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New Rossini staging booed at Royal Opera House

Controversial production of Guillaume Tell heckled while the music plays

The Royal Opera House

First night booing is a fast-growing problem at Covent Garden. It doesn't happen elsewhere, not even ENO; just at the Royal Opera, where it's become standard practice for the director of practically every new production to be jeered by practised factions in the audience who object to ideas that go beyond the literal reading of an opera.

At last night's premiere of Rossini's Guillaume Tell the perpetrators did something unheard of: they booed during the music. And they did so loudly and long. An isolated voice began it; that was echoed elsewhere and picked up by others until noise from all over the house, from stalls to amphitheatre, threatened to overwhelm music director Antonio Pappano's conducting of the third-act divertissement.

The reason? The Italian director Damiano Michieletto has opted to stage a gang rape to Rossini's attractive music.

Irrespective of the quality or otherwise of Michieletto's concept, this scene was no more explicit than equivalent moments in a host of other productions. Yet as one audience member later wrote on Twitter, "I've really had enough of the use of rape on stage to shock".

While its inclusion here may have seemed gratuitous, several spectators have tweeted that they deemed the scene valid in the context of a staging that updates the Swiss legend to recent history in the Balkans.

But it was the voice of the booers that overrode all shades of opinion and, perhaps more importantly, drowned out their fellow patrons' enjoyment of Pappano's interpretation.

Two of the most aggressive shouters expressed their opinions by way of the f-word, an irony not lost on those in the audience who found their real-life behaviour more disturbing than what was being played out in the fiction of a theatrical presentation.

Act 3 of Guillaume Tell (ROH)
© Clive Barda

Rowdiness returned briefly at the start of the fourth act as tenor John Osborn prepared to unleash one of the most demanding extended scenas in the entire operatic repertoire. This time, though, the hitherto silent majority hushed them down.

The singers and chorus rallied from the alarm this experience must have instilled in them and were cheered at every opportunity thereafter, not least during their bows. As for the creative team, their curtain call was greeted, perhaps inevitably, by a further chorus of disapproval.

The ROH's director of opera, Kasper Holten, issued the following statement after the performance. "The production includes a scene which puts the spotlight on the brutal reality of women being abused during war time, and sexual violence being a tragic fact of war. The production intends to make it an uncomfortable scene, just as there are several upsetting and violent scenes in Rossini's score. We are sorry if some people have found this distressing."

Damiano Michieletto is scheduled to return to the Royal Opera next season to direct the dark verismo operas Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci.