ROSSINI William Tell (Pappano)
It was the gratuitous rape of a young woman by officers answerable to their Austrian Gauleiter during the Act 3 Pas de soldats of Damiano Michieletto’s Covent Garden staging of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell that caused the production to be jeered to the echo on its first night in June 2015; though, as others noted at the time, it was the virtual rape of the opera itself that was the greater offence. Ill-informed as to the nature of Schiller’s and Rossini’s subject and further undermined by the banal ideas dreamed up to take its place, this was director’s opera at its most dire.
The DVD derives from the third performance, by which time the offending scene had been reduced to little more than a badly staged group fumble. Not that things were much modified elsewhere. Watching people stripping or being stripped (including, bizarrely, young children being stripped to their underwear during the ‘bath-time’ sequence which Michieletto adds to Hedwige’s Act 4 Prayer) was another of the production’s stranger preoccupations.
One can only assume that stage designer Paolo Fantin was at one with his long-term collaborator in reducing the carefully judged pastoral picturesque of Rossini’s Act 1 to a neon-lit white box with tables, chairs and a token sapling (potted). The designs for the second and third acts are better conceived, though anyone hoping that close-up filming might reveal subtleties in the acting not evident in the theatre will be disappointed. Close-ups add to the embarrassment.
The Royal Opera production fielded a distinguished roster of comprimario players but the principals are the same as on Pappano’s textually incomplete live 2010 Rome concert recording (Warner Classics, 10/11). John Osborn, a fine Arnold in concert, seems out of sorts here in his big Act 4 scene, while the Tell, Gerald Finley, and the Mathilde, Malin Byström, are even more obviously out of their depth in the theatre than on record. Pappano conducts with greater grip and insight than in the 2010 recording. As for the text, Hedwige’s Prayer has been restored but the lovely Act 4 trio has not.
The DVD alternative, Graham Vick’s 2013 Pesaro Festival staging conducted by Michele Mariotti, is not without problems of its own, not least Vick’s decision to stand the opera’s politics on their head by portraying the Swiss patriots as Soviet freedom fighters. That said, his production has a trio of plausible leads – Nicola Alaimo as a vocally robust Tell, a decent Matilde, and Juan Diego Flórez, no less, as Arnold – and the text is played complete.
Indeed, it’s here in the hearth-and-home intimacy of the important familial scenes that Vick’s direction comes fully into its own, not least in his theatrically effective reimagining of the role of Tell’s son, Jemmy. But, then, however you view Vick’s political take on the piece, his directorial craft is in a different league from that of the hapless Michieletto.