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Guillaume Tell: Join the Conversation

The Royal Opera’s Writer in Residence reflects on how directors choose to stage grand opera in the modern day.

By Sarah Hibberd (Royal Opera Writer in Residence)

29 June 2015 at 9.40pm | 174 Comments

For me, Guillaume Tell has the potential to be compelling drama, and Damiano Michieletto’s production, conducted by Antonio Pappano, succeeds on these terms. There is extraordinary nuance of expression in the vocal parts and the orchestra, there are moments that are very moving (notably the Act I trio, Tell’s Act III ‘Sois immobile’), thrilling (the finales to Acts I and II) and uplifting (the finale moments of the opera). Damiano has created a strong sense of direction and focus in this enormous sprawling drama: Tell and Arnold in particular making powerful journeys as characters – Tell ‘becoming’ Guillaume Tell the hero, Arnold finding inner strength, but ultimately damaged by the process of war; and Tell’s son Jemmy helps to bring different parts of the storyline together through added scenes of pantomime. The singers – soloists and choruses – and the enormous number of other personnel (assistant directors, stage managers, répétiteur, assistant conductors, vocal coach, movement coach and many more) have thrown themselves into the project, and taken the drama seriously. I’ve really enjoyed attending rehearsals and seeing the production evolve over the past six weeks: it has been a privilege. Here is Gerald Finley (Tell) writing about the process.

The opera and the production raise some interesting questions though, and it is on these that I’d like to focus in my final post – and invite you to join the conversation.

The setting has been updated from the 14th to the 20th century, and the symbolism of the Swiss Alps (purity, nobility and freedom) has been replaced with a much darker metaphor. The uprooted tree that dominates the stage for much of the opera stands for an uprooted people – and the rich soil is where their bodies are buried and new life is born.

Part of me misses the sublime tableaux of mountains that frame the opera, the tangible ever-presence of weather – notably the storm, but also the sunrises – and the sense of space (vertical as well as horizontal) that the setting implies. But the modern setting is a powerful updating: it brings the human drama to the surface, its details inspired by the libretto, and the brutality of the gun-wielding Austrian soldiers helps to sharpen the central conflict in a manner readily familiar to modern audiences who might be a bit hazy about the historical events. However, the ‘historical’ Tell who haunts the hero through the opera – and the footage from the comic book that scrolls across a screen at the beginning and the end of the opera – remind us of the legend, rooting us in its romance, and guide us through the details of a story that is much less known today than it was in the early 19th century. We arguably have the best of both worlds here.

Audiences in the 19th century would have gone to see the same opera many times, discovering more on each visit. Given that modern audiences – generally – will see a production only once, it has to be immediately legible and persuasive, and for me a strength of this production is that the drama is generally very clear, and actions motivated. But perhaps my attending of rehearsals has contributed to this. What did you make of it? Did it make sense? Were there specific aspects that you particularly enjoyed or disliked? What about those pantomimes that replaced the Act I and III ballets – did they help to develop the characters, or distract from the drama?

We are regularly told that modern (British) audiences are conservative, that anything other than Traviata, Bohème, Carmen, Figaro is a big financial risk. New works often struggle to find an audience, as do ‘new’ old works – operas such as Tell – that are no longer in the regular repertory. Does this mean that we have a responsibility to go to see new works, to ensure opera companies continue to schedule a wide repertory? Do opera companies and directors have particular responsibilities when staging unfamiliar works?

The Guardian critic Martin Kettle recently criticised Graham Vick’s controversial staging of Chausson’s Le roi Arthus at the Opéra Bastille in Paris:

‘Given that this production will in all likelihood be the audience’s one and only chance to experience Chausson’s opera, this kind of treatment of the work seems especially unfair. … such pieces deserve productions that help the audience to grasp an unfamiliar work and do their very best for pieces which have frequently languished in the shadows’

Are special efforts required to make a new work accessible? Are there aspects of 19th-century operas that are particularly problematic for our modern taste – lengthy ballets, obscure political references, complex and involved plots, extravagant scenery, big static concertante ensembles, unabashed sentimentality, too much recitative? Do these need to be addressed by directors, or are we willing to accept operas on their own terms? What sorts of ‘help’ do we appreciate? From directors, from opera companies?

I look forward to hearing your comments!

Sarah Hibberd is Associate Professor in the Department of Music at the University of NottinghamFind out more about her association with The Royal Opera as Writer in Residence and read other posts in this series.

Guillaume Tell runs 29 June–17 July 2015. Tickets are still available. The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 5 July 2015. Find your nearest cinema.

By Sarah Hibberd (Royal Opera Writer in Residence)

29 June 2015 at 9.40pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Damiano Michieletto, Guillaume Tell, Production

This article has 174 comments

  1. Singing and orchestral playing excellent but production was I'm afraid a disappointment from beginning to end. No wonder it received calls of 'rubbish' and lots of boos during the performance and at the end.

  2. I should especially single our the gratuitous rape scene which was totally unnecessary and received almost universal disapproval and much booing.
    The setting with one large tree and not a lot else could have been anywhere. Where were the mountains and lake?

    • Ray Evans responded on 30 June 2015 at 12:22am

      I disagree that there was universal disapproval and much booing. However, in a silently watching audience of 2,200, a vociferous minority does stand out. I think that if people wish to express their dislike of a production, they should quietly leave and not stay to interfere with the enjoyment of others who feel differently about it.

  3. matteo gallanti responded on 29 June 2015 at 11:13pm Reply

    I think i was of the few who didn't boo the production: the rape scene is very disturbing, indeed, but it made sense to me
    The weak probably point is that the director has too many ideas and some of them are not very well developed, in particular the Tell alter ego, Jenny's role.... and someone I felt a bit lost.
    Great singing and conducting but more than everything stunning Chorus

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 30 June 2015 at 7:45am

      It's true that the director has a number of ideas that he develops through the opera. Part of the problem with Tell is that it is quite a sprawling work, and some of the characters are very lightly drawn and make some strange decisions (19th-century audiences didn't see the point of Mathilde; Tell seems to care only about politics, Arnold about love; why does Tell choose to go to Altdorf in Act III?, etc ). The director here tries to provide some of the motivation, to help us find a way through the story and make us care about the characters.

      This may be too much to take in with a single viewing - it's a shame that the majority of us can't go back and see it several more times, as 19th-century audiences would have done.

  4. Janice Evans responded on 29 June 2015 at 11:27pm Reply

    I am sitting on the train, waiting to leave Charing Cross, having just seen Guillaume Tell. I need to reflect on the challenge of this production in order to form fully my opinions. However, I must first express my deep distaste for the actions of some people (sitting in the Amphitheatre close to me) during the performance. Their booing during the torment and attempted rape scene; their cat-calling directly to Gerald Finley about his singing; their cries of 'Shame on you Tony' spoiled my experience of the opera. Their disapproval, presumably of the directorial interpretation, the music and the performances impinged upon my right to watch, listen and experience without let or hindrance, old-fashioned words but not principles. I am somewhat in shock at this level of intolerance exhibited in the ROH. I felt abused by their aggression and ashamed of their disrespect for the performers.

    • Marco Duerr responded on 30 June 2015 at 7:00pm

      This sort of behaviour is completely unacceptable and should be enough reason for removing the heckler(s).

      Manners and etiquette have gone out of fashion, I'm afraid.

    • Justin responded on 30 June 2015 at 10:29pm

      beside all overwelming agressive comments it is a reliief to read that there are other ways to express feelings of dissapointment on an opera production. Thanks

  5. Maria DiF responded on 29 June 2015 at 11:37pm Reply

    Excellent singing and as expected Pappano and ROH Orchestra in great form. Very disappointing production, one of those where you see singers struggle with the staging (they couldn't walk on the "soil" and it looked even more excruciating for those with heels or barefoot, climbing on the tree, etc) If the rape scene might have had some logic, the nudity did not, especially as later on children were bathed with their underwear on? (anyway, I don't think there is anything even close to a rape or children's baths in the libretto). The comic book idea was a good way to explain the doppelganger but a bit too much to follow in a 4 hour opera... As a previous comment says, it's all over the place...

  6. Jackie responded on 29 June 2015 at 11:50pm Reply

    It COULD be anywhere! That was the point. This is a story of fight against oppression, do we really need the Swiss Alps in the background for the story to make sense? All in all, a wonderful production that made the most of the constant movement of the fantastic chorus.

  7. Norbert responded on 30 June 2015 at 12:33am Reply

    Amazing direction, can wholeheartedly recommend it. Went with die-hard opera fans and with others who seldom come to see an opera and both group was utterly impressed,

    The visuals were stunning, the symbolism and the sets were extremely powerful with the music. Congratulations!

