Covent Garden’s Controversial Guillaume Tell Has Several Good Points  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rossini, Guillaume Tell: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Broadcast to the Empire Cinemas, Basildon, Essex. 5.7.2015. (JPr)

Gerald Finley as William Tell at end the of Act II pic credit ROH and Clive Barda
Gerald Finley as William Tell at end the of Act II pic credit ROH and Clive Barda


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


Director: Damiano Michieletto
Set designs: Paolo Fantin
Costume designs: Carla Teti
Lighting design: Alessandro Carletti
Directed for live cinema by Jonathan Haswell


In July 2011 (where have those four years gone?) when Antonio Pappano conducted the orchestra and chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia of Rome in a concert performance of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell I wrote how it ‘was undoubtedly the best Prom I have been to … since the last time I wrote I had been to a Prom that was the best one I could remember!’ Fast forward to 2015 and Guillaume Tell initially arrived on stage to a chorus of boos about young Italian director Damiano Michieletto’s new staging that included a controversial interlude (usually involving some dancing) as a depiction of sexual violence towards women by soldiers during war time. A young woman was apparently stripped naked, forced to drink champagne, groped and molested by the officers of the Austrian army during a banquet.

Rossini’s famous 1829 opera tells the story of the eponymous Swiss patriot who is made to shoot an arrow at an apple on top of his son’s head and save him from the sadistic governor, Gessler, who is in charge of Switzerland. For those of a certain age it is also well known for its overture part of which was used as a galloping horse theme in the Lone Ranger TV series. The opera is based on an 1804 play by Friedrich Schiller about the Swiss hero who is their version of our Robin Hood. Tell is also a legendary archer and his defiance inspires a successful rebellion against Austrian rule. Whether he and the evil Gessler, ever existed – like Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham – is debatable. It is interesting that this opera – that ends with a paean for freedom from an oppressors’ yolk and that concludes with the line Liberté, redescends des cieux! (Liberty, descend again from heaven!) was first put on in Paris in 1829, and within 11 months the last Bourbon King of France, Charles X (to whom William Tell was dedicated) had been removed from the throne by the July revolution of 1830!

On the opening night of this new production – the first time it has been put on at Covent Garden since 1992 – printed and social media went crazy. What they saw was updated to the Balkans in the 1990s and was denounced by many who were there … and by many who weren’t! In my opinion opera criticism is in a bad way in this country and there is a comfortable collective of critics many of whom are happy to turn up and collect their free tickets and mostly leave their critical faculties checked-in at the cloakroom. David Mellor writing in the Mail On Sunday for instance did not suggest audiences should make up their own minds but attempted to do that for them by telling his readers not to bother to go one of the cinema screenings such as this one I attended in Basildon, Essex.

Initially Michieletto apparently said he wasn’t going to change anything but the furore caused the cinema broadcast to receive a 15 rating and over successive performances it has obviously been toned down and the constant warnings about nudity were not necessary. In the end there was more naked flesh seen from the artist’s model in John Copley famous Covent Garden La bohème than was now seen from the abused young woman clutching a tablecloth around herself. The clawing hands of the threatening and abusive soldiers made their point only too plainly and this was just one highlight of a powerful, thought-provoking production.

When interviewed by BBC Radio 3’s Sara Mohr-Pietsch who was hosting the transmission, Kasper Holten praised Damiano Michieletto for bringing ‘the best of what we have learned though northern European theatre’ and that ‘he is a singer’s director’. Holten justified the hotly-debated Act III sequence by saying how Michieletto had ‘thrown the light on sexual crimes in war’ and how even Rossini’s score suggests that the soldiers ‘force the local women to dance with them’ and ‘we cannot romanticise warfare’. As one tweet put up on screen said ‘The oppression is manifest’ … and indeed it was for those who can appreciate that! I suspect that an audience’s willingness to engage with something new is in inverse proportion to the amount they have spent for their ticket. I agree with Kasper Holten when he introduced the new productions next season saying how they ‘must have the courage to explore them in new ways’ –  otherwise opera becomes rather mummified like some ballet is when they are just attempting to recreate something rather than renew it.

Clearly the first-night Guillaume Tell audience (including some critics) wanted beautiful Swiss mountain vistas, cowbells, lederhosen and dirndls and felt caps with feathers and were antagonistic when faced with the brutalities and – as Sara Mohr-Pietsch explained – ‘the subjugation of the people by the ruling nation’. It is there in the libretto and Michieletto had every justification for exploring this on the stage. I suspect that the director had already made some compromises – for although there was some videography – if put on in Europe we would have seen scenes of conflict projected on the back wall of Paolo Fantini’s box-like set from WWII, the Balkans or the atrocities of the Islamic State.

