sun 16/06/2024

Guillaume Tell, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Guillaume Tell, Royal Opera

Guillaume Tell, Royal Opera

Strong musical values versus a production incongruent with the aims of a masterpiece

Father and unhappy son: Gerald Finley (right) as William Tell and Sofia Fomina as JemmyAll images by Clive Barda

There are two operatic types who should leave Rossini’s epic swansong for the stage well alone. One would usually be a conductor who ignores many of the notes written by a master at the height of his powers, since even the least dramatic numbers have musical idiosyncrasy in them. Antonio Pappano still omits, among other things, Rossini’s superb Mozartian canon-trio for women's voices and wind ensemble; but what he does conduct is so focused and shapely that he must be forgiven.

Not so his director, Damiano Michieletto, who not only jettisons a choreographer for the essential swathes of ballet music, slightly cut here, but also rejects the ties of landscape and community which are essential to the message of the opera, present them how you will.

You know you’re in for the clichés of bad Regietheater when, against the storm music of the Overture, the lights go up on a clinical array of tables and chairs, the last to be spotlit the one on which young Jemmy Tell is playing soldiers and reading a comic book about the Swiss mythic hero. There’s a messy metatext in which the medieval figure comes to life and guides some of the action.

Which is certainly not about celebrating an oppressed people’s pride in land and customs, since everyone is alienated from and angry with each other, not least the Tell family proper. Graham Vick, a director who made every note of what Rossini wrote work at Pesaro, has said that he believed most of all in the difficult, leisurely first act. Michieletto clearly doesn’t: there’s no wedding celebration in adverse circumstances, not a hint of lake or mountain, only gravel in which various characters grovel around, and a sapling pulled up at the end of a first act saved from tedium by Pappano’s pace and a few cuts.

End of Act Two in Royal Opera Guillaume Tell

For the rest of the action, we’re left with a giant uprooted oak, which pointlessly revolves to reveal some good static tableaux. But why does would-be atmospheric lighting need to be helped by old-fashioned follow spots, and why throw away Rossini’s careful theatre of different musics for the men of three cantons in the famous scene of the oath on the Rütli? This waxwork show is about as interesting as Calixto Bieito’s ignoring Mozart’s three orchestras in the Act One finale of Don Giovanni in favour of a vague druggy jigging. And though the men of the Royal Opera chorus sing magnificently here – they got a bit out of synch last night in Act 4  – Pappano doesn’t fire on all cylinders here. Blood and bare chests at the curtain (pictured above) don't provide the necessary kick.

Pappano finds the real fire later, along with John Osborn who makes convert to the Swiss cause Arnold's Act 4 “Asile héréditaire" and its stonking cabaletta work with brilliant top Cs – the Ds are good too – and an unerring sense of style, even if Osborn isn't quite the clarion ideal. Malin Byström’s tone is unremittingly dark-hued as heroine-on-the-wrong-side Mathilde, but she too delivers the goods, while Gerald Finley, not ideally Italianate – yes, I know the opera is Guillaume, not Guglielmo, Tell, but it's still bel canto – in the great solo to his son "Sois immobile", projects energy and empathy even while pushed to over-emote like everyone else. Sofia Fomina, star of the Royal Opera's last revival of Ariadne auf Naxos (as a minor nymph!), is a game and bittersweet Jemmy, convincing as a bullied boy. Mezzo Enkelejda Shkosa and bass Alexander Vinogradov provide strong infill.

John Osborn and Malin Bystrom in Royal Opera Guillaume TellNo doubt Osborn (pictured right with Byström), getting the ecstatic applause notably absent up until then, was fired up by the boos and lingering audience noise ignited by an inept staging of the Act 3 ballet music. Feeble, yes, if not shocking or entirely gratuitous under the circumstances: instead of tyrant Gesler making the Swiss collective go through a humiliating national-dance fest for his Austrian officers – a divertissement done complete, Salò-style, and to huge applause at Pesaro by Vick’s choreographer Ron Howell  – Michieletto gives us an unchoreographed humiliation of a single woman fondled, stripped and about to be raped (it was that which set off the boos, I suspect, rather than the not very focused misalliance with the music).

When I was writing for the short-lived Sunday Correspondent, the arts editor phoned me up the morning after Andrei Serban’s production of Prince Igor: “I hear there was booing at the Royal Opera last night. Is this a case for a ‘[Jeremy] Isaacs must go’ piece?” I muttered the usual line about good shows and bad, par for any opera-house season. In the case of the latest Director of Opera Kasper Holten’s record, I couldn’t even say that. Holten’s own good-in-parts Król Roger only went some way to redeeming his own overloaded Don Giovanni, Martin Kušej’s cliché-raddled Idomeneo and Katharina Thoma’s inert Ballo in maschera.

Michieletto’s production is by no means as weak as that – it at least has energy, albeit excessive and misdirected – and he does end reflecting Pappano’s radiant handling of Rossini’s proto-Wagnerian new dawn. Surely it's time now not for reactionary playsafe, but for productions which at least reflect the original storyline of operatic drama from a new angle. This season the Royal Opera, Arts Council darling, has had a much poorer track record than the much-maligned, artistically sound ENO. No, the thoroughly collegial Holten shouldn’t go, but “could do better” is the verdict. Unfortunately we’re saddled with a Michieletto “Cav and Pag” next year.

No doubt tenor John Osborn, getting the ecstatic applause notably absent up until then, was fired up by the boos and lingering audience noise


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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