    Not really worth mentioning but made me so frustrated that 2-3 people in the audience somehow thought they are on a football match and took the liberty to shout in, e.g., pretended to be snoring loudly (at an extremely exciting, very dynamic scene,,.) which was distracting, but don't really know how could this be prevented...

  8. Michael Varcos-Cocks responded on 30 June 2015 at 12:39am Reply

    Can you please lay out the dramaturgy justifying William/Guillaume Tell - see cast sheet - as an "OPÉRA IN FOUR ACTS" ! In any event the French usually omit accents over upper vowels! What next - Lohengrin as an "OPER IN THREE ACTS"?

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 30 June 2015 at 12:08pm

      Dear Michael

      Thank you for your email, we have received the following response from our Publishing and Interpretation team:

      'We follow Grove, giving operas their ‘descriptors’ in the original language, though we write act details in English – so with Lohengrin we might indeed say ‘Oper in three acts’ – we certainly give Parsifal its German titling. In Grove Dictionary of Opera Tell is called an Opéra in four acts. The French titling also indicates that it’s a grand opera.

      As regards the capitalization – our house style at present is not to omit accents on capital letters in any language – partly because there are certain cases (La bohème for example, an odd case where an Italian opera has a French title) where the accent indicates pronunciation. Our house style is not to omit accents on capital letters.’

      Best wishes


  9. Geoff responded on 30 June 2015 at 12:40am Reply

    Just back. Couple of points:

    i) A member of the ROH music staff (no names!) whispered to me afterwards that the "soil" floor of the set is a disaster for the singers, whose voices get lost in this dead acoustic

    ii) As someone who loves this opera, has been following it all over the world for 30 years as it gradually starts to return to something like the popularity it had in the 19C, and who was really looking forward to this amazing cast, I hope a production which dampens the brilliance of the singers voices (as above) is never revived. I am reminded of the ROH Parsifal set inside carpet walls (or indeed the soil floor Nabucco?) For this alone, forget this director, as he doesn't know enough to rethink his concept to suit the form he is working in.

    iii) The booing came at the first scene which was well staged and genuinely effective in conveying what it must be like to live under a tyrannical occupation force (see the libretto). So my theory is that the assault on the woman woke the audience from its slumber (because it was shocking, real, dramatic etc) but they were so cross at having been bored for the previous however many hours they booed, as they didn't like how they were feeling. I don't blame those who reacted this way but suspect there was bit of a a mix up.

    iv) The booing near where I was sitting in the Grand Tier was distinctly Italian-first-night booing (I wonder if they flew over in order to boo?) so it will be interesting to see/hear what happens on Thursday.

  10. Miriam responded on 30 June 2015 at 1:01am Reply

    I agree completely with everything Janice Evans wrote above, the behaviour of the people who booed during the "rape" scene and distutbed the performance on several other occasions made me very angry. I also agree with Matteo Gallanti that the scene made sense, to me it was demonstrating the brutality of the oppressors. This is not to say that I liked everything about the production, but the behaviour of these hooligans was the worst thing about the evening.

  11. Julio Ranea responded on 30 June 2015 at 6:41am Reply

    Was not very keen on the sets with this tree right in the middle.
    I have seen rape scenes at other plays in the past and no one uttered a word. Shows that you can't push it too far with a prude and conservative crowd.

  12. Edwin Gruber responded on 30 June 2015 at 7:17am Reply

    I can only fully echo Janice Evans' words above. It was quite shocking to me to be confronted by such an intolerant, conservative and aggressive audience during last night's musically outstanding and extremely thought provoking performance. The singing, conducting and orchestral playing were quite superb, and the production, I think very successfully, held up a mirror to our own world, with its violence and brutality counteracted by the idealism and common commitment of the decent majority that is attempting to bring about a better world. Thank you to everyone involved in this production for the courage to tackle its central themes so boldly! For me, this was one of the most powerful productions I have attended in the many years of being a regular at Covent Garden.

  13. Sarah Hibberd responded on 30 June 2015 at 7:19am Reply

    OK: the rape scene. It does make for very disturbing viewing, and for me the woman's screams and whimpers were especially chilling. However, I disagree that it is purely gratuitous, Tim: Leuthold kills an Austrian soldier with his axe in Act I for 'carrying off' his only daughter, and the director uses this offstage action to motivate the content of this ballet.

    The scene does feel long, and it is explicit, but I am interested in why we accept this sort of action (and worse) in film and even on the spoken stage, but not in opera. The objection from many seems to be less about its perceived lack of dramatic motivation, than about its disturbing nature per se. Or is it about the uneasy relationship between a historical work and modern sensibilities and taste?

    • Matteo gallanti responded on 30 June 2015 at 7:45am

      I fully and totally agree: the scene and the violence are totally in line with the libretto which talks of oppression and violence from beginning to end .
      But then the issue is probably the audience: how can it be not conservative if it is mainly made of senior people paying tickets that a young audience can't even afford? am not saying that everyone above a certain age is per se conservative , but....

    • Una responded on 30 June 2015 at 12:17pm

      'We' don't accept it in film or anywhere else. There is a growing movement of those who understand that there are reasons other than prudery not to include graphic representations of sexual violence against women as a thrilling/scary/etc. narrative device.

    • Justin responded on 30 June 2015 at 7:22pm

      Sarah, you comment that "The scene does feel long, and it is explicit, but I am interested in why we accept this sort of action (and worse) in film and even on the spoken stage, but not in opera."

      While it is true that much worse acts are accepted in may films and plays, and indeed in opera, that is because they tend to be staged appropriately to develop the story without falling into the trap of voyeuristic sadism. Had the on-stage rape been implied, committed off-stage, or taken place unseen behind the mass of soldiers, it would have developed the story and not led to the same reaction. It was not.

      The problem I had, and which I believe was widely shared, was the feeling that the production was positively revelling in its rape scene, inviting the audience to be shocked and entertained by the visualisation of a violation which at times bordered on torture. This is what was so utterly unacceptable. It did indeed, as you say, go on too long. Far too long.

      I am not at all sure that this scene, with its over-long and sensationalised focus on sexual violence, would have been accepted in a film even at 18 Certificate. If I am right on that, then the premise behind your argument cannot stand up. One point that arises from this: whether cinemas feel comfortable screening this production from the ROH we will have to see. I hope they do not.

    • LLVT responded on 10 July 2015 at 10:06pm

      How about it simply isnt part of the libretto that we paid to see? If you arent going to show William Tell but rather a "reboot" or "reinterpretation" shouldn't you be up front about it when you sell the tickets? I went to see a story I know and was very disappointed that this was NOT the story being shown on the stage.

      Also, I attended a performance with the supposedly 'toned down' rape scene that I still found extremely gratuitous as not required by the libretto or story. Although anyone who's seen Rigolletto at ROH knows this GT is certainly not the most graphic of sexual scenes ROH has had on stage, it certainly is the largest leap away from the story that the author wrote when it was created.

  14. Caroline responded on 30 June 2015 at 7:26am Reply

    Production was overloaded with ideas and symbolism. Most did not work. The opera itself is too long for modern tastes but orchestral playing of high standard we expect now from ROHO. Singing excellent esp by male chorus and soloists. And the gratuitous scene was the washing of the children. I think the audience was v uncomfortable at rape scene and resented being so, taking it out on performers. Where I sat in amphitheatre the noise was divided between booers and people telling them to hush. "Bad behaviour" sung out one woman!

  15. Sarah Hibberd responded on 30 June 2015 at 7:30am Reply

    I have much sympathy with Janice's point. During a piece of live theatre we want to be absorbed in the drama. While we may be so horrified by a particular scene that we are temporarily jolted out of the narrative, such continuous 'participation' from others in the audience makes it very difficult to find a way back in.

    In the 19th century audiences certainly shouted out their feelings about an opera or a singer, but - certainly in the early part of the century - there was no directorial concept to complicate the picture.

  16. John Assirati responded on 30 June 2015 at 8:05am Reply

    I suppose we should be grateful that William Tell's son wasn't raped - perhaps in a future production ?
    Opera arouses passions - audiences are not a tray of wet fish.

  17. Martin Dodsworth responded on 30 June 2015 at 8:14am Reply

    So yet another banal and distasteful production from the current management at the ROH. How many disasters does this make this season and last? That plus a million performances of each revival of tired old war horses with third rate singers. Holten you have to go before you turn what has become a third rate house into a tenth rate one.

