Rossini – Guillaume Tell
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 – Enea Scala
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano.
Stage director – Damiano Michieletto
Royal Opera House, London. Thursday, July 2nd, 2015.
Tonight’s Guillaume Tell was the second performance of the run and represents the final new production of the Royal Opera’s 2014 – 15 season. A lot of column inches, comments and discussions on social media have been provoked by the show, much by people who haven’t even seen it. I went tonight with an open mind, determined to view and engage with the show without preconceptions.
The production was in many ways a clash of civilizations. The Swiss were dressed in casual, more rustic clothes, armed only with bows and arrows and later a stash of machine guns that might have been captured from the opposing side. The Austrians were smartly dressed with sophisticated weaponry, yet despite their more refined formal dress, it masked extreme violence towards the Swiss. The constant presence of earth on the stage, used by the Swiss men to rub against themselves before heading into battle and invoked by Melcthal as part of his ceremony, highlighted the interdependent rural nature of the Swiss compared with the more urban Austrians. As a basis for a staging that’s a solid one and yet Michieletto felt compelled to add even more layers of detail to his work.
It opened strikingly enough with a movie of Jemmy playing with toy soldiers accompanying part of the overture. The table with the soldiers was a constant presence at the front right of the stage. I also liked how comic book images of the story of Guillaume Tell appeared on the screen. The idea of a comic book coming to life could have provided the basis for an interesting staging yet it was used briefly and abandoned before being taken up again briefly at the end. There was also the presence of a costumed gentleman as the traditional image of Tell who perambulated around the stage as did Melchtal’s ghost who reappeared briefly. If this sounds chaotic, it was, and I longed for Michieletto to just use his singers to drive the drama forward as opposed to adding layer upon layer of extraneous action that cluttered the narrative.
The adding of so many conflicting images and ideas ultimately meant that the work got lost in the symbolism of the production rather than being able to speak for itself. Indeed, the most striking part was when Arnold sang ‘asile héréditaire’, the focus was exclusively on him and as a result John Osborn’s Arnold was allowed to breathe and create a fully credible character. Otherwise, we never really got a sense of who the masses were or indeed the principals. Whereas some directors really manage to make every single member of a large chorus matter, here they moved efficiently in formation, never really becoming a mass of individuals. In the first act for example, we were never quite given a sense of the Swiss jubilation at the opening festival that was subsequently disrupted by the Austrians resulting in Melchtal’s murder. That was partly caused by the gloomy lighting (Alessandro Carletti), partly also by conducting that didn’t quite catch the flow and rhythmic incisiveness of the music.
Another example of the music being drowned by the symbolism was in the Act 2 trio with Tell, Arnold and Walter Furst. While they are singing, Jemmy danced around the stage with a sword followed around by a spotlight while the singers of the trio are barely illuminated. It struck me as representative of the whole, the narrative taking second place to a concept that is never quite defined yet seems all-encompassing. Having said this, despite its weaknesses, I would much rather see a staging like this, one that tries to engage with the work and illuminate it, however misguidedly, than one devoid of ideas.
Musically, there was much to admire. The diction of the cast ranged from excellent to incomprehensible. Gerald Finley gave us an aristocratic Tell, sung in impeccable French with a good sense of line. His singing and his wonderful use of the language gave a great deal of pleasure. Finley perhaps lacks the richness at the bottom of the range for the ideal Tell and the more declamatory writing revealed a slight dryness in the tone. Despite that, he gave us a wonderfully-sung ‘sois immobile’. His legato is always smooth, intonation solid and his singing always musical. Sofia Fomina’s Jemmy fulfilled the promise she displayed in last year’s Ariadne. Hers is a light, silvery soprano with genuine personality. She was a busy stage presence throwing herself into the staging with great enthusiasm.
John Osborn was a very good Arnold. At first I found the voice a little on the small side. As the evening progressed it was clear that he, like his castmates, may well have been affected by the acoustic properties of the set to the extent that his duet with Malin Byström’s Mathilde came in and out of focus, depending on where they were positioned on the stage. His singing was always impeccably stylish and he had a very good sense of the idiom. By Act 4 it became very clear that he had been pacing himself all evening and he gave us a wonderfully rapt ‘asile héréditaire’ with ‘amis secondez ma vengeance’ dispatched with fabulous abandon and terrific high notes.
Byström is a known quantity. The owner of a big, bold and generous soprano she also has some unresolved technical issues. I can’t say I understood many of the words she sang but she did spin a nice line in ‘sombre forêt’ with an especially nice pianissimo. At the same time, the line in her opening set piece was tight and pinched, which may well have been due to nerves. She rode the closing ensemble quite wonderfully but her coloratura was sketchy and she didn’t always quite land on the note she was aiming for. I’ve said it before, it’s a fabulous natural instrument, but the technique always seems inconsistent.
The remainder of the very large cast was decent. Enkelejda Shoska was a glamorously big-voiced Hedwige. Nicolas Courjal brought his Gallic, velvety sound to Gesler with superb diction. Alexander Vinogradov sang Walter Furst in a resonant and glamorous bass. Eric Halfvarson’s Melcthal, the vibrations now somewhat looser with age, still has undeniable stage presence. The remainder of the roles were acceptable but, as I mentioned above, diction could have been sharper.
The gentlemen of the chorus sang with solid tone and decent blend while there were a few individual voices sticking out amongst the ladies. Apart from some patches of sour intonation in the lower strings, the orchestra acquitted themselves well for Antonio Pappano. His conducting I found slightly problematic. It was lovingly phrased and it was clear also from the singing that there was a unanimity of approach throughout the whole cast. I did feel that it smoothed out far too many of the rough edges that the work needs – Act 1 really needed to be driven along more, there was little sense of rhythmic propulsion. Similarly, the closing chorus of Act 2 just needed a little more pointing of the rhythms and thinking in terms of paragraphs as well as lines.
The end of the performance was greeted with rapturous applause by a relatively full house. We were given a staging that was clearly the product of a long and detailed reflection. Despite this, it felt that the director had not quite succeeded in creating an overarching vision and not quite able or willing to allow the work to speak for itself. Musically, it had a lot to offer with some fine singing from the two leading gentlemen. I am pleased to have been able to see a show that invites its audience to engage with it, to think and to reflect. Michieletto attempts to present a meditation on the horror of war and its effects on individuals yet doesn’t quite succeed as he simply has too much to say. There’s a lot of promise in his work but he is perhaps not yet the finished article. Ultimately, it’s a show that offers rewards to those willing to engage with it and is more than decently sung.