Guillaume Tell, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, June 2015Posted on 30 June 2015
After the superb Proms concert performance of this opera four years ago, under Pappano with some of the same cast, this keenly anticipated new production fell sadly short.
A black-clad SWAT team with machine guns, lighting from stage rear that glares out at the audience, on-stage characters not in the drama — seen it all before. In this case a man in a red cloak and feathered Swiss hat appeared repeatedly, even laying down the arrow for shooting the apple, though Gesler’s right hand man Rodolphe produces the second arrow from nowhere — no hint of Tell taking two arrows from his quiver. ‘Red-cloak’ himself, a spirit of Swiss resistance, interacted extensively with Tell’s son Jemmy, who frequently plays with toy soldiers and reads an American 15 cent comic book … about William Tell.
This cliché-ridden production by ROH newcomer Damiano Michieletto haemorrhaged audience at each interval, achieved thunderous boos for the production team at the end, and massive booing during a gratuitous gang rape scene by the soldiers, who, by the way, were German rather than Austrian. Odd. Very odd, because if the occupiers were twentieth-first century Germans rather than fourteenth century Austrians, what was Switzerland? Greece? It didn’t make sense.
One might at least hope the excellent chorus, which plays such an important role in this opera, would be well choreographed — I wish. And Alessandro Carletti’s ineffective lighting, alternating between warm and cold seemingly at the flick of a switch, was a disappointment. Good lighting is something you are barely aware of, but presumably the director and his team wanted to strike a pose, or indeed many poses, ill-received here in London. Lord knows what will happen when the same team returns in December to produce Cav and Pag.
Musically it was another matter entirely. Antonio Pappano drew fine responses from the singers in a sincere and sensitive reading of Rossini’s score. Gerald Finley as William Tell delivered a performance both dramatically and vocally convincing, and Sofia Fomina gave a spirited portrayal of his son Jemmy (a soprano role), moving in an admirably boyish manner. In the vocally demanding role of Arnold, the young Swiss in love with Habsburg princess Mathilde, John Osborn produced fine vocal strength, and Malin Byström’s elegant Mathilde warmed up after a taut and nervous start. Arnold’s father Melcthal, killed in Act I, was superbly performed by Eric Halvarson, and Alexander Vinogradov as the Swiss patriot Walter Furst sang a fine bass, with that marvellous Act II trio by Tell, Arnold and Furst — one of the finest things Rossini wrote — only spoilt by a bloody Melcthal reappearing like Banquo’s ghost. This is the moment Arnold suddenly throws in his lot with the patriots after realising his father has been murdered, but the appearance of his ghost is overkill by the director, as was ‘red-cloak’s’ Act II Wotan-like plunging of a sword into the ground so that Jemmy could retrieve it. Self-indulgency on a grand scale, so no wonder that by the rape scene someone in the stalls called out, “One (f-expletive) step too far!”.
Among the occupiers, Nicolas Courjal delivered a very well sung Gesler, as did Michael Colvin as his right-hand man Rodolphe, with lesser roles for the besieged Swiss well handled by Enkelejda Shkosa as Tell’s wife Hedwige, and Samuel Dale Johnson as the herdsman Leuthold.
Yet despite its juvenile mish-mash of clichés and other ideas, such as the sapling-tree imagery, two fine production moments are worth mentioning: Gerald Finley’s excellent demonstration of target practice for his son, and the magical splitting of the apple on Jemmy’s head.
But disappointment turned to annoyance as the evening progressed — why did the ROH hire an Italian production team, untested in the sophisticated setting of Covent Garden, for two productions less than six months apart?
Performances continue on various dates until July 17, with a live cinema relay on July 5 and BBC Radio 3 broadcast on July 14 — for details click here.