  18. Anthony Ashwprth responded on 30 June 2015 at 9:01am Reply

    The Rape Scene was the most tasteless thing I have ever seen on the operatic stage in over 40 years. Yet again the need to updated operas to the modern day and a stage design that was so boring would it not have been better to do the opera as a concert performance!! I dread to think what we will get with new productions of Cav and Pag and Il Trovatore next season!

  19. Natalie Bayfield responded on 30 June 2015 at 9:19am Reply

    Don't we go to the Opera to be stunned by prodigious voices, overwhelmed by the beauty of elaborate costume and glittering imaginative stage sets. The last place left remaining on earth where you can see years of fabulously crafted visual metaphor chiming in exquisite concert with the score. All just for you, to flood your senses for mere moments and leave you dreaming for days as if you were still cradled by those comfy red seats. Or.. just shove in a rape.

    • Jane Page responded on 30 June 2015 at 10:42am

      Oh yes! Absolutely. Opera has never been known for its fidelity to true life, why start now? - and with a scene that Rossini never intended? Because the director has immature ideas of how to grab an audience and media attention.
      There are two ways of showing disapproval: noisy booing and silent walking out - but making a whole row stand up so you can walk out is a lot more disruptive than booing.

  20. Mark Billinge responded on 30 June 2015 at 9:21am Reply

    More interesting than the reaction - positive and negative - to this meretricious car crash of a production, is the reaction of those who objected to the audience expressing its view. Have you never been to a proper opera house (Italy for example) where audiences regularly and readily express their feelings about the singing, production and conducting?. Both historically and where it really matters, opera is a visceral experience which involves the audience: it should not always be listened to in hallowed silence

  21. Bill Worley responded on 30 June 2015 at 9:51am Reply

    Another disastrous production for the Royal Opera. I and others paid good money to see and hear this opera which has not been seen for 25 years, and I came away not really having seen it. We are now living in an age when Directors want to shock the audience. Most of them disregard the libretto and the music. I decided not to look at the stage for most of the evening so was not watching the rape scene. It wasn't until the booing started ( and it wasn't just a few, it sounded like the majority of the audience) that I looked at the stage. The rape ahs nothing to do with William Tell and should not have been included.

    I have said this before but does anyone at Covent Garden ask "will the paying public actually like this"?

    While I enjoyed much of the singing - Gerald Findley especially. I found Pappano and the orchestra dull but I know that is just me.

    I was horrified to read in the programme that the same team will be responsible for next season's Cav/Pag. I will be sending my ticket back

  22. Peter responded on 30 June 2015 at 10:13am Reply

    "Have you never been to a proper opera house (Italy for example) where audiences regularly and readily express their feelings about the singing, production and conducting?."

    So ROH is not a proper opera house? What nonsense. The booers were very much in the minority and really spoiled things for the majority. The rape was well integrated into the action and very chilling.

    The fact that audience members were so moved to act out what they saw on stage is a tribute to the strength of the production. This is an opera about tyranny and oppression. The booers certainly self-identified with the oppressed but by their actions turned themselves into the the inflexible intolerant oppressors.

    • Tom Spencer responded on 30 June 2015 at 11:32am

      Re: Peter. A minority? In over 40 years of attending opera performances at Covent Garden I cannot recall similar levels of disapproval ringing out from all sections of the auditorium. Entirely merited in my view.

  23. Mark Billinge responded on 30 June 2015 at 10:28am Reply

    Those who wish to characterise the boo-ers as crusty over-fed conservatives are surely missing the point. The rape scene was merely the nadir in a production which had proven long before that it was bereft of ideas, vision and integrity. This scene was simply the point at which the whole production became irredeemable. Mr Michieletto had nothing interesting to say about this work and I think it was at this point that many of us lost patience with him and his feeble rag bag of generally bad "ideas".

  24. Sebastian G-A responded on 30 June 2015 at 10:28am Reply

    I was there yesterday and I can understand that the rape scene may be disturbing for some, however, these things happen in times of war (and even times of peace).

    We just know too well that we are talking about the lowest human sentiments during wartime (put on stage) in a moment of war and occupation, and unfortunately such things happen in real life. Opera can’t be “pretty and joyful” the whole time and Guillaume Tell shows simply a fight for freedom and a nationalistic thrive that imply war and its collateral damages.

    More importantly, do the booers really think they have to right to ruin other people’s evening ? that is incredibly selfish and authoritarian, and in my opinion should never be tolerated, if you don’t like it you have several options : LEAVE! Or send a letter, tweet, post a comment, or boo (at the end) or simply don’t clap, but booing during a performance only expresses your despise for others in the auditorium and for singers, orchestra and all the others working on the performance.

    Never think you deserve, more than others, the right to express your view and impose it, because that’s what you tried to do.

  25. David Jessop responded on 30 June 2015 at 10:58am Reply

    I enjoyed this production for the intelligent playing by the wonderful orchestra and for the sheer quality of the chorus. Some of the principals were a joy to listen to, especially Finlay. But if you need a degree to try to understand what is happening on stage, couldnt we just have a production without scenery at all. Obviously the director thought - Switzerland equals mountains but i am modern and advanced in my skills so no mountains. Tell means arrows so i'm modern we will have machine guns. Fine i suppose if someone will pay for it! So in a convoluted way we have to get to arrows from machine guns - i rather thought a hail of bullets would have removed the apple quite well.
    And yes the scene of rape. Well i know this music quite well and I suspect the composer would have been devasted to know future generations thought it suggested rape. And this was not just rape, it was prolonged mass rape on a naked woman. really? In this opera?
    My worry was when litte children were being stripped and bathed in tin baths at the end they would have been naked! We would have had a riot in the opera house. At least they avoided this
    So, so much to commend this production but best listen to it on the radio. And i guess we wont see a dvd

  26. Antonia Syson responded on 30 June 2015 at 11:09am Reply

    Stunning musical performances and sensitive collaboration between singers (including marvelous chorus), orchestra, and Pappano. Thank you! The central concept of the production was potentially strong: a society thoroughly contaminated by the violence of an oppressive regime. This could have been a powerful and illuminating way to bring out fully the darkness and unease in this extraordinarily rich score - if the staging had been lucidly presented and sensitively executed. Instead it was cluttered, unmusical, and unpersuasive throughout, which made it impossible (for many) to accept the sexual violence, which patronized us as audience members (as if we couldn't grasp what was happening unless fully shown), and as a result came across as voyeuristic exploitation of sexual violence in order to hammer home a point that was already apparent. I hated the booing mid-performance (unfair to fellow audience members, orchestra, and performers) - and at first I even thought actors had been planted in the amphitheater to make cat calls at that point. But one does not need to be prudish, conservative, or unimaginative to be horrified and angered by this staging. I hope the RO will consider investing in a new production for revisiting this stunning opera in future.

  27. Michael Graham responded on 30 June 2015 at 11:15am Reply

    The rape scene was nearly the final straw.
    The entire staging was so poor and full of cliches. Fascist oppressors of the late 20th century, upturned tables and chairs, blood covered heroes taking oaths- it was all there.
    Maybe the ROH audience is conservative but most have seen enough tired ideas from the 1980s onwards about fascist repression and occupation, beloved of German opera houses and they do know what is good and what's bad!
    I also felt sorry for the performers having to wade around in stage soil for the whole performance. One of the ubiquitous tables sited to the right, meant the audience on the left missed much of the important action and more was obscured by a descending video board across the stage, leaving a good view of the performers feet only.
    The final straw for me was the use of young children being undressed on stage. Innocent enough, as intended but completely inappropriate with current child protection issues regularly in the news and a shocking rape in the production.
    The senior management at the ROH should have refused to sanction this production at the earliest stage.
    It's a great pity because it's a fine opera , with high musical standards from the singers and orchestra. The review in The Stage gave the production one star, too generous in my book!

  28. Una responded on 30 June 2015 at 11:28am Reply

    Depictions of rape in this graphic way are never necessary and, considering what we now know about the ocean of unreported sexual crime in the UK, treating this scene as just another 'edgy' moment ignores the traumatic experience of perhaps a third of the audience, or more. They won't complain, because, as Sarah Silverman says, rape victims don't even complain about rape. Far from being revolutionary, depictions of sexual violence of stage and film are simply the easiest, most conservative trope and they are almost always made by male directors. Would we have seen a man being stripped naked and raped on stage? I think not. Boo indeed. Shame on you, Royal Opera House

  29. Bob Steiner responded on 30 June 2015 at 11:40am Reply

    The rape scene was good drama, well directed and well executed. It was also consistent with the characterisation that had been built up of Gesler and his men. The tremendous tension it created was a plus. If the same scene had been included in a play staged at the RSC, for example, it would have been accepted by the audience as good powerful theatre, very edgy but in positive way. So why not at Covent Garden? Opera is no longer just 'stand and deliver'. It is drama as well as voice. If a Covent Garden audience is not grown-up enough intellectually and wants only 'soft' drama, then that's a shame.

