Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera, or, Not an Experience I Care to Repeat (On-stage or Off)

This evening started indifferently, became increasingly unconvincing, and during the last two acts was overshadowed by an audience experience the like of which I have never seen in twenty plus years of opera going. I would be happy if I could think I should never see anything like it again. While the increasingly bizarre production stumbled on, and the audience atmosphere worsened, the performers on stage and in the pit made a valiant attempt with largely high quality musical performances to rescue matters, but it was not enough.

The best of the evening it will already be clear, was musical, and even that struggled against the lifeless production during the first two acts. In Acts Three and Four, and particularly after the outbreaks in the auditorium which we'll come back to, the perfomers seemed to raise their game and find in the music some of the electricity so sadly absent from most of the production. John Osborn (Melcthal) sang especially finely (and deserves high praise simply for keeping going at the start of Act Four ). He and Malin Bystrom (Mathilde) also managed to find additional passion in their Act Three duet despite the best efforts of the director to confuse matters. Gerald Finley (Guillaume Tell) didn't come across as strongly as I'd have expected early on, but again gave a fine performance in the last two acts. Among the minor roles I particularly enjoyed Enkelejda Sjikosa's Hedwige, but they were all solidly taken. Both Orchestra and Chorus battled gamely against the distractions and incoherencies of the staging. In the first two acts Pappano's conducting seemed somewhat infected by the leaden quality of what was going on in front of him, after that he located the needed drama.

Damiano Michieletto's production, his first for the house, was a different story. Its first major attribute is busyness. I'm not saying there aren't issues with Rossini's score in terms of commanding attention, but it was difficult to escape the feeling that Michieletto had no faith in it at all so determined was he to outlaw stillness. Thus Act One saw an awful lot of tiresome shifting about (and occasional throwing) of tables and chairs (all ineffective), and from Act Two onwards (having saddled himself with an enormous tree that would require an army to move it or as we find at the end a lot of wires) several bouts of revolveitis. The excitement of the Overture is badly affected by the film projections of Tell's son playing with toy soldiers – a device which has outstayed its welcome long before Act One proper starts but unfortunately keeps popping up for the rest of the evening. I hardly think the story is so confusing that it's necessary to have the table with the soldiers on it onstage for most of the evening in case we should forget there's a war going on, but no doubt Michieletto is wiser than I. But the worst effect of his busyness is the pretty consistent hindering of convincing portrayals of characters and relationships – to take just one example the bizarre costume change that Bystrom inflicted on Osborn during the Act Two love duet. There is generally far too much dramatically incoherent costume removal. Michieletto is also inconsistent in terms of reflecting the text. At times the staging seemed to be ignoring it – in Act One it was difficult to believe any kind of wedding was imminent, or that any of the chorus had been doing any work prior to the announced end of the working day. During the final part of Act Three on the other hand it is perfectly true that Tell refers to his wife who will be thinking of them. That said I did not find her laying the table for dinner (with inevitable clinking of plates) while Tell is trying vocally to get across a particularly emotional moment an effective decision. And her ending the act by pulling the table cloth off the table and smashing the dishes just looked silly. Many of these devices – inconsistent response to text, unconvincing treatment of character and narrative, pointless busyness and use of film are wearisomely familiar in modern opera.

Then there's Michieletto's decision about the Act Three ballet. In itself this is one of those occasions when the text arguably gives him justification. Gesler and his men are an occupying force. It is reasonable to argue that such a force might strip a local girl naked and rape her. However, the decision is undermined by other factors. Gesler and his men for most of the rest of the show rarely feel very threatening. Indeed in the sequence leading up to the ballet it is difficult to see why the Swiss chorus don't rush them. As a result, although the ballet is unpleasant to watch it doesn't form part of a convincing whole interpretation, and the more I thought about it the more it seemed to me that Michieletto was simply doing it because he thought he could (it is another aspect of this production which is far from original). Deliberate provocation (which regrettably succeeded all too well) rather than effective dramatic point.

A couple of other points on the production deserve notice. Michieletto also makes the mistake with the occupying force of arming them with guns, only one of which is fired during the whole evening. This creates a familiar lack of belief in the gun as a source of threat (the same thing often happens when they are introduced into Shakespeare) and, because Michieletto does not completely dispense with bows and arrows adds to the sense of confusion about when we are (where is hardly clear either). Finally, there is the doubling of Tell, which I failed to make sense of. A more historically clad Tell wanders round intervening at various points in the action, and struggles with Finley's Tell at others. At different times it seems plausible to wonder if Tell's son Jemmy is dreaming the whole thing or if Tell is at war with himself. Unfortunately neither idea really fits convincingly with the other, and neither is sustained over the whole show, so that the whole device simply becomes one more half baked element. Overall as a production Act One is basically indifferent, and Acts Two-Four get progressively more bizarre culminating in the mass washing of children's feet in the penultimate scene, another decision the reason for which completely escaped me.

All this would have made for a dismal enough evening. Unfortunately, it was added to during Act Three and at the beginning of Act Four by the worst audience behavior I have ever witnessed in twenty plus years of opera going. As the ballet reached its climax of nudity and rape isolated and then sustained booing broke out drowning out the music pretty completely and bringing proceedings for a few moments to a halt. Then at the start of Act Four isolated insults were hurled from behind me in the Amphitheatre (including “Tony, you should be ashamed” as I recall). It was a viscious nasty atmosphere, so much so that I really wasn't sure I wanted to sit on till the end of the performance. The performers on stage and in the pit deserve enormous credit for managing to continue under those circumstances. Nothing in my opinion justifies the audience behavior during Act Three and at the start of Act Four and I say that as someone who, I'm sure it will be clear from the rest of this piece, does not rate this production. I have in the past booed directors when they take curtain calls, and I have always defended this as a legitimate expression of opinion in the same way as a bravo denotes high praise. I would never defend booing or shouted expression of opinion during performance, but tonight forces me to wonder whether even a boo at curtain call can be legitimate.

Ultimately this was one of the least pleasant opera going experiences of my life. Ironically, the production was sinking fast for much of the evening, it didn't need the help of the audience.

1 comment:

  1. As you sow so shall you reap. If audiences are finally starting to hit back at the insults heaped on them by directors so much the better. It is more than high time to put a stop to this kind of production