Guillaume Tell, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, 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.

Tell and Jemmy under arrest, all images ROH/ Clive Barda

Tell and Jemmy under arrest, all images ROH/ Clive Barda

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.

Red-cloak, mother, son and Tell

Red-cloak, mother, son and 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.

Arnold and Mathilde

Arnold and Mathilde

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.

Target practice in happier times

Target practice in happier times

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.

4 Responses to “Guillaume Tell, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, June 2015”

  1. La Cieca says:

    “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?”

    This definition of “sophisticated” is new to me: “howling like a pack of farm animals in the middle of a performance of a Rossini opera.”

    And what business indeed has an Italian opera director directing a Rossini opera? Don’t people realize that the bulk of Rossini’s career was spent in Sussex?

    • Mark Ronan says:

      I did not define “sophisticated”, and the second quotation is not by me — audience members I meet go to opera in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, so the word seems entirely appropriate.

      In answer to your rhetorical questions: Rossini moved permanently to France aged 32, and this is very much a French opera (set in Switzerland). The production team, being Italian, clearly mis-judged their London audience, and should have had far more respect for Rossini’s music. The rape scene was only the culmination of poor staging.

  2. Alex E. says:

    Mark: thank you for this detailed review, which I happen to fully agree with – “juvenile mish-mash” just about describes my overall impression of this unfortunate production. This view seems to be shared in quite a few comments left on the ROH website; unfortunately Mrs. Sarah Hibberd, the “Writer in Residence”for the ROH, does not seem very keen on answering the questions (including a few of mine).

    To be fair, a number of people seem to have liked what they saw – certainly there were several tweets to this effect after the screening on Sunday. Quite possibly, the production looks a bit better on a cinema screen – was this perhaps the director’s intention all along?

    In your tweet a couple of days ago you mentioned a ROH survey that is being sent out – I was wondering if you know who is meant to take part in the survey, and whether someone can volunteer their opinion.

    Once again, thank you for sharing your view – I am glad to find myself in such good company.

    • Mark Ronan says:

      Many thanks for your comment Alex. I didn’t see the cinema screening though I know that the rape scene was cut back after the first night. Not sure about the survey — I think they send it by email to all those who bought tickets, but it may not arrive until a few days after the performance.

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