  30. Gerry Goring responded on 30 June 2015 at 11:46am Reply

    I was sitting in the Amphitheatre last night, I didn’t boo or shout out, but felt quite relieved when I realised that others were feeling as uncomfortable about the rape scene as I did. I was unable to concentrate on the music during this long, drawn out and completely tasteless scene as I kept hoping it would stop and this rather defeats the object of going to the opera. I don’t put up with these scenes in the cinema or theatre as they are either age certificated and/or have warnings of explicit violence and I can choose not to go. The synopsis for this scene read something to the effect that ‘the village women were forced to dance with the soldiers’ – I’m not sure anyone could have expected what we saw from that warning!
    I thought the first act was completely muddled with people aimlessly moving around chairs and tables, first sitting here and then there in what looked like a giant cat litter tray. Throughout people were taking off their clothes for no apparent reason and I still don’t know why, at one point the whole chorus came on stage, sat under the tree and then went off again without singing a note. The orchestra and the singing were wonderful, the production – dire.

  31. Will Smith responded on 30 June 2015 at 12:07pm Reply

    The rape scene was just the moment when this production went from dire to inexcusable. The quality of the stage direction as a whole was pathetic. It did not support the music or libretto and with the comic book and contradictory use of both modern soldiers AND kitsch Robin hood in tights meant that the audience could not commit to any plot line with any seriousness. What direction there was consistently cut across the musical drama. An example being the trio (Arnold/Tell/Walter) where Jemmy Tell took all attention away from the actual music and drama by prancing around with a sword. The rape scene was not implied by Rossini's ballet music and as such cut across and obscured the music completely. It was gratuitous. The booing was selective and reserved only for the direction as it stopped (with the exception of one heckler) as soon as Gerald Finlay appeared. The curtain calls where unanimous in well deserved applause and cheering for the orchestra, soloists, chorus and Pappano. The audience reserved it's ire and jeering for the Director who made an irreverent and childish staging of a romantic era epic story and opera. He should be removed from the Cav/Pag next season immediately. Pathetic.

    • Will Smith responded on 30 June 2015 at 12:24pm

      This on the back of Kaspar Holten's "Don Giovanni". This is not modernising the opera this is laughing at it.

  32. Robert responded on 30 June 2015 at 12:08pm Reply

    After 30 years plus of going to ROH, last night’s first performance of Guillaume Tell was the first for me in a number of ways: the first time audience members booed stage action and cat called the stage action and the conductor during the performance.

    Kasper Holten, Director of Opera, wrote in the programme that ‘we are thrilled that the brilliant young Italian director Damiano Michieletto is making his Royal Opera debut with this new production.’ So thrilled, that this director has also been contracted to direct the new Cav / Pag next season.

    First, what happened? Well, in Act III during an orchestral section when the Austrian soldiers rough up the Swiss women and force them to dance, there was some kind of sexual assault on a young women by the soldiers, which ended up with her on table, naked. That’s what was happening on stage – nothing unusual in the standard clichéd way of expressing oppression on an operatic stage – it looks more camp that a bad drag show, with the chorus trying to act aggressively but failing absolutely, and of course, it ends up with a young naked women displaying her pudenda for a few seconds before she puts a sheet around her and runs off stage.

    What was completely unexpected (by me) was the volume and length of booing that suddenly began as this action took place. And, when the scene / music did stop, the booing was redoubled.

    Why did people boo? Near to me, it was elderly women who, I am assuming, were not politicised feminists who were objecting to the (ab)use of the female body on stage. It wasn’t the majority of people in the House, nor mostly women, but it was loud, long and during the performance.

    Then, unfortunately, there was a five minute pause until the last act. When the curtain rose, Guillaume Tell / Gerald Finley was on stage, surrounded by a static male chorus around him.

    The short break seems to have given people time to recharge. There was a very large stage-snore which, I must say, I found apposite and funny. As was the comment ‘now they are moving’, when the chorus indeed started to move. The finale was a women shouting out ‘shame on you, Tony Pappano’. All of this, when the act had started and the orchestra was playing.

    Of course, when the director and his team came out at the end, it was a veritable boo-fest, with many people (in the Amphitheatre) making a point of leaving the theatre. Several principals, in coming out to take a bow seemed to make a point of kicking the ‘earth’ material that covered the stage. And there were no flowers for the female singers on this first night – another first.

    I have no problems with people booing the director at the curtain call – s/he comes out to hear our reaction and, given that we don’t live in North Korea, I see nothing wrong is expressing displeasure by booing if that’s what people want to do. Booing singers is never acceptable to me – even after a dire performance, of which there have been some at ROH that I’ve attended – because no singer goes out to deliberately mess things up. It’s either a bad night or they have been over parted. I don’t boo directors because I don’t feel I have a sufficiently high level of knowledge to be able to make a sound judgement, so I don’t (and didn’t last night) clap.

    So, I’m puzzled by the interruptions during the performance, and wondering where we go from here. I’m not calling for Kasper Holten’s sacking, as people regularly do, but there have been a number of dire productions recently (Idomeneo easily the worst) and, after see Mr Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin, which I thought was terrible, I decided not to go and see his production of Don Giovanni, the first time I haven’t seen a new production at ROH in many, many years.
    Guillaume Tell must have taken up a large amount of the annual budget with its huge extra chorus and actors – and wasn’t sold out on opening night. Is it revivable?

    I’ve got two more tickets for this production, which I decided not to return, so it will be interesting to see what happens.

    • Una responded on 30 June 2015 at 12:19pm

      What makes you think old ladies are not practicing feminists? How old do you think the women of Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp are now?

  33. Kenneth Howells responded on 30 June 2015 at 12:18pm Reply

    Tasteless production- - going for cheap thrills - whoever is responsible for this insult to great music has displayed lack of class - talent and morals

  34. Claire Williams responded on 30 June 2015 at 1:34pm Reply

    Musically, last night was undoubtedly fantastic. Close your eyes and it was a brilliant performance. Unfortunately, the singers had to battle for our attention against clumsy and distracting staging, which at best shoddy and at worst obscene. I think people started to boo because our eye muscles had, by that point, started to ache from all of the rolling. Gimmick after gimmick was just boring to watch. A gratuitous rape scene was the final straw for a lot of people. Yes we do have similarly shocking scenes in other plays and operas around London but few of these have followed such poor, disjointed directing. The occasional bit of symbolism thrown in felt weak and it didn't feel like the cast were committed to it either. What an embarrassment to the opera house to let this onto the main stage.If this is the state of modern opera and a sign of things to come, I say bring on privatisation. What a complete waste of a lot of hard-earned money.

  35. Theo Palmer responded on 30 June 2015 at 2:59pm Reply

    The musical performances of the singers (particularly Gerald Finley) and the orchestra under Antonio Pappano were unquestionably sublime. The achievements of the musicians are made particularly spectacular by the miserable performance conditions forced on them by the vulgar self-indulgence of the stage director. Singers were forced into ridiculously difficult positions amidst the dirt and fake trees, and the instrumental musicians in the pit were showered by champagne during the obscene, gratuitous and artistically deranged rape scene.

    Michieletto's outrageously crass and heavy-handed production needlessly sullied the supremely powerful music being produced under the direction of the great Sir Pappano. The ludicrous comic-book videos, plastic soldier motifs and silent second Tell form but a few of the hideously unintelligent additions Michieletto clumsily forces into Rossini's great opera. The resulting cataclysm is no less than a crime against art, and an egregious desecration of both the original masterwork and the hallowed Royal Opera House itself.

    Ms. Hibberd writes that the Michieletto's unforgivable perversion of Rossini's work "helps to sharpen the central conflict in a manner readily familiar to modern audiences who might be a bit hazy about the historical events". This sort of patronisation of the audience and dumbing-down of the masterworks opera-goers pay to see represents the grave threat to serious art at the Royal Opera House. As long as opera houses continue to believe that their audiences need high culture to be simplified, exaggerated and vulgarised to fit what Ms. Gibbered and others seem to believe is "our modern taste", productions of actual great operas shall continue to be eclipsed by bombastic, corrupted, comic-book travesties of this sort. The opera staged last night was not Rossini, but Michieletto. This disastrous cultural decline cannot continue if the Royal Opera House is to remain the august institution it ought to be.

