Cher Public

Digging in the dirt

Even those of us who consider Guillaume Tell Rossini’s greatest opera understand why it has not been his most frequently staged. Of late this valedictory epic of oppression and patriotic uprising, challenging to cast and expensive to mount, has experienced a renaissance. Opus Arte’s new DVD/Blu-ray records one of several new productions of the present decade. 

The director of one production remarked in a 2016 interview, “I thought it was such a fascinating piece—almost unstageable. How do you do it?” Many operagoers doubtless failed to see the problem. The approach they would prefer, with costumes and vistas evoking the Switzerland of the early 14th century, may not be an attractive option to present-day directors, who would opt either for abstraction or, in a bid for modern political relevance, an update to a more recent era.

The source of that quote was Pierre Audi, whose 2013 production was respectfully received at Dutch National Opera. I saw and enjoyed a video broadcast (not commercially issued) from the premiere run. Audi’s Tell had a rougher ride on transfer to its co-producing theater, the Met, three years later. In the interim, in 2015, Damiano Michieletto had the mission of bringing Tell back to the Royal Opera House.

Each director dodged quaintness through one of the above options: New York got abstraction and London got relevance. Or, in talking-point terms, New York got the upside-down cow and London got the gang rape.

If Upside-Down-Cow Tell was puzzling and disappointing to New York, Gang-Rape Tell was widely despised in London, with reports of opening-night walkouts and booing even while the music was ongoing. “In forty-three years of regular attendance at the Royal Opera House, I cannot recall so violently negative a reaction to any previous production,” wrote George Hall in a not-atypical pan (Opera News).

Michieletto, a Venetian director 40 years old in 2015, chose to conjure not the distant history of Swiss patriots and Austrian oppressors but Balkan conflicts of living memory. Tell’s son, Jemmy, plays with toy soldiers and reads a comic book during the overture, but then must return to a real world that is dour and colorless, with Tell, Hedwige and other adults grimly marking the days of their country’s occupation.

The character of Tell is split between two performers. The star baritone plays a meek, ordinary father whose political consciousness gradually expands, while a silent actor in medieval dress and feathered hat is the archer from the pages of Jemmy’s comic. The fantasy Tell, initially visible only to Jemmy, moves through the demoralized rabble and attempts to inspire courage and influence events. Valor is a benevolent ghost struggling to imbue its traces.

So much of the commentary on opera productions is focused on concept. People attempt to interest or horrify you just by telling you what the idea is. Bohème in outer space. Rigoletto in Vegas. Fanciulla in a leather bar. Traviata in the disco era. Most often, a production stands or falls on execution. That blue fairy of theatrical magic steals into the theater and waves its wand; the wooden creation comes to life and either dances or drags itself along, palsied, until it drops.

Michieletto’s idea here is not a bad one, and looking at my own description, I can see what he might have made of it. The only compliment I can pay him is that his intentions are always clear. I cannot imagine a viewer walking out of the ROH (at the end or, as is said to have happened, much earlier) confused about what was intended. His execution, however, is abysmal. At least on this occasion, he displays the stagecraft and cast management of a plodding clerk, the poetic sensibility of a bricklayer.

Paolo Fantin‘s set design features a floor covered in crumb (a foam substance that resembles soil), and a large uprooted tree laid at a perpendicular angle. Singers either surround the tree or clamber onto it; Mathilde lies on top of it and hugs it while singing “Sombre forêt.” Everyone has to get back to the earth, you see. In the all-male finale of the second act, the aerobicized and the dad bods alike strip to the waist and smear themselves with mud.

Cute kids invade from time to time, because the children are our future. The kids clutter up the oath-taking scene (as does the Shakespearean ghost of the slain Melcthal, but never mind). When everything works out well at the opera’s conclusion and the dead tree finally is hoisted out of sight, the kids come back again to plant new life in the soil floor.

Kitsch, like camp, needs heart and enthusiasm, qualities this listless enterprise has little of. Michieletto scatters a lot of seeds without watering them, and everything wilts under Alessandro Carletti‘s ugly strip lighting. Where Rossini would have expected dancing, there are uninspired pantomimes. In an early example, Tell and Jemmy establish an affectionate bond by teasing and mimicking each other.

