Tell me more…

Red Apple. [Creative Commons: Abhijit Tembhekar]

Tell’s famous shooting of the apple on Jemmy’s head was a brilliantly realised theatrical trick. [Creative Commons: Abhijit Tembhekar]

Having seen it at Sunday’s matinee, my thoughts about the Royal Opera’s new Guillaume Tell (production by Damiano Michieletto) will not rank amongst the more fulminating of the online debate. In short: musically stellar; visually interesting-tending-to-the-inert; dramatically stimulating. Notably, I didn’t find it – and that much-commented-upon sexual assault scene – particularly offensive.

I had expected to hate it. The way it was described conjured up the Royal Opera’s truly horrendous production of Rusalka, or the dull and pretentious Idomeneo. Both of those were in a league apart in terms of clumsy over-conceptual plot-handling and poor visuals. The atmosphere of Tell was well-established by the mud floor and general air of bleak oppression (however difficult it is to project a voice over so unreverberant a surface). On the night I had placed it in that miserable indefinably-somewhere-between-50s-and-70s period, but in fact it was set around World War 1, so my programme tells me. Chairs in abundance, against which much violence was wrought. Visible, hung strip-lighting as well. Baddies in combats wielding guns. It was not entirely cliché-free. 

The act of uprooting a small sapling, the solitary bit of greenery, before the shooting of Melchtal at the close of the first act, was the trigger for the remaining acts to be dominated by an enormous, dramatically lit dead tree, handily on a revolve, and around which succeeding scenes unfolded. Video projections of Jemmy playing with soldiers and reading a comic book worked at the outset, and failed notably on their return in the last act. Much of the lighting seemed half-hearted as though it couldn’t quite make the effect it was striving for. The ‘olde worlde‘ William Tell character, who engineered much of the action involving arrows, did rather outstay his welcome. The exception, I thought, was the scene that involves the massacre of the occupying soldiers, where he delivered an arrow, stabbed one after the other into the banqueting table in front of each army officer, and which brought about the death of each in turn. The thrusting action was mirrored by the entire chorus of Swiss peasantry, as though they were drawing on their shared myths to power forward their revenge.

This had followed the by-now infamous sexual assault scene which had, apparently, been ‘toned down’ with the addition of a tablecloth with which the victim of the assault could cover herself, and removal of the reference to penetration with the barrel of a gun. The tension in the room as the scene approached was a remarkable piece of theatre in itself, and despite it being the telecast, there was no interruption, save one moron in the Amphi shouting ‘No!’ half way through. It was a disturbing scene, undoubtedly, and far better integrated into the drama than a number of the howling complainants would have you believe. Occupying soldiers, laughing and drinking, first taunt, then go on to sexually humiliate the woman at a banquet. The ballet music to which the scene is set actually drove the escalation of their crimes to good effect, and Tell’s intervention at the close, to break up the ‘revel’ and to comfort the girl was powerful indeed. I would say, however, that if the full nudity had been maintained I think that I would have found it uncomfortably gratuitous. It was sufficiently powerful in its current form, and the decision of the Director, with the Royal Opera’s blessing, to make that amendment is a reasonable one.

The close of the work was remarkable, in essence because Rossini wrote such a remarkable scene of hushed, steadily-building redemption, almost prefiguring Parsifal in its transcendence. Again, this was nicely shadowed in the production as the harsh full stage lights came up and the chorus trod steadily forward to build the crescendo. It crowned an evening that was far from perfect, indeed quite uneven, but which was an intelligent response to an unwieldy Romantic work which, much like the myth itself, could so easily tip over into the saccharine – when the story it truly tells is anything but.

But the music, oh how wonderful was the music. Pappano led a ‘meaty’ account of the score, without loss of Rossinian detail, starting with an overture robustly on the front foot: a wealth of orchestral detail and nicely negotiated dynamics brought to life a piece that can so easily be deadened by over-familiarity. The chorus were on committed form, adding conviction to the dramatic presentation alongside singing both beautiful and threatening, as demanded.

All soloists were excellent: Gerald Finley crowned the cast with his glorious, rich, secure voice and attention to text – both when demonstrative and introspective he commanded the stage. As his wife, Hedwige, Enkelejda Shkosa was in resonant voice; the Jemmy of Sofia Fomina was of brilliant clarity, and she acted the male youth with fantastic energy. John Osborn delivered Arnold with nicely conveyed anguish, secure from bottom to mightily impressive top of the range. As the love interest, Mathilde, Malin Byström is far from the conventional Rossini sound, but what was missing in coloratura ‘ping’ was amply compensated for in the fascinating complexity – and beauty – of her sound, as well as a good dramatic sense. Eric Halfvarson conveyed the paternal authority of Melcthal. All other roles were well taken, notably Nicolas Courjal injecting a touch of camp to the war-criminal Governor.

I was so glad to make the acquaintance of Guillaume Tell and, far from expecting to come away irritated at having encountered this relative rarity in a wayward production, I actually came away energised by amazing singing throughout an intense evening of theatre that gave much to think about. If I could snag a ticket for one of the remaining performances that I can make, and at a reasonable price, I most definitely would.

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