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 30 June 2015 at 5:30pm

      The 'sharpening' of the central conflict that I mentioned referred to Michieletto's focus on the human drama of the opera. It is a complex plot, and 19th-century audiences, much more familiar with the story of Tell than us (owing to a whole host of Tell plays and another opera circulating in Paris in the 1820s), were often confused by what was going on. I don't view Michieletto's production as a 'dumbing down', but as bringing particular aspects of the drama to the surface.

      In the 19th century operas were adapted (sometimes quite radically) to suit local customs and tastes as they moved to new venues and were revived for later generations. What seems pertinent or topical in Paris in 1829 does not necessarily remain so in Berlin in 1870 or London in 2015. Whether or not we 'agree' with a particular interpretation, we surely need to acknowledge that operas are complex and living works.

  36. Margaret responded on 30 June 2015 at 4:03pm Reply

    For me an issue that requires at least as much if not more attention than all the infantile booing and jeering is the use of film projections during the overture and towards the finale. I find such innovations utterly distracting, introducing an element into the production that dramatically changes the nature of the opera as it was written. The overture is a carefully crafted piece of work in four parts - Rossini takes us on a journey that anticipates aspects of the story to come - heroism, tragedy and victory. The immersion in this musical introduction is crucial. Supplementing it with a film undermines this experience in several ways - it imparts an element of repetition (the child's play over and over again) absent from the overture, which eventually becomes tedious; it produces a strong sense of distraction - the fast sequence shots, and constant changes of focus and angle were disorienting, and obstructed engagement with the music; the overture becomes a 'backdrop' to the cinematic experience (this is a crucial point for opera directors, in an age where film's precedence over opera is something to be challenged precisely in an opera house!), and finally, it reveals the symbolic status of william tell, as an ideal hero in a child's imagination, spoiling the unravelling of this in the opera.

    The use of film projections in operatic productions, apparently on the increase, is something that needs grave critical attention in terms of its impact on the experience of opera as music-drama rather than distracting entertainment.

    I have other issues with this production that resonate with those already raised - the rotating platform seemed to add nothing or little (again - why do directors feel compelled to keep things on the move - surely the music itself is achieving this), the set design was lamentable, and did nothing to evoke Schiller's evocation to Nature, the costumes forgettable, and the stagecraft confusing. It is a shame since the opportunity to revisit this wonderful opera (and Schiller's important work) are so few and far between. I understand the need for innovation, but innovation needs to enhance rather than detract from and undermine the 'original' work.

    In this regard I would urge directors to sacrifice their drive to imprint their own 'signature' on a production, for the sake of allowing a great work, especially a forgotten or little-known on, to shine.

  37. Judith responded on 30 June 2015 at 4:51pm Reply

    It would be interesting if someone reported the assault on the non-singing actor to the police. Clearly she is being assaulted - it is not possible to consent to assault.

  38. David Warner responded on 30 June 2015 at 5:35pm Reply

    Ms Hibberd: You are in a hole. Suggest you stop digging.

  39. JST responded on 30 June 2015 at 5:45pm Reply

    Given my experience of Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House yesterday, I can only conclude that opera direction is in an existential crisis that threatens the very existence of opera. Previous to my experience yesterday, I thought that the best one can get these days (with very few exceptions) is a production that is just a bit dull but at least not making a lot of noise so that one can close the eyes and enjoy the music. This has led me to ignore the names of directors and their work altogether. It is ironic that I would prefer a concert performance to a staged performance of an opera, which should really be staged!

    One might think that this is really the lowest point one can get to in the world of opera. However, the production of Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House has lowered the standard even further. Rather than ignoring the work of directors, I will now have to start a list of directors that I will need to avoid to prevent being upset for days. I can only support the disapproval that many in the audience showed DURING (!) the opera. Luckily, the musical quality does not correlate a lot with the quality of the productions (unfortunately it still does; it is still one institution at the end of the day).

    Given the response from the director, it seems not even worth it to explain what went wrong. It seems that he and his supporters think that the audience was shocked by naked people on stage or the violence and therefore take it as a sign of approval for the work (what a brilliant idea to shock people to make them think!). There was nothing “shocking” in this production. It might have been shocking in 1950 but it ceased to be shocking long before I was even born. Given my experience of the German Regietheater, the production was almost antiquated and absolutely harmless. There was nothing “modern” about it. What was really shocking was the lack of intelligence, skill and respect for the music.

    I really hope that the concerns that have been raised here and elsewhere are taken seriously. It seems to me that most of the concerns are not coming from people who want opera productions to be uncontroversial and historical but rather from people with a deep love for opera (many of them also young!) who just cannot bare the offensive ignorance and lack of intellect in some of the opera productions these days.

  40. Tom Spencer responded on 30 June 2015 at 6:36pm Reply

    The manipulation of children throughout this production is deeply disturbing. I assume that legal advice must have been taken before allowing this production to go ahead with small children on stage. But what of children in the audience? I note that there is a matinee performance coming up on Sunday 5th July when presumably the composition of the audience may be rather different from last night (indeed, I had thought at one point of introducing my own children to Tell on this day). I wonder what contingency plans are in place in the House to deal with this issue?

  41. C Smith responded on 30 June 2015 at 7:01pm Reply

    I missed the rape scene. I left during the second interval, as did at least five others - I heard a number of groups chatting about how disengaged they were in Acts I and II.

    I'm no expert, but I come to Opera to be moved, to be challenged out of any complacency, to think differently... And music can uniquely manoeuvre around the rational. Last night's performance suggested to me that there was insufficient confidence in the power of Rossini's music. What happened on stage was distracting, overly clever or just irritating. The voices, the orchestra, the conducting made an impression, as ever. As for being shocking, I don't remember any outrage from 'The Gods' during the orgy scene in the recent production of Rigoletto. But perhaps there is an argument to be made that it is not necessary for opera to show something overtly in order to jolt an audience out of its comfort zone? I have never seen Tosca' s shattered body, but can imagine her desperation. Is the production team underestimating its audience?

    As for the comment above that the make up of the audience in narrow because of the cost of the tickets, may I point out that the amphitheatre is, for the most part, cheaper than a premiership football match and that I started coming when a student. If prepared to stand or to have a restricted view, prices are very accessible.

    Hitchcock is renowned for his ability to manipulate the emotions of his viewers. He relied on their imaginations. And he did not have Rossini at his core.

  42. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 30 June 2015 at 7:36pm Reply

    With the greatest of respect ,Sarah Hibberd is in no way "in a hole".As with all her articles as writer in residence for this production,she has shared her deep knowledge of opera, especially operas from France .Her pieces have been a joy and most instructive to read. My wife and I are not seeing this production till Sunday (and are VERY much looking forward to seeing it ) but Sarah's two recent comments are crafted with the skill and experience of a true expert in her field .Having had the privilege some years ago of being involved for several years with a leading UK opera company and been given an insight into the work of directors of various nationalities, I entirely agree with the points she is making especially in respect of a director bringing certain aspects of the drama to the surface.
    I reserve the right to comment further in respect of this production after having seen it, but will just add this. As someone who has been privileged to enjoy opera since 1960 and also to have an insight into the staging of productions,I can only day that opera -from a musical and staging point of view is in a very healthy state indeed throughout the world. Comments challenging the professional competence of both Damiano Micheielto and Kasper Holten do not reflect the talents of both and I say this after experiencing their vision and love for opera as illustrated in their previous productions.

  43. KJC responded on 30 June 2015 at 7:37pm Reply

    I thought it was outstanding and although there was a scene that was hard to watch, it was just the harsh reality of war. The cast was absolutely brilliant and I could not have been more thrilled about the way the director conveyed the story.

  44. Hannah Nesbit responded on 30 June 2015 at 7:37pm Reply

    When exactly is the rape scene so that I can remove my 7 and 9 years olds for that part? Or should I be demanding a refund?

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 1 July 2015 at 9:19pm

      Dear Hannah

      Thank you for your comment. Please contact the box office to discuss options, the phone number is at the foot of the page.

      Best wishes


  45. VB responded on 30 June 2015 at 8:15pm Reply

    Would those calling the rape scene in this production 'tasteless' enlighten us as to what a tasteFUL rape should look like? Genuinely curious.

  46. Eric responded on 30 June 2015 at 8:50pm Reply

    Most importantly, it's totally disrespectful for the singers, who did not study for their whole lifes in order to become porn actresses. Unfortunately this kind of vulgar staging is seen more and more. And the rights of the singers are going down the drain. Just take another singer if a singer disagrees with the staging! Cheap theater can't be combined with opera. Please, ROH, wake up and don't let this happen to your beautiful opera house anymore.