Much of the outrage directed at the production focused on one of those ballet-substitute pantomimes, the graphic gang rape of a female super by Austrian soldiers in Act Three. My problem with this is less the scene itself—occupying soldiers can be brutal and cruel, and the actress playing their victim gives one of the production’s most convincing performances—than the failure of the surrounding staging to earn this bold, risky choice.

Before I move on to musical commentary, a note on that comic-book Tell double. I tried to decide whether the uncredited actor was inherently wrong for it or was being badly used. I incline toward the latter. It might have been more effective to veil the character somehow, to use him very sparingly or at a distance, just enough to suggest a shadowy presence guiding events. Like everything else about Michieletto’s production, the comic-book Tell has a dreadful in-your-face blatancy, calling to mind a breakfast-cereal mascot or the pitchman in an ad for a local furniture store.

Antonio Pappano knows this score and has recorded it, but his work on this occasion disappointed me. Propulsive episodes with springy Rossinian rhythms have an appealing toy-soldiers-on-parade sheen, but much of what comes between, such as the Mathilde/Arnold romantic interludes, is straightforward to the point of plainness. Too much of this massive score is only countenanced when it begs for shaping, real “musical direction.” The aggregate is uneven in a fashion recalling lesser work of a ghost of Covent Garden past, Georg Solti. Orchestra and chorus are fine, though at less than their established best for a new production that got extensive preparation.

In the title role, Gerald Finley shows remarkably little tonal decay more than 30 years into his operatic career. A side-by-side comparison with a Glyndebourne Figaro from two decades earlier reveals a voice that has been well cared for and retains its best characteristics. In both musical and stage responsibilities, Finley gives the modestly scaled, smartly delineated performance anyone familiar with him will be expecting. The technique is impeccable, the tone quite attractive, if short of glamorous. He pronounces the words well and inflects them with a lieder specialist’s care. His dignified Tell deserved a more supportive framing.

The star-crossed tenor/soprano lovers are less successful. John Osborn comes off the better of the two. One is inclined to grant a handicap in the part of Arnold, with its famously stratospheric profusions. Osborn has the stamina and the high notes, even if not all of them are so gratifying to hear. The voice sounds on the small side, without a wide color palette, but has some cut to it. That Osborn can suggest heroism in his vigorous singing is fortunate, as Michieletto does him few favors dramatically. Arnold spends much of his time sulking or writhing around in a soiled tank top, and the character never comes into focus.

Malin Byström‘s roles include Leonore and Salome, but if I were judging solely on the present recording, I would assume she was a lyric contriving a fuller sound, and making sacrifices with it. A backward placement results in a monochromatic, opaque quality with mushy text. I found it impossible to work up any feeling for this Mathilde. From a whiny reading of the aria onward, neither singer nor director conveys the character’s principles and feminine strength. There is only a generalized, arch “feeling,” with peaks of neurotic intensity conveyed through electric-shock faces.

Three basses drift on and off and are effective in different ways. The veteran Eric Halfvarson‘s Melcthal sounds loose and yawny but has a noble bearing flecked by irascibility, a professional’s genuine performance. Alexander Vinogradov looks ill at ease, as if still in the rehearsal room, but his sound gives a boost to Walter’s one big scene, the trio with Osborn and Finley.

I hope to hear him in a more considerable role, but he has the youthful look of someone who will get stuck in Colline and Escamillo for a while. The obligatory native speaker, Frenchman Nicolas Courjal, spills some precious oil as the abominable Gessler, and faintly suggests complexity.

The Jemmy, Sofia Fomina, lingers most in the memory for making a convincing adolescent boy. The opera has many shorter roles, here cast with people who adequately fill them while not making you regret the brevity.

Controversy sells, of course, and you may feel that you must see for yourself a production that made headlines worldwide and infuriated many people. The broadcast audience was better behaved than the opening-night one, but detractors do make themselves heard at the end. Great productions have opened to boos or worse, and in time got their due: Robert Carsen‘s Eugene Onegin, Harry Kupfer‘s Elektra, Patrice Chéreau‘s Ring, all the way back to the seminal work of Wieland Wagner.

I can only say I found Michieletto’s Tell dull and obvious rather than challenging and provocative, and as the final act dragged by, I was watching the minute counter like a dehydrating runner on a treadmill. Even in an ordinary performance, the glorious final movement of Rossini’s score can bring a special uplift. On this occasion, the only liberation I wanted to celebrate was my own.

