There’s a steadily growing unease that the visual and dramatic standards of the Royal Opera’s recent productions in no way match their broad musical excellence. This new staging of Rossini’s final and most ambitious opera by the Italian director Damiano Michieletto highlights an alarming trend that registers here in a worryingly extreme form.
Guillaume Tell (William Tell in English) tells the story of the legendary medieval Swiss patriot who challenges and defeats the Austrian occupying forces. In the opera’s most famous scene, Tell is forced to shoot his arrow at an apple placed on his son Jemmy’s head – and succeeds in slicing it in two while leaving the boy unharmed.
Michieletto and his design team replace traditional imagery with grungy modern dress, creating some of the ugliest and most unattractively lit stage pictures ever presented by the Royal Opera. Despite the time-switch, a medieval figure – inevitably silent, but clearly intended to represent the traditional Tell – constantly bestrides the stage, urging the action on.
One feeble idea succeeds another. The standard of acting from the principals is poor. Many additional bits of business are either irrelevant, or obscure, or both, with the ballet movements in particular filled with pointless and extraneous activity.
One scene, in which the Swiss women are supposed to be made to dance by the Austrian soldiery, is ramped up into a gratuitous gang-rape that provokes the noisiest and most sustained booing I can ever recall during any performance at this address.
Intellectually poverty-stricken, emotionally crass and with indifferent stagecraft, the result is nowhere near the standard an international company should be aiming at.
There are vocal and musical compensations – in Gerald Finley’s stern Tell, in the occasional passion of Malin Bystrom’s Mathilde, and in the high notes of John Osborn’s Arnold. Pappano, as usual, conducts with enthusiasm, and achieves solid results.
But it’s simply not enough to salvage a dire evening.