  47. Dónal O'Leary responded on 30 June 2015 at 10:35pm Reply

    How disappointing last nights production of Guillaume Tell was. I look forward to my regular trips to the ROH and their usually fantastic productions with attention to costume and set design. Who thought that staring at a few tables on a stage of dirt and a fallen tree for 3 hours was stimulating viewing? Maybe the rape scene was designed to wake us up. Poor form ROH! But also poor form to those who heckled during the performance. The music and singing was what I expected from the ROH but unfortunately the production fell well short. If this is the way things are looking for future I'll be taking my patronage elsewhere. Very disappointing!

  48. Sarah Hibberd responded on 30 June 2015 at 11:18pm Reply

    It seems to me that there are two issues at stake here:
    1. the rape scene. Are we to ignore the veiled references to violence against the Swiss women in the opera, and smooth over them so as not to offend audiences? Perhaps we should. But one might argue that to do so would be to 'patronise' modern audiences. I'm not suggesting that this is comfortable viewing, just that it makes sense in the context of the opera's narrative. But it seems that this scene has become the lightning rod for wider dissatisfaction with the production:

    2. the excess of symbols and ideas in this production, and its jarring with our expectations. Part of me misses the 'sublime' Alpine landscape that is central to the soundscape as well as the scenery of the original production. Yet (a large) part of me also appreciates the attempt to bring out the human drama which is so lightly drawn in the libretto, and which can make for confusing and viewing.

    Ultimately, the production has to be persuasive as music drama though. Some of the earlier posts on this thread suggest that members of the audience _were_ persuaded - though it will be interesting to see whether the wider reception of the opera as the run continues manages to break free from the first-night booing, or whether this has set the tone. And whether those who appreciate the production become as vocal as those who do not...

  49. Rosemary responded on 30 June 2015 at 11:42pm Reply

    I am due to take no fewer than six friends to the cinema screening having recommended this opera. I am having serious doubts now... and am rather glad I decided not to buy tickets for the live performance.. I will try and keep an open mind but I suspect my fiends may well be seriously offended.

  50. Copia Webster responded on 1 July 2015 at 1:05am Reply

    Thinking your audience will believe that 'showing how bad it was' is a valid excuse for including rape in your performance is an insult to their intelligence.
    Repeating abuse on stage increases the number of times it has happens - the act is perpetrated again in each performance. Paying the victim to endure this in front of an audience doesn't change that fact.
    Your audience is not stupid.

  51. Alex E. responded on 1 July 2015 at 1:48am Reply

    In my humble opinion, this production is an unmitigated disaster, and I am horrified at the thought that on the 5th of July it will be broadcast all across the world, no doubt causing massive damage to the reputation of the ROH.

    My impression was that the soloists, the chorus and the orchestra under Mr. Pappano did a fine job overall; Gerald Finley and Alexander Vinogradov were particularly impressive for me, their trio with John Osborn in Act II was truly beautiful.

    The production, on the other hand, was incompetent and wasteful. Call me old-fashioned, but to me, opera is about singing and music. Production, directing, staging, lighting, set and costume design, etc. are all there to help and support singers and musicians. I would have no problem with moving the story to a different century, with modern guns instead of bows and arrows, with using projections, with an uprooted tree hanging above the stage, and with much, much more - for as long as all this respects the music and helps the singers to captivate us, the audience. Last but not least, good production should stay true to its chosen metaphor and its stylistic approach throughout the whole performance. Here is what we had instead:

    * As if to give us a taste of things to come, projection that was used during the overture looked like an amateur video, shot at low resolution using a mobile phone, with exaggerated jerky camera movements and seemingly no attempt at meaningful editing. It was way too long, and because there was not much to show - things were repeated over and over again, until the whole thing became ridiculous and boring. The worst, however, was that it not only did not help the music along - it worked against the music, seemingly making a point of ignoring it altogether and trying to distract the audience.

    * the "earth" covering the stage looked overbearing and exaggerated, especially with female singers having to plough through it in heels. Actors wallowing in "earth" pig-like were perhaps meant to look utterly devoted to the land - but instead looked ridiculous. The worst, however, was that the "earth" dampened the sound of the singing.

    * the uprooted tree, that someone must have spent a fortune designing and then mounting on stage, would have been very impressive in a Tim Burton movie set. As a metaphor for "an uprooted people" (as Ms. Hibberd kindly prompts), it might have been OK - were it not mysteriously absent in Act I (perhaps the people were not uprooted enough by then?) Moreover, it takes too much space, draws too much attention and therefore does not work well as a stage prop. There were also chunks of "earth" falling on actors' heads as the tree was being lifted - which almost completely ruined the expected effect. But the worst: singers navigating their way around the roots that stick out, and climbing up the trunk to perform - they looked truly uncomfortable, even scared, and probably for a good reason.

    And a few more questions, if I may.

    * How does one justify modern guns in a story that prominently features bows, arrows and the most famous shot by an archer in history? Surely, the director must have asked himself this question? Well, he either did not, or he failed to find the answer and decided that he cannot be bothered with little details like this.

    * How does one justify staging a scene of violence and debauchery while completely ignoring the character of the music that the scene is set against?

    * How does one justify undressing children on stage to their undies? And then mothers bathing them (half-clothed!), while the enemy soldiers are milling around?

    * How does one justify harsh narrow lights, casting thick shadows which completely hide singers' faces from view?

    * How does one justify a "real" Guillaume Tell (or is it the free spirit of good old Switzerland? whatever the chap in a red cape was meant to represent) wondering across the stage, clearly not knowing what to do with himself? Was he the only possible justification for the apple appearing on a dining table? And was the actor playing the part specifically chosen for his pot belly?

    * How does one justify staging the scene on the lake - a key scene in the story, as we all know - with no lake or boat whatsoever, and only a wobbly footage of the comic book page showing a boat, as a replacement? Did the director not have enough money to do it properly, having spent every single penny on building the precious uprooted tree? Or did he simply forget about the lake scene and then had to do a last-minute DIY-style fix? And if projection is chosen as an element of the staging - why not use it consistently throughout the show?

    Unless someone somehow makes Mr. Michieletto understand what opera truly is, my suggestion for him would be to consider switching to producing comic books; this art form would allow him an even greater freedom of expression in telling his story, while making him totally independent of singers, music, staging, timing and all that jazz that a proper opera director has to cope with.

    I sincerely hope that someone at the ROH has enough courage to admit that, on this occasion, the Emperor is wearing nothing at all, and that there will be further questions asked of people who make decisions and of their suitability for the jobs that they hold.

    And finally, I hope against hope that during the broadcast on the 5th of July a video feed would be somehow turned off , leaving the world-wide audience enjoying beautiful singing and music, rather than having to watch the wiggling of the Emperor's bare bottom in this unfortunate mess of a production.

  52. Lorraine Lister responded on 1 July 2015 at 3:35am Reply

    When I read what had been done to this opera in updating it to the 20th century I was utterly disgusted. Does it ever occur to these idiot directors that operas such as Guillaume Tell are perfect in their original form and do not need changing? What is important are the right performers and it is completely unnecessary to do what this director has done. In 2004 on a visit to the UK I saw La Traviata performed in a modern day setting by Cardiff Opera and it spoilt it. The most ridiculous scene was the aria De' Miei Bollenti Spiriti being sung be Alfredo holding a cordless phone. The old saying "If it aint broke don't fix it" comes to mind.

  53. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 1 July 2015 at 8:02am Reply

    It is pertinent to recall some words of Elaine Padmore which were written before she concluded her time as Opera Director:
    "I will be handing over to my successor Kasper Holten -not the first time I have done this since he also took over from me as Director of the Royal Danish Opera when I left Copenhagen to come to Covent Garden at the start of 2000.I am extremely happy to be passing the torch to someone I know so well and for whose youthful leadership I have unbounded admiration".

    This tribute from someone well versed indeed with the staging and performance of opera and coupled with the fact that Mr Holten was with the Royal Danish Opera for over a decade suggests that most unkind comments are not only uncalled for but totally irrelevant.

  54. Sarah Roberts responded on 1 July 2015 at 9:28am Reply

    I read Kasper Holten's recent apology with interest. I have in front of me the cast list for Monday's performance which warned us of two gunshots and one small explosion in the course of the performance. There was absolutely NO warning of any sexual violence or nudity. The 'apology' states more than once that a clearer, stronger warning should have been given. How can a non-existent warning be clear? To say that the warning was printed on the website is pathetic. It's about as stupid as apologising on the website for the non-appearance of a singer instead of informing the punters when they show up for the performance. Was a warning printed in the programme, I wonder?