  • CKurwenal

    The gang rape scene that garnered all the press attention was toned down slightly after the first performance, so what can be seen on this release is not exactly what was written about by the critics and on social media after the opening night.

    I’m not too surprised that Osborn and Bystrom don’t come across particularly well on this release, but live in the theatre they left a good impression. As you say, in the role of Arnold they get some points just for managing, but Osborn’s basic instrument is very beautiful and his fearless commitment is very enjoyable. Unsurprisingly, he was better in this role in a concert performance in Edinburgh the year before, but it wasn’t until seeing him in the relatively more straight forward assignment of Pollione that I became a big fan of his.

    It remains to be seen how Bystrom will fare as Salome but to me it sounds like a mis-step -- I would also describe her as a lyric, and not one with the kind of coloratura facility that Mathilde occasionally calls for. Nevertheless, when experienced live I find the timbre very beautiful and strongly individual, and I enjoy the fact that she throws herself at things, rather. But yes, a slightly strange casting choice (both here and on the studio recording) because she didn’t appear at home in this music, and so I very much doubt it would stand up to repeated listening even if the rest of the performance were worth it.

    • Porgy Amor

      Bachtrack’s reviewer found Ms. Byström “completely believable” and “intensely captivating” in her role debut as Salome (Holland Festival, June of this year), but did say the role sounds a size too large for her.

  • Camille

    Wow. After reading this I’ve become grateful for our upside down cow production, except that dumb ballet. Honestly, the best part was the overture which Mo. Luisi brought off with the greatest verve and élan! Heigh-ho Weezy!

    Poor Porgy. The pains he goes to, to save us all from viewing perdition. I’m handing him a gallon of spring water through cyberspace to slake his thirst. Or a bottle of scotch. Whichever works.

    • Luvtennis

      Byström -- how unfortunate that her sound on recordings is so utterly gray. And sour. And non-descript. Am I the only person who needs that timbral zing!

  • Dan Patterson

    I enjoyed the audio release by the same cast a couple of years ago, and I think I’ll stick with that, as the production. I’m still very fond of the first recorfding of GUILLAUME TELL, with Caballe, Gedda, and Bacquier. Caballe sings up a storm here,

    • Camille

      Mr Patterson—several months back you happened to discuss a birthday girl-Marcelle BUNLET--a bit and to the point by which my curiosity became sufficiently piqued to go investigate. So happy I did as she was quite excellent and I had never yet heard of her --thinking it was the Dukas Ariane that was the example.

      Anyway, I have had it in mind ever since to thank you for bringing her name to my attention. There are so many wonderful singers buried out there and we are much the poorer for not digging them up because we are stuck on Renatas1&2 or Maria, or Fetish Diva X. Now that Youtube has opened up those audio Père Lachaise tombs, we can luxuriate in countless unknown greats, heretofore stone cold to us. In my old age it is great sport to me to be able to at last hear singers of whom I’ve been reading about all my life, but were as remote and inaccessible as those monuments of Père Lachaise, and to have the magical ability to go back in time is a lot of fun and adventure.

      • Dan Patterson

        Ah, but it was La Cieca who posted the original clip, and to her must go the credit! But you are right about how wonderful it is to have so many singers on YouTube and elsewhere to investigate so handily. I used to collect LPs of obscure singers, and later CDs, and of course wondrous discoveries ensued. Listening to these older recordings requires learning to get beyond the distortion and limitations of old recordings. I will confess, that as a teenager (we’re talking the Stone Age here) I did not “get” Flagstad until I heard a 78 of hers played over a Victrola, and suddenly the miracle registered. I was, of course, a Nilsson fan (and remain so) so I hadn’t given Flagstad a fair listen. I know there’s no money in it, but I do wish some capable digital engineer would try some restoration magic on the Mapleson Cylinders. Thanks so much for your comment!

        • Camille

          Yes, Cieca and Windy City put it up of course, but, because of her funny sounding (in English) name I passed it right by until your commentary provoked my pique. That is what I thank you for!

          Interesting what you have to say about Flagstad as I have never heard her on 78s. There is that much a difference?

