-hatted, red-cloaked archer has stepped straight from the Illustrated Classics tale that Jemmy has been reading while manoeuvring his lime green and mustard yellow toy soldiers into strategic battle formations. And, the legendary medieval marksman provides a benchmark by which young Jemmy can measure his own father’s achievements and courage, culminating — when Tell has been captured — in a petulant outburst in which Jemmy rips the pages from his book, while the comic-strip narrative is projected on a front-stage screen.

150626_2069-tell-adj-NICOLAS-COURJAL-AS-GESLER-(C)-ROH.-PHOTOGRAPHER-CLIVE-BARDA.pngNicolas Courjal as Gesler

The red-cloaked figure comes into his own in the mimed scenes with which Michelietto replaces Rossini’s original dance sequences. In 1820s Paris, Rossini’s Opéra audience welcomed, indeed expected, lengthy ballet scenes; but the diegetic dance music presents a challenge for the modern director. In this production, the divertissement of Act 1 is an archery competition in which Jemmy finesses his skills, but even the presence of the master-archer cannot stop a few of the arrows falling shy of the bull’s-eye. And, such child’s-play is not entirely harmless, Michieletto suggests, when in Act 2 the Austrian soldiers try to teach the Swiss children how to a cross a sword or pull a trigger — not so dissimilar to the lesson in weaponry that Tell gives his son.

There’s a lot of superfluous business in these mime episodes, but they trundle along without causing undue alarm, until we reach Act 3. Now, the forest floor is decorated with, first, the genteel soft furnishings of Mathilde’s Habsburg palace, and then the elongated table and sparkling chandelier of the occupying Austrian officers’ banqueting room. The sadistic Austrian Governor, Gesler, orders festivities to mark the Empire’s benign sustenance of the pitiful Swiss nation; one would expect some innocuous folky stuff to follow. But, Michieletto gives us a prolonged sexual attack during which a female actor is abused by the officers, force-fed champagne, molested with a pistol and then stripped naked and gang-raped atop the banquet table.

These unwarranted, distasteful antics are not only entirely completely at odds with the spirit and style of Rossini’s music, but on this opening night they also upset a large proportion of the audience who proceeded to make their condemnation piercingly known; and as the jeering and hissing escalated, the hecklers were themselves barracked by those disapproving of such mid-performance raucousness. Pappano and the cast ploughed on regardless, only to be greeted with more hooting at the end of the dance sequence.

Cat-calling at the curtain has been common of late at Covent Garden but, clearly rattled by such an unprecedented mid-performance outburst, Kasper Holten subsequently felt obliged to issue an explanatory, mollifying statement: ‘The production includes a scene which puts the spotlight on the brutal reality of women being abused during war time, and sexual violence being a tragic fact of war. The production intends to make it an uncomfortable scene, just as there are several upsetting and violent scenes in Rossini’s score. We are sorry if some people have found this distressing.’

150626_2177-tell-adj-MALIN-BYSTRÖM-AS-MATHILDE-(C)-ROH.-PHOTOGRAPHER-CLIVE-BARDA.pngMalin Byström as Mathilde

In truth, the sexual violence was probably no more explicit than that presented in any number of modern opera, theatre or cinema productions; but, it was prolonged and uncalled-for. Few can be unaware of the ‘brutality, the suffering [people in war zones] have had to face’ (which Michieletto has insisted it was his intent to illuminate for us) given the newsfeed from war-torn lands which we see on a daily basis. But, the heckling was excessive too, and it made it difficult for Pappano and the cast to establish a fittingly poignant mood for the beautiful duet between Guillaume and Jemmy which follows, as the former prepares for his apple-target challenge.

The sneering of a few malcontents threatened to resume at the start of Act 4, just as John Osborn prepared to tackle one of the most demanding scenas in the opera, indeed in the repertoire, but it was silenced by the hushings of the majority. In the role of Arnold Melcthal, Osborn gave the performance of the evening, surmounting the registral challenges with confidence and security. Arnold was understandably tense in Act 1, and he tended to launch vigorously at the top notes, sometimes over-reaching and the tone a little taut. But, he relaxed into the role — his Act 2 duet with Mathilde, ‘Oui, vous l'arrachez à mon âme’ (Yes, you wring from my soul) was beautifully phrased — and he showed great stamina, going from strength to strength as the drama unrolled. Osborn has both the dark weight and bel canto lyricism that the role demands, and he exhibited flexibility, bright clarity and superb enunciation in the stirring lament that opens Act 4, and tremendous power and projection in ‘Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance’ (Friends, friends, assist my vengeance) despatching the repeating top Cs with dramatic and musical conviction.

Malin Byström was clear-voiced as Mathilde, using varying tone to convey emotion and passion. She and the other soloists were not always sympathetically supported by Michieletto: at the start of her first aria — ‘Sombre forêt, désert triste et sauvage’ (Somber forest, sad and savage wilderness) in Act 2 — Byström was asked to climb onto the twisted tree trunk at a time when she must have had other, more important, musical matters to contemplate than focusing on not slipping from her precarious platform. It was also unclear why she needed to take off some of her clothes during this aria — surely it was cold in the forest — unless it was to embrace the tree with her bare flesh in order to imbibe the spirit of her fatherland?

