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.