          About those precious Mapleson Cylinders—I only wish that more would be uncovered! Supposing that is impossible and every nook and cranny has been cleared through.

          • Dan Patterson

            Back in the early 1980s a comprehensive collection was published. Decades later, the late lamented Mike Richter published that set on CD-ROM. I think they’ve all been uncovered, but not all have been identified, and there is a long-running controversy on who is actually singing the famous Huguenots excerpt (“Ah, se mot” -- the Queen’s cabaletta).

            Regarding the Flagstad phenomenon, I had only listened to her on rather inferior (I now think) LP transcriptions of her 78s. But somehow the splendor and freshness of the voice had eluded me. Dumb kid, I was.

            • Tamerlano

              It’s Queena Mario, non?

            • rapt

              I think the suggestion was Suzanne Adams--pre-Queena.

            • Tamerlano

              Yes, it’s definitely Suzanne Adams…i just love the name “Queena”

            • Benedetta Funghi-Trifolati

              Recollection from Queena Mario’s Met colleague, soprano Nina Morgana Zirato, wife of the influential (in NYC music circles) Bruno Zirato:

              “Gatti relied on me in the same way he relied on Queena Mario, who did most of the same lyric parts that I sang. She was a very good artist, too, although she was not Italian. Her birth name was Tillotson, not Mario, and she traded the lovely name Helen for the perfectly stupid name Queena, which she made up. Once I made her mad by asking her, “If you have a brother, is his name Kinga?”

            • Dan Patterson

              I’m not completely convinced either way. To me, it sounds more like Melba and not much like Suzanne Adams (either her commercial recordings or the other Maplesons), but the date issues are confusing, along with the languages used. Opinion leans toward Adams, but there are holdouts for Melba, and a few like me who can’t make up their minds.

            • southerndoc1

              There’s just nothing in that recording that jives with anything we know about Adams -- her other recordings, her reputation, her reviews. I lean towards Melba, but I’m no expert.

            • Luvtennis

              So much about the style -- the soft attack, the speed and sometimes mechanical quality of the runs, the cold splendor of the upper register, the occasional lapses in taste -- just screams Melba to me.

            • Luvtennis

              I think it is Melba. In which case, her reputation as a great singer -- which her studio recordings often belie -- was clearly amply deserved.

            • grimoaldo2

              Is it only me or does a lot of the singing in that clip sound horribly flat and excruciatingly out of tune to anyone else?

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              ! Maybe an occasional moment when the recording (such as it is) fails to capture the higher overtones of a note — but overall it sounds pretty damn accomplished to me.

              I’d believe it was Melba if only because it sounds a bit like that quality of attack-without-attack you can hear to such startling effect on the recordings she made in studio.

              How fascinating, @disqus_1qn5FvZcgB:disqus! Why do the experts think it Suzanne Adams?

            • Dan Patterson

              I’ve always leaned toward Melba, because to me it doesn’t sound like Adams. Essays have been written arguing this. Apparently a label was found (separate from the cylinder) which said something like Adams Huguenots. But we know that Mapleson reused his cylinders, and there are labels which correspond to nothing. I think the main arguments have to do with probable performance dates and language sung. I don’t think the singer seriously flats, but of course the upper overtones did not record well, which gives both a “hooting” and “flatting” effect. Melba was known for singing in tune..

            • southerndoc1

              “that quality of attack-without-attack”

              That’s good. Apparently, she just opened her mouth and the utterly perfect tone was there -- but she also had at her command a full range of Martello and other effects when she thought they were appropriate. And she could really slam into the chest when she wanted to. Obviously knew exactly what she was doing, with the voice lasting as long as it did and maintaining so much of the surface polish.

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              Yes, even in the excerpts from Lucia and Ophelie and so on you can hear her varying her attacks so sometimes they’re audible and slap you in the face, and sometimes so inaudible they slap you a little harder. I’ve just been listening again to the Pleurez, Pleurez Mes Yeux she set down, which others have praised better than I can, and you can hear those melodramatic plunges into the chest there: pleurez toutes vos larmes!

            • Luvtennis

              It’s just you, my dear Grim…. ?? I listen to those recordings in an attempt to get a sense of the size of the voice, the agility, and the basic timbre. To ask for more might be asking too much of such miracles of preserved history. Additionally, if it IS Melba, we can certainly aver that pitch accuracy and intonation problems were not identified as characteristic of her singing by contemporary critics. Boring, one-dimensional and soulless, yes. Intonation, no. At least not that I have ever come across.

