Guilliame TellRoyal Opera House Live
Bridport Arts Centre 9 July 2015
BR Rating **

By Amy Van Zyl

Watching this production of Rossini’s last opera was to be frequently reminded of human ingenuity. The music, masterfully conducted by Antonio Pappano, seamlessly rose and fell to transfigure every scene. The protagonists’ musical performances impressed with their technical and emotional capacity. John Osborn was exceptional in the role of Arnold, which requires tenors to far outstretch their usual vocal range but to do so with agile ease. Also in one of the lesser roles, Sofia Fomina played a believable and compelling Jemmy, Guillaume’s son, whose voice rang clearly and passionately throughout.

This, an impressive feat in itself, is sadly one that stands alone in the face of the production’s short-comings, which make it difficult to praise the production further. The story of Guillaume Tell is enticingly tragic. It follows the Swiss hero William Tell, whose undying patriotism and love for his countrymen, makes him yearn to be liberated from the cruel and sadistic Austrian occupation. However, it seems that this production just needed to fall into the lap of a director with a clearer and fresher understanding of the opera’s ferocity.

It was simply impossible to become emotionally involved or deeply moved. It was as if the drama was so overwhelming that the director had timidly reverted to predictable attempts to make the opera seem new, exciting, controversial and different. This had a devaluing and numbing effect. In fact it was laborious.

Now, for those skimming to the exciting bit, we come to the infamous ‘rape scene’. It shows why reviews of Damiano Michieletto’s production are themselves problematic. Surely this production would never have attained the same notoriety had this debate not erupted so spectacularly. This seems a shame as it means the sublime musical performances go relatively ignored yet allows sales-savvy journalists to write excoriating reviews.

Nevertheless, it seems bizarre that audiences have felt so inclined to be offended by the rape scene and violence of the piece. They aren’t audibly outraged every time anonymous corpses and traumatised women are blazed across news channels.

To feel moved, shocked, uncomfortable is ultimately the premise of the production which had all the trimmings of a Shakespearean tragedy. In a harrowing story about the ravages of war, would the audiences have preferred that the ‘distasteful’ elements of the production had been neatly edited? Mind you, it is easy to be apathetic when you aren’t emotionally embroiled in the production itself because, try as you might, there is only so much looking-dramatically-poised that one can stomach.