Wednesday 16 August 2017

Rossini - William Tell (London, 2015)

Giacomo Rossini - Guillaume Tell

Royal Opera House, 2015

Antonio Pappano, Damiano Michieletto, Gerald Finley, John Osborn, Malin Byström, Alexander Vinogradov, Sofia Fomina, Enkelejda Shkosa, Nicolas Courjal, Eric Halfvarson, Michael Colvin, Samuel Dale Johnson, Enea Scala

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The Royal Opera House production of William Tell caused a bit of an uproar over some explicit content that some thought had no place in Rossini's opera, specifically a scene depicting the rape of a young village woman by Gesler's soldiers. As is often the case, it appears that one scene has come in for undue attention, taken out of context of the production as a whole. While it is uncomfortably long it's meant to make the audience feel uncomfortable, and if so Damiano Michieletto succeeds in getting across the reality of military oppression and war crimes, which is surely what the legend of William Tell and Rossini's opera is all about. Or is it?

Well, there's an argument to be made on both sides. For a start, Michieletto is not recounting the legend of William Tell and the Swiss rebellion against the oppressive Austrian Habsburg regime in the 14th century, but rather updates it to a more modern setting that looks more like it takes place in one of the Balkan states, the Ukraine or Crimea. It's not just that the director wants to de-romanticise the William Tell legend, since it's apparent to anyone who listens closely to the score that Rossini by no means romanticises the subject of military oppression and genocide. All Michieletto is doing is bringing the underlying reality of that to the stage rather than hide it behind costume drama theatrics.

There's a case to be made however that Rossini's music - in that controversial scene certainly - doesn't depict that kind of brutal realism. And even if it has been toned down a little for this video recording, do we really want to see it acted out in this way on the stage? We wouldn't watch it if it was on the news and surely acting out a rape scene on the stage and choreographing it to Rossini's music risks cheapening the horror of the reality. Well, that's why we have directors to make decisions about how far to go in the visual staging of an opera and Damiano Michieletto takes sensitivities on both sides into account in the Royal Opera House production.

Rossini's music might indeed suggest more of mythological hero of the kind that Jemmy reads about in his comic books, while playing with his toy soldiers, as we see during the famous four-part overture that Rossini devises for the opera - an overture that is unlike any of his previous dashed-out-in-minutes-just-before-the-opening-night overtures for his earlier operas. The overture captures the sense of human suffering and endurance, buoyed by a sense of unquenchable spirit for heroic resistance, and finally acceptance of the human reality and the cost that must be paid for it. It's all there in Rossini's overture, it's expanded on (considerably) over the long opera, and all that is there in Michieletto's production as well.

The romantic image of the 14th century folk legend and what he stands for is there in Jemmy's imagination; a figure who steps off the comic book page in this production and gives the strength and inspiration of the ideal to those living with the reality. The Robin Hood-like figure tries to rouse the people of the little village of Bürglen with his arrow, but the despairing villagers are clearly too terrified having suffered at the hands of the brutal Austrian governor of the region, Gesler. William Tell, all too aware of the bitter reality that they have to live with on a daily basis, is himself is disgusted at his son's nonsense, and is reluctant to take up the quiver presented to him by the ghostly figure of legend.

But take it up he does. He first attempts passive resistance (refusing to bow before Gesler's hat) and appeasement (shooting the apple from his son's head), before realising that other more direct and violent means are necessary. It's not acceptable to just heroically storm in there and Rossini's opera, based on Friedrich Schiller's play, incorporates a variety of real human responses, not just through Tell and his family, but also the suffering endured by Arnold Melchtal through the murder of his father, and the compromised position he is in with regards to his post in the Austrian army and his relationship with Mathilde. Family, above all is what is important, and it's complicated. There's also a sense of the community as a family and it is in the realisation of the greater good being served for the sake of this family that the path to action becomes clearer.

Michieletto's production takes all of this into account, placing great emphasis on the family connections and the depth of feeling that Rossini's score gives them in the opera. He contrasts this - in sharp lighting with long shadows - with the devastation that had been done, the landscape a wasteland with uprooted trees featuring prominently. Nature has been defiled. At the same time, it's important that the turning point that is reached is one that justifies Tell's actions. The horror of Tell having to shoot an apple off the head of his own son is vividly depicted in the opera, but the folk legend is unlikely to have the same impact for a modern audience used to seeing worse horrors on the TV every night, and if Michieletto deems it necessary to elaborate on a scene that is discreetly alluded to in the libretto in order to make the work function dramatically, well, that's his job.

Obviously not everyone will agree with the means employed, but regardless of the merits of the production designs and the concept employed, the musical and singing performances make a convincing case for the brilliance of Rossini's masterpiece. The Royal Opera House orchestra under Antonio Pappano put in an outstanding performance, forceful, lyrical and dynamic, never over-playing or over-emphasising Rossini score into grand opera mannerisms, but remaining sensitive to the pace and varied moods of the piece. It's often dazzling, particularly with the uncompressed high quality audio mixing on the Blu-ray disc.

The casting too is of the highest order for what is undoubtedly an extremely challenging and a long work to sing for all its principals. I'm not sure why I never get terribly excited about Gerald Finley in a leading role, but perhaps it's because there are just never any airs or showiness attached to his performances. That doesn't mean that he is ever merely filling a role functionally; his William Tell here is faultlessly controlled and expressive in singing, his acting performance completely within character. John Osborn is one of the most underrated Rossini tenors out there, and one of the few who can really do justice to a role as challenging as Arnold. He's quite brilliant here. I've been hard on Malin Byström in the past, but she amply demonstrates how good she can be here and is simply extraordinary as Mathilde. Keeping the emphasis essentially on the family theme, Sofia Fomina presents a lively, spirited Jemmy and Enkelejda Shkosa a touching Hedwige. Nicolas Courjal is a force to be reckoned with, as you would expect Gesler to be. The chorus also play their important role in the opera exceptionally well.

Links: Royal Opera House