  • Tamerlano
    • rapt

      Wow! Thanks for posting this. While we’re on the subject, I just want to put in a word for the Chailly recording (Italian version).

    • Dan Patterson

      Thanks for this, very exciting!

    • Camille

      She was very admirable in this, and especially in consideration of the size of voice executing all this tricky stuff. Brava

      • Tamerlano

        There is something so stylish about her singing and the French is delicious. I also adore her slightly campy sense of style. You don’t have to wear a shmatte just because you’re a big gal. And yes, the coloratura is really fine in those decending scales.

  • Another great Porgy review! Thank you.

    So much of the commentary on opera productions is focused on concept. People attempt to interest or horrify you just by telling you what the idea is. Bohème in outer space. Rigoletto in Vegas. Fanciulla in a leather bar. Traviata in the disco era. Most often, a production stands or falls on execution.

    True words. A bold concept is sexy; making it into engaging, relatable drama is the real work and the true gauge of a production’s success.

    Also, a sensational bit of staging in a production (lasting no more than a few minutes) will steal all the spotlight. And people will spend much time getting worked up about it without paying attention to the director’s work in the rest of the production. I would venture a guess that even if the rest of this production had been impeccably conceived and executed, the gang rape sequence would’ve still cause similar outrage and caused the production to live in infamy, deserving or not.

  • Porgy Amor

    I Can’t Tank You Enough (Michieletto’s 2015 London Tell and 2016 Paris Samson et Dalila):


    Porgy it looks like you’ve thrown yourself on the grenade (once again) sparing us all hours and hours of ‘huh?’.
    I’m still clutching my bastardized Italian Decca with Chailly conducting and still waiting for the enjoyable (if not definitive) version of this nut so I can finally crack it.
    It’s alluded me longer than Parsifal and Falstaff and I enjoy serious Rossini far more than the comedies.

    • Solovyov

      Was anyone here in SF in 1992? Vaness was magnificent as Mathilde there.

      • MichaelStrickland

        I put the apple on Jemmy’s fucking head as a super in that production, and yes, Vaness was beyond magnificent. It was an absolute joy hearing her up close in every performance.

  • Mention of Guillaume T. always takes me back to this Versailles concert…

  • Robin Worth

    None of the comments I have read picked up on Michielotto’s take on “Blut und Boden” The idea of blood and soil was developed by 19th century German nationalists, racist, anti-semitic and taken to an extreme by the Nazis. There was soil on the stage (lots of it) all evening and blood (lots of it) in the self-flagellation scene which ended the first part of the opera. I suspect that it just ignorance by the director ,but his association with Blut und Boden was in poor taste. I was at the second night and the rape scene already moderated. The audience were not much offended, but they weren’t much enthused by the production either. I would not want to see it again and will be surprised if the production returns to the stage in London or anywhere else. I wonder why anyone thought it deserved recording on disc.

    • Porgy Amor

      or anywhere else

      Palermo is getting it next month, with Machaidze, Korchak, and Frontali. according to the regisseur’s schedule. (“Et toi, Palerme!”) I too will be surprised if it returns to London.

      As far as the DVD/Blu-ray release, I often have a hard time figuring out why some things get selected and others passed over. I can usually come up with some rationale, while having no idea whether the people who decided were thinking the same thing. Opus Arte does release a lot of the ROH’s cinema broadcasts. In the case of this opera, it isn’t a deep field. There are a few others available in French or Italian, but it’s not, you know, Tosca where there are 35. So maybe that had something to do with it, plus the instant notoriety. (On that level, it’s easier to make a case for than the same director’s subsequent ROH Cav/Pag, with mediocre premiere casts headlined by Antonenko in both operas. But they put that out as well.)

      Also, you’re correct on the staging matter above. They’re definitely lacerating themselves and smearing stage blood. But Osborn does get filthy in the scene, and stays that way; I guess, in my note-taking, it all ran together.

  • Robin Worth

    Question for Porgy Amor

    Is it really mud they smear at the end of the second act? It was certainly blood at the Royal Opera House. Maybe someone realised something……..

    Otherwise your review is spot on