Damiano Michieletto’s basic Konzept is a simple one: a young boy Jemmy lives a lonely life playing with toy soldiers and reading a Classics Illustrated comic version of Friedrich Schiller’s play about his hero, William Tell. He wishes his weak, hen-pecked and occasionally abusive father could be like him and stand up for himself and help others in the fight against the oppressive Austrian regime. The very familiar ‘fictional’ William Tell remains an ever-present figure throughout cajoling the ‘real life’ father into taking action and eventually killing Gessler and freeing the Swiss people. Throughout – as anther tweet said – we had ‘real acting, not melodrama’ from each of the principals and the chorus who have a lot to do in this opera. It generally all worked well for me and made the four and a hours of a Sunday afternoon in a darkened cinema auditorium pass very quickly. That said I think there is too much music – especially in the first two acts – and some prudent editing would have eliminated some of the longueurs and tightened everything up.

 With a different orchestra much of the pluses that was there with Pappano’s Prom performance were obvious from the start and an elegiac cello solo ushered in Rossini’s evocation of a pastoral Swiss community with the following ‘storm’ and ‘call to the dairy cows’ before the very well-known ‘gallop’. As then Pappano brought out all that was pastoral, tender, joyous or solemn in the music and superbly integrated it into a very convincing account of Rossini’s colourful final stage work. As Pappano himself said ‘The nature painting in his (Rossini’s) music is extraordinary.’ From both the composer and the conductor a near perfect blend of bel canto lyricism of Italian opera with the more declamatory choral and ballet-heavy French opera was achieved.

Michieletto and Pappano were supported by an uneven dozen polyglot soloists (only three were in that fabulous Prom performance) and a chorus of 48 full-timers and 46 extras who were exceptional and a credit to their director Renato Balsadonna. Michieletto created believably real characters and the acting was unusually nuanced for opera. The best was Sofia Fomina’s Jemmy who was remarkable as a young boy and – as another tweet said – looked like Tintin. I thought Gerald Finley lacked a little charisma as William Tell but that may be he did what he was required to do – there was much evident frustration at his own weakness and not as much love expressed for his son as sometimes we see.  Arnold, a Swiss patriot, is illicitly in love with Mathilde, an Austrian princess and a supposed enemy. They get the best show-stopping moments, Sombre forêt (Gloomy forest) for her in Act II and for him the challenging final act cabaletta following his aria Asile héréditaire (Home of my forefathers) with all the high Cs and C-sharps. (There are 17 of the former and 2 of the latter in this role.) John Osborn is a genuine bel canto tenor, at seeming ease with the fearsomely high-lying part. Malin Byström sang Mathilde and negotiated all the coloratura demands assuredly during some impassioned singing. Both Osborn and Byström sang at the Royal Albert Hall as did Nicolas Courjal who was again Gessler. He is a bit of a one-dimensional baddie but Courjal was very convincing nonetheless. Surely British singers could have been found for some of the smaller leading roles even though there was a Jette Parker Young Artist, Samuel Dale Johnson an Australian, in the small role of Leuthold, a huntsman; whilst there was an unnecessary – and disappointing – import as Hedwige, Enkelejda Shkosa. Eric Halvarson was a venerable Melcthal, Arnold’s father, and vocally and physically he reminded me of John Tomlinson.

Another leading critic wrote ‘If this sort of interpretation represents the future of opera, then God help us all’. I am sorry to tell him that staging operas like this has been going on for decades … so where has he been? I could – and will – tick off a list of all the tropes Michieletto employed during his Guillaume Tell and the final one was during that great Fidelio-like paean to nature and liberty that gloriously concludes the opera. I just knew we were going to get some green shoots and indeed a young boy came on to put a single leafy plant into the scorched earth that was a feature of all the previous acts. Something similar has been used by others before at the end of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. What else was familiar? There was neon strip-lighting, lots of tables and chairs, children representing innocence, a single tree trunk and a few twigs for the forest, refugees, phantoms, a blending of fact and fiction … and lots of blood. It was no better or worse than a David McVicar or Richard Jones production before they became tame. We have seen it all before – we’ll see it all again – and for me on this occasion it was all very well done and worked … at least on the screen. I do urge those who have been reluctant to go to see this now because of all the publicity to either buy a ticket for the opera house or go to next Sunday’s Encore cinema screening.

Jim Pritchard
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