    Mr Holten's mentions that a man refers to the attempted rape of his daughter in Act One and this therefore justifies the inclusion of the rape scene in Act Three. The word used is 'enlever', which, at its 'worst' means abduct. The words 'ravir' or 'violer' do not appear and the 'rape' is only reported, not shown in its entirety.

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 1 July 2015 at 11:50am

      Dear Sarah

      Thank you for your comment.

      We actually do not include production guidance in the cast sheets. This is the case for a range of productions that include disturbing scenes: Rigoletto, Salome and Les Vêpres siciliennes to name just three. The reason for this is that by the time audience members are in the building they should have received guidance as to the nature of the production – either via the website or from our box office team.

      As there has been a strong audience reaction to the scene you have mentioned we have decided to add a note to the cast slip.

      Best wishes


  55. Sarah Hibberd responded on 1 July 2015 at 10:01am Reply

    An interesting piece by Deborah Orr on the right for opera to challenge audiences - and on the responsibilities entailed for both director and spectator:

  56. Anna Brierlet responded on 1 July 2015 at 11:10am Reply

    Ms Hibberd may be an authority on many things and deserves respect for her efforts to defend the indefensible but a point doesn't become more valid simply by repeating it nor is authority lent by directing us to one article which broadly supports her point of view whilst ignoring the many critical reviews which do not. Many critical - and far from hysterical - points have been raised - not least regarding the production's working against the music (still of some importance in an opera surely) which have simply not been addressed by those defending this production. As for a "tasteful" representation of gang rape: surely the point is that it cannot be done tastefully ergo should not be done at all.

  57. Guillaume Tell responded on 1 July 2015 at 11:25am Reply

    I've checked once again, and there's no gang-rape scene anywhere in Guillaume Tell. If the libretto had included something like that, and if Rossini had found that acceptable, which I very much doubt, then I am confident that the music he wrote for this particular sequence in Act III would have sounded very much different.

  58. David Warner responded on 1 July 2015 at 11:32am Reply

    Is ROH and Mr Micheletti's confidence and belief in this production so fragile that they believe a "dilution" of the rape scene would rob it of its power and validity? Presumably they would speak of "artistic integrity" - a hollow Defense since the production has none. Bravo to the musicians - you will know that none of the critical reaction is aimed at you. Opera singers and players - perhaps even more than opera audiences - deserve better than this example of inexorable directorial decline.

  59. Alex E. responded on 1 July 2015 at 12:28pm Reply

    Dear Sarah,
    > It seems to me that there are two issues at stake here:
    > 1. the rape scene...
    > 2. the excess of symbols and ideas in this production

    Sorry, but IMHO two more important issues have to be added to your list:

    3. As a piece of theatre, this production is horrible, and the problem is not the excess of symbols, but that these symbols are a) ill-conceived, b) implemented inconsistently, and c) not thought through in the way they will work on stage (please see my earlier post for some examples - and I can list twice as many). In addition to the problem of symbols, there is a huge problem with the direction of actors on stage, where there is a lot of unjustified movements, actions and mini-scenes. It is as if the director somehow tries to justify every actor's presence on stage by making everyone busy via inventing something to do for everyone at any given moment in time. To make it even worse, the director forces characters into scenes where they don't belong - examples of this are Jemmy "prancing around with a sword" (earlier comment by Will Smith - thank you) or slain Melcthal wondering around with a suitcase.

    4. Arguably the worst issue of the lot - as a staging of an opera, this production shows complete disregard for music and singing. If the director is so eager to tell _his_ story in _his_ own unique way, and has little interest in respecting the original musical and textual material, as well as the hard work of singers and musicians - why use opera at all? Why not stick to comic books or animation, where, unlike live opera, "actors" are easy to move around and music is easy to manipulate?

    Clearly, Mr. Michieletto has long list of awards, credentials and favourable reviews of his earlier work. However, this particular production of his, for whatever reason, is IMHO disastrously bad and cannot be defended by referring to previous successes and endorsements from peers or superiors. It should now be up to the ROH to consider whether this is simply a bad day in the office (happens to everyone) or an indication of a career in sharp decline. That is - if Mr. Holten & Co are still capable of making objective informed decisions where opera is concerned.

  60. Sarah Hibberd responded on 1 July 2015 at 12:32pm Reply

    Rather than 'defending the indefensible', I'm interested in finding out what 'we' want in a modern production of a 19c opera. Do we really want to see museum pieces, created exactly as they were - with the same technologies and performance styles? How do we deal with the fact that our reference points and expectations are very different from those of 19c Parisians - who were dazzled by the latest staging technologies, had not yet heard Verdi or Wagner, and who went to see the same opera night after night? - And who had a very particular understanding of military occupation and revolution?

    How should a modern director go about trying to elicit the sort of political and aesthetic excitement that 19c audiences enjoyed in 21c London? What are the distinctions between reenactment, recreation, reinterpretation - what are we most interested in seeing and experiencing In the opera house? What are the ingredients for a successful modern production?

    • Giacomo responded on 1 July 2015 at 2:02pm

      Sarah Hibberd, you have answers in the hail of negative feedback for Guillaume Tell and the lack of it for the current runs of La boheme and La traviata. Please stop arguing and take note.

    • Joseph Green responded on 1 July 2015 at 6:51pm

      You ask "How should a modern director go about trying to elicit the sort of political and aesthetic excitement that 19c audiences enjoyed in 21c London? What are the distinctions between reenactment, recreation, reinterpretation - what are we most interested in seeing and experiencing In the opera house? What are the ingredients for a successful modern production?"

      I have an answer to your question because I first heard of this debate whilst listening to Radio 4 during the drive back from a wonderful evening at Glyndebourne watching Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

      One answer to your question would be to recommend that you watch a production by David McVicar as soon as possible. This would answer many of your questions.

      Many of the objections to this production centre on the banality of the thought that goes into these depictions of casual violence. Some indeed complain about updating as a matter of principle. There I am with you. The opera house becomes a museum if we don't try and rethink masterpieces of old, but this cannot be used as a justification for stagings which seem to either make fun of the opera and the form itself, or which seem to be more vehicles for the acting out of the sexual and deviant fantasies of those involved in the production.

      Gang rape is wrong, to state the blindingly obvious. If publically performed in this way it runs a risk that it will be seen as not as a condemnation but rather an endorsement. When an organisation such as the Royal Opera repeatedly uses it as a device in its productions (Rigoletto and Sicilian Vespers of late as just two other examples) it begins to show a very dubious attitude to women which cannot be justified in this way.

      Rape is a uniquely horrifying crime. We should all protest against it. We should all avoid cloaking banal and unjustified depictions in the arts as protest when their regularity calls into question their motive. The Royal Opera should now consider a long moratorium on this device the use of which is now at cliché level. Whilst they are at it, they might also chuck in combat fatigues, sub-machine guns, sun glasses and iron bedsteads as seriously overworked props!

      And the relevance of McVicar? He sets a fantastic production in the original time of the opera. This was not essential but that is when he chose to do it. It was nevertheless a thoroughly modern production. And rape? Well the Pasha clearly contemplates raping Konstanze just before Marten aller Arten. The acting depicted his agony (unrequited love) so clearly and sensitively, without any sense of voyeurism or banality. The point was clearly and powerfully made. This is real modern opera.

      So don’t assume glibly that those who question the morality of what they see are crusty fuddy-duddies. Nor should we assume that sensationalism equals progress.

      Just watch a video of a performance from just thirty years ago if you really want to be reminded of how powerful modern production can be. Just hope that those who will take decisions on Holten’s contract will also think carefully about the mediocre talent he surrounds himself with and why that should be.

    • Robert Pullen responded on 1 July 2015 at 11:56pm

      Ms Hibberd, you pose many big questions, all of which are valid. But it is notable that you are not reaching correspondingly big answers and conclusions. Your questions seek to elicit what modern audiences actually want from opera and opera production. I don't think you have to look much beyond the posts on this blog for the answer.... Many loyal and long-standing, articulate and passionate members of the ROH audience have responded to the experience of attending Guillaume Tell, and what they clearly DON'T want is the kind of production that Mr Michieletto has supplied. Those of us who have gone to the trouble of explaining rationally and with circumspection our objection to this and several other recent productions at Covent Garden are fed up to the back teeth of being rebuffed by the lazy accusation that we are simply old fogeys who yearn to revive the production values of the 1950s. No response could be more crass and inaccurate, if no other reason that many of us were not even born then! You yourself virtually fall into the same trap by implying that the apparent alternative to what many modern directors are providing is "want[ing] to see museum pieces, created exactly as they were - with the same technologies and performance styles". Surely you can conceive that there are many alternatives between these two extremes?