Gerard Finley’s William Tell is a rather dejected and jaded people’s champion, seemingly worn out by the struggle both to resist his oppressors and to inspire his countrymen. But, while at times dramatic low-key, Finley was a characteristically dignified musical presence; each phrase was carefully considered and his legato phrasing and even tone production gave Tell stature and won our compassion. His anguished guidance to Jemmy, ‘Sois immobile’ (Stay completely still), before his young son must face his father’s cross-bow, was deeply moving. And, Finley was a striking figure at the end of Act 2 as, stripped to the waist and smeared with the blood and earth of the Swiss brotherhood, he raised his fist aloft, urging his fellowmen to revolution.

150626_2113-tell-adj-JOHN-OSBORN-AS-ARNOLD-MELCTHAL-(C)-ROH.-PHOTOGRAPHER-CLIVE-BARDA.pngJohn Osborn as Arnold Melcthal

If Tell was rather world-weary at times, his son Jemmy bounced about in his knee-length trousers like a boisterous Hansel who’d strayed into the wrong opera. Sofia Fomina sang with fresh sweetness, but her caricature Jemmy was out of kilter with the general tone.

There were strong performances from the supporting cast. Enkelejda Shkosa was a convincing Hedwige, Tell’s wife; in the Act 4 trio in which she is reunited with her son, and in her premature aria of mourning for the husband she fears is dead, ‘Sauve Guillaume! Il meurt victime de son amour pour son pays’ (Save William! He died a victim of his love for his country), the Albanian mezzo-soprano showed that she is a genuine singing actress. Jette Parker Young Artist Samuel Dale Johnson was a confident, smooth-toned Leuthold and Michael Colvin’s rich lyrical tenor evoked the sinister cruelty of Rodolphe, Gelser’s commander. Nicolas Courjal’s Gesler is vivid, though perhaps a shade too close to becoming a comic-book sadist; but Courjal used the words and his black-hued bass effectively. Ruodi’s harp-accompanied fisherman’s song was delivered with a gentle lilt by Mikeldi Atxalandabaso, and Eric Halfvarson’s Malcthal senior had strong presence, once he’d got his rather wayward vibrato under control.

Given the dearth of dramatic drive on stage, Pappano worked hard to maintain the musical momentum. The overture was somewhat disappointing: the five solo cellos’ ‘Dawn Prelude’ was a little tentative and the trombones’ running scales in the Storm lagged behind the beat. But, things settled down and Pappano exploited Rossini’s emotive textures and colourings to the full. The horns, particularly, were on terrific form all night — heartily bombastic in the Act 2 huntsmen’s chorus — and there was finely nuanced playing from the woodwind complemented by accurate rapid passagework in the strings.

Rossini relies heavily on the chorus in this opera, but the Royal Opera Chorus gave an inconsistent performance. At their best — when the men of the three Swiss cantons swear to fight or die for the freedom of Switzerland at the close of Act 2 (when they were illuminated by the blinding gleam of revolutionary fervour), or in the triumphal choruses of Act 3 — they sang with vigour and heartiness; but the Act 1 choruses of young people and villagers were pretty lacklustre, and the chorus were persistently adrift of Pappano’s beat; almost irretrievably so in Act 4. It was perhaps not entirely the chorus’s fault that they failed to make a more dependable impact. Given that the stage was dominated by the fallen tree, there was barely room for them to stand, let alone move; and it was not clear why Michieletto thought that asking the down-at-heel Swiss rebels to remove their shirts, revealing their greying old vests, would enhance their image as valiant revolutionaries.

There is nothing very epic, heroic or spectacular about this Guillaume Tell. Michieletto misses the target by a mile, though the final image perhaps offers some consolation. The chorus sift through the soil rejoicing at the resurgence of their homeland and as the toppled tree is raised aloft, a young boy comes to the fore-stage and, in a bright spotlight, plants the sprigs of a sapling: the roots of a culture can never be entirely expunged. One must hope that the same is true for Covent Garden itself: that, as it continues in good musical health, new directorial roots will forge down into the achievements of the past and revived shoots will emerge.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Guillaume Tell: Gerald Finley, Arnold Melcthal: John Osborn, Mathilde: Malin Byström, Walter Furst: Alexander Vinogradov, Jemmy: Sofia Fomina, Hedwige: Enkelejda Shkosa , Gesler: Nicolas Courjal, Melcthal:Eric Halfvarson, Rodolphe:Michael Colvin, Leuthold: Samuel Dale Johnson, Ruodi: Enea Scala , Huntsman: Michael Lessiter; Director: Damiano Michieletto, Conductor:Antonio Pappano, Set designs: Paolo Fantin, Costume designs: Carla Teti, Lighting design: Alessandro Carletti, Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Monday 29th June 2015.

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