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Half the truth about Michieletto’s Guillaume Tell (last performance)

Today (17 July) I was one of those people – those who leave at the interval. So I have to disappoint you, I didn’t see the rape scene (act III) and can’t thus comment on its relevance or lack thereof.

You may think, aha, dehgg, you hated it! Them were right. Actually, no, I didn’t hate it at all. On the contrary, the first two acts made a lot of sense to me, as faithful to the text as can be, hardly regietastic. It was even rather pretty – certainly a lot more aesthetically pleasing than Michieletto’s overly gritty Idomeneo. I left because my job interfered with the perfomance1.

credit: The Spectator

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: Ji Hyun Kim
Hunter: Michael Lessiter
Coonductor: Antonio Pappano | ROH Choir and Orchestra
Director: Damiano Michieletto

But back to the performance. Michieletto employed his boxy stage design where the walls don’t really matter but are there to define the stage space where everything happens (and make it all a little more claustrophobic in the process, though not so much here). There was dirt again but thankfully no mud. Melcthal and Arnold smeared themselves liberally with said dirt and Mathilde took her shoes off and walked through it barefoot (good thinking). There were once again strings of lights just under the walls, which both defined the space and illuminated eerily. At the end of act II they were rather effective as the rising sun which called the Swiss resistence al campo.

The stage was furnished with pub/party tables for act I and a large uprooted tree symbolising the forest (and possibly the general state of affairs) in act II. Whilst away on holiday I had a family reunion of my own and got a pair of opera glasses as gift. This was the first opportunity to employ them and boy was it fun! I must’ve spent half the time peering through them. The tree looked real. That made me wonder about how they went about getting it (hi, can I get a large tree, complete with roots?) and how they stored it for the past few weeks. In case you were wondering, the layer of dirt on stage was about ankle deep.

The famous (most famous of all?) overture was made even more fun by overimposing Jemmy playing with action figures2 and following the story in a comic book. I amused myself farther by trying to see if the projections were from a real time camera or pre-recorded, by peering through my glasses at Jemmy on stage and comparing with what was being projected. It appeared in real time. I alternated that with looking at the timpanist, who was directly in my line of sight. Gotta love timpani-happy overtures (when I saw I Capuleti e i Montecchi, I was chuffed that the timpanist went to town with his part). The overture is rather long but what with all this action I was suprised when it finished so quickly. I wouldn’t have disliked it if it was encored 2 or 3 times, Met-style.

Jemmy got a lot to do and props to Sofia Fomina for all the pre-teen boy action she performed (reading comic books, playing with action figures, wrestling, arrow shooting, sword wielding, tree climbing). Though the atmosphere of this opera is uncharacteristically gloomy for Rossini, the moments when Tell is teaching his son to shoot arrows came off very funny (Jemmy is, of course, rubbish at it). Vocally she was a bit underpowered but she’s young.

There were two main reasons I wanted to see this: a) it’s Rossini, b) Gerald Finley in the title role. He made such an all around positive impression on me when I saw him as Count Almaviva (Mozart) two years ago that I could not wait to see him again. I love his tone and he projected with the best of them (his French diction is rather good as well). He had to act moody and agry here and he acquitted himself very well in the first two acts. I liked his inspiring hero – manly but empathetic. Shkosa (Hedwige) and Osborn (Arnold) were also solid; additionally, Osborn was rather good playing this conflicted character, torn between love and duty at a very inopportune moment. A shoutout should go to the tight, martial, very disciplined chorus.

…A time for bitching about the singing: the tenorino (Ruodi) who sings the folk tune at the beginning had such acidic acuti I winced (it reminded me of the always awful Italian singer in Der Rosenkavalier). Halfvarson, whom I recently saw as Il Commendatore, returned with his rope-skipping vibrato. Ok, he plays the ancient chap, but still his vibrato is so wide you could pull a cow through. I don’t know that Rossini is right for Byström’s full soprano. Mathilde’s act II duet with Arnold has some hark-backs to old school Rossinian ornaments and what came out of her mouth sounded rather odd and laborious. Also her acuti, like Kim’s, are not the easiest on the ear. But good job climbing a large tree trunk in a skirt.

…And a time for bitching about seat neighbours: every once in a while it’s one’s lucky day to sit next to the BO black belt. Oh dear, I came very near KO. This one was wearing fleece in July. The funniest bit was when, after the first intermission, my other seatmate moved over to the empty seat to his right, I moved to his seat, thinking I’ll get some breathing space. Not so fast, dehggi, BO black belt followed us. But not for long. He proved to be more considerate than I had given him credit. The rows in the Upper Slips are very close together and his large knee was poking the chap below us in the shoulder, so he retreated back to his seat. Score! He was actually very into the music (constant bobbing), which I found endearing – after there was an empty seat between us.

There is this medieval Batman-like figure dressed like Tell from Jemmy’s comic book who frequently appears on stage and protects certain people (he watches over Jemmy and likes Arnold and Mathilde, who do have it rough). Between him, the large tree trunk, the action figures and hyperactive Jemmy, and in light of the overture’s standing within pop culture, I thought the direction showed a lot of affection for the opera, far from what the negative criticism would have you believe. Though I can’t comment on the rape scene, Leuthold says he had to kill one of Gesler’s people because he tried to rape his daughter, so it seems hardly that far fetched to then include such a scene. But in spite of all the moaning in the media, the house was mostly full, with empty spots here and there but far from swaths of returned seats, as it had been reported. It’s a serious take on a serious opera and I, for one, got misty eyed from all the patriotism at the end of act II.


  1. I asked for the day off, instead I was given 5 nights this week and two days when there was nothing to do. Normally I can swap with my colleagues but no luck this time. I am also going to have to cut it short during the Operalia final… Such is life sometimes. 
  2. I spent most of my childhood playing with action figures. I bought lego figurines earlier this year… 
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Michieletto + ROH = freestyle booing

I think this was an opera, not a discussion.

Remember how much I liked Rene Jacobs’ conducting of Idomeneo? And remember how meh I felt about Michieletto’s direction? I watched it once though I listened to it many times since. But opera should indeed be a discussion. Anything less is demeaning to the art form.

Kasper Holten brought Michieletto to ROH for Guillaume Tell and unsurprisingly Michieletto made some waves. This production involves a (gang) rape scene which was booed whilst it was going on. Not at curtain call – during the actual opera. Whether the scene is warranted or not is as usual debatable. I’ll make up my mind later this month when I go see the performance. There will be filming and a cinema relay on 5 July.

What got my head spinning was the comment section in the Guardian. It’s again the same tired comments that opera is jolly entertainment (from people who sound like they don’t go to the opera):

ROH is not the same as Tracey Emin. Modernist interpretation is best reserved for modernist theatre.

I like it when people help us understand what’s what.

Opera and reality don’t mix. People who go to the opera want a stylised, elitist experience follwed by a nice bottle of wine somewhere chic.

Wait, wasn’t this an elitist experience? The chap above might think so.

Isn’t the point of the theatre to get away from reality once in a while?

No.

Audiences will surely stay away from new productions until they work out whether or not they will want to sit through them.

An educational outcome? I can only hope more people will look a bit into what they’re going to see. Hats off to Michieletto, then.