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Guillaume Tell (Royal Opera House)

Grim modernist production mars a strongly cast account of Rossini's grand opera

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
John Osborn as Arnold and Malin Byström a Mathilde in Guillaume Tell (ROH)
© Clive Barda 2015

It's hard to decide which was more upsetting: the loud booing of a rape scene (see news report here) or the inept production that contained it.

To add to its recent portfolio of lacklustre new work The Royal Opera has engaged an Italian director, Damiano Michieletto, for a prestige production of Rossini's epic final opera, Guillaume Tell (William Tell). With music director Antonio Pappano at the helm and the stars of his 2011 EMI/Warner Classics recording on stage, this was slated to be the event of the season. And so it proved. But not in a good way.

William Tell, you'll recall, was the legendary Swiss freedom fighter, the Robin Hood of his nation, who was forced by the villainous governor Gesler (a Sheriff of Nottingham figure) to shoot an arrow through an apple placed on his own son's head. Rossini's opera draws on the dramatisation by Friedrich von Schiller of this mythical event and includes a subplot about star-cross'd lovers.

The staging, alas, is a cloth-eared response to Rossini's score that demonstrates Michieletto's determination to privilege concept over music. While Guillaume Tell is often grim it is a romantic legend and as such it also contains light and variety, not least in the first and third act divertissements; but the director was having none of it. There was no choreography yet he had only the woolliest of ideas how to cover the acreage of dumbshow its absence left him with.

Over-familiar design tropes dominate designer Paolo Fantin's white-box set: several dozen wooden chairs, a score of bare neon strip lights, video inserts and a slow revolve. It's all pretty ugly, in keeping with Michieletto's updating to the time of the Balkan crisis towards the end of the last century. There's a tree to represent liberty and several small children to symbolise a nation's innocence lost (gunplay) and then reclaimed (a cleansing bath scene).

'Hero of the evening'

To add to the banality Tell's son Jemmy, splendidly sung by soprano Sofia Fomina, conjures up a romanticised comic-book version of Tell as a contrast to the hunched reality of his exhausted father (a performance of rare panache by Gerald Finley).

As a concept it's opportunistic and more than a little tasteless, less an examination of modern conflict than a coathanger for an opera that doesn't fit it. With so much awful news reaching us in the real world we have little to learn from a vacuous fiction. To add a more practical insult to the conceptual injury, the stage floor is covered in sound- and energy-sapping rubber crumb (to represent the earth of the fatherland) that places an added burden on already-stretched singers all of whom, against the odds, coped magnificently.

Hero of the evening in every sense was the American tenor John Osborn, who as Arnold not only had to negotiate some extraordinarily cruel high notes (which he did without a hitch) but also found himself embarking on his great scena, "Asile héréditaire", above the restlessness that had fizzed through the auditorium since the rape scene.

As his beloved Mathilde, a dramatically engaged and clear-toned Malin Byström outshone her performance on CD.

Pappano made a number of cuts and propelled an energised ROH Orchestra through a rousing account of the score. The act one wedding tableau was particularly beautiful. Factor in some great singing from pretty much the entire cast, together with a valiant Royal Opera Chorus, and this should have been a triumph. The fact that it's likely to be seen as the opposite is down to the director. He did a convincing job of staging the apple trick, but after that he'd shot his bolt.