      I personally did not boo on the opening night, as many who were similarly disenchanted with Michieletto's production did not. But the idea expressed by some on here that those who did boo were in a small minority and that the vast majority were absolutely thrilled with the production seems far off the mark. I forked out £177 at the last minute to sit in the stalls to see an opera I first fell in love with 20-odd years ago when performed at Covent Garden in the John Cox staging, and I was hoping that this new production would confirm and enhance my enthusiasm for the work rather than diminish it. I had hoped exactly the same thing when paying good money to see recent new productions of Nabucco, Eugene Onegin, Ballo in maschera, Manon Lescaut, and Maria Stuarda. Yet on each of these occasions, I left feeling deflated by the poverty of ideas, clichés and inappropriateness of the personenregie that was cobbled together and served up by the directors concerned, who no doubt believed they were offering a fascinating new 'take' on these standard repertory pieces.

      One question you do not pose is how is it that the drama and invention inherent in Rossini's score was conjured up so much more vividly in the concert performance headed by Tony Pappano five years ago at the BBC Proms with almost exactly the same cast? 5,000 people at the end of that performance lifted the roof off the Albert Hall, enraptured not just by the quality of the musical performance but by the drama of the work itself. There were no boos; no nudity; no clichés.... and most of all, no director. Yet all of us lived the drama, understood it and could easily see past the archaic aspects of the dramaturgy. Don't take my word for this: just ask Pappano, who I note has put his name to the self-serving letter now issued by the ROH to warn patrons of possible offence generated by the rape scene. But as so many people on here have stated, it is not that scene per se that is the problem: rather, it is that, once again, we have been treated to a production so inert and cliché-ridden that, apart from its one sensational moment, left us deprived of the overall visceral punch achieved by the concert performance of the work. I have lost count of how many times in recent years the emotion and drama of a work gets thrillingly conveyed in concert yet comes across pale and enervated when staged, despite of – or probably because of – the director’s mission to convince us of the work’s modern relevance.

      We are a musically literate and informed audience at Covent Garden; yet so many directors of opera now believe that unless they challenge every pre-conception we might have about a work and hammer home into our supposed dull and lazy brains how these pieces can be made RELEVANT, then audiences for the art form will atrophy and the 'museum pieces' (as you term them) will wither on the vine. If, however, the sum of Mr Michieletto's achievement (and that of the directors of the other recent ROH productions I have mentioned) is the alienation of a significant part of the audience and the serving up of ideas and images arrogantly assumed to be fresh but which in reality are so familiar and overused as to have become tropes and clichés of modern theatrical production, then upon whom should blame be laid in the event that opera houses discover their audiences dwindling? Directors may believe that it is through their insights that a new audience will be found. But that is a risky strategy. New and young audiences do not have the money to pay ticket prices for more than the odd occasion. And all of us who started out young when we first came to opera came to love it as an art form by embracing it rather then it embracing us. It may be an inconvenience to the likes of Mr Mr Michieletto, but it is a plain and simple fact that it is the loyal, knowledgeable, persistent and above all passionate older audience that keeps opera houses like the ROH financially viable. And as volubly attested to by this blog, many of us who comprise that audience are feeling cheated far too often by what is being laid before us when paying handsomely to see new productions of standard repertory and other major works at Covent Garden.

    • Lorraine Lister responded on 2 July 2015 at 2:38am

      Sarah, in saying you fail to understand that for so many opera lovers an integral part of the performance is to see the opera in its original setting. With your attitude towards modernising you may as well state that this should apply to any opera or play written before the 20th century. Perhaps if you weren't an academic at a university and had grown up with opera you might appreciate it in its original and beautiful form.

  61. Alex E. responded on 1 July 2015 at 1:25pm Reply

    Dear Sarah,
    > I'm interested in finding out what 'we' want in a modern production of a 19c opera
    My 2p - look at two examples:
    - "Le Nozze di Figaro" by David McVicar (with fine performance by Gerald Finley now singing in "Tell")
    - "The Tsar's Bride" by Paul Curran (with fine performance by Alexander Vinogradov now singing in "Tell")

    Both productions are what you might call "modern", and both combine utmost respect for music and singing with excellent theatre work (as opposed to the gimmicks and "mickey-mousing" of Mr. Michieletto's "Tell"). Both, for me personally, were thoroughly enjoyable. Why doesn't the ROH address your question to Messrs. McVicar and Curran?

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 2 July 2015 at 12:49am

      Thank you Joseph and Alex for responding to my questions - we have heard plenty on this blog about what people didn't like about this production, which is why I have tried to push the debate in a slightly different direction, to hear what we would like to see more of on the ROH stage.

      I agree that David McVicar's productions are often extremely powerful and successful pieces - including Le nozze. I also agree that a 'modern' updating isn't necessarily a good thing - and conversely that a traditional production can also be extremely good. Nudity in a staging isn't inherently good or bad. I enjoy a production that makes me think about a familiar opera in a new way, but I do not appreciate a version that simply shakes things up for the sake of it. For me the bottom line is usually the drama: the production needs to make sense as a piece of music theatre.

      This last point is the one that seems to be at stake in this production. Perhaps because I have seen the production evolve through rehearsals, and watched director, singers and conductor working through each scene, I have a clearer sense of the dramatic logic than is graspable on a single viewing. And that probably contributes to why I feel it _does_ work as a piece of convincing and powerful theatre.

      But I realise that some are simply unsympathetic to the approach in the first place, and that dramatic logic is not the most important consideration. I don't for a minute think that anyone who questions the morality of this production is a fuddy-duddy, Joseph (nor do I question the right of anyone to object).

      It would be great to hear more from people who _did_ enjoy this production - or aspects of it (thank you to those who have braved the blog already), as well as from those who have further thoughts on what makes a good production.

  62. Howard Ripley responded on 1 July 2015 at 3:25pm Reply

    On behalf of the majority who did not boo, I would like to say how annoyed and embarrassed I was by those who did. Soldiers raping civilians during war is unfortunately only too common. The "rape"scene was performed as tastefully as such a scene could be. It is part of the opera and therefore should be represented. I find it incredible that there are so many prudes in 2015! If you must boo, for heavens sake do so after the music has finished. I just wish that anyone booing during the music would be escorted out of the auditorium. Incidentally, the orchestra and chorus were magnificent. Finley and Osborn both gave memorable performances too

    • Guillaume Tell responded on 2 July 2015 at 9:15am

      Howard Ripley; With all due respect, you've got your facts wrong: The rape scene in the current production of Guillaume Tell at the ROH is most definitely NOT part of Rossini's great opera, and for that reason should never have been staged. This has nothing to do with being prudish. Whatever the reason for including something that obviously doesn't belong in this opera is a serious mistake and shows great disrespect to Rossini and his librettist. Maybe the ROH ought to commission some modern, young hot shot composer to write an opera about gang rape and suchlike, if that's the kind of thing they want to put on display. It's got no place in Guillaume Tell though, so despite what the ROH bigwigs are saying to defend their "rape" of Rossini's masterpiece, it still remains totally inexcusable.

  63. John Assirati responded on 1 July 2015 at 3:36pm Reply

    I was at the first night and had no idea that the opera had anything to do with Bosnia.
    The programme helpfully suggests that this opera means many things to many people.
    I thought the moral to be that German imperialism should be resisted and that the UK should regain its independence by voting NO in the forthcoming referendum.
    The rape scene is a metaphor for cherished works of art and indeed the audience being violated. We have the right to protest.

  64. Anna Brierlet responded on 1 July 2015 at 3:50pm Reply

    Sarah: there is nothing personal in this but your list of questions to be answere reveals a startling - and frankly staggering - omission: what did the Composer intend! Just imagine the revolutionary consequences of addressing that revolutionary vquestion

  65. James Darling responded on 1 July 2015 at 4:33pm Reply

    I am writing in advance of attending next Sunday's live transmission of 'Guillaume Tell' in a Dublin cinema.
    I was very disturbed to learn today of scenes of rape and nudity which are totally irrelevant to the narrative and so unnecessary. With me to see the opera will be a 90 year old lady who I know will be most unhappy with such depictions. I should be most grateful if you would consider removing this objectionable content, at least for the live transmission. I deeply regret that the prestigious Royal Opera House has descended to such depths.

  66. susan responded on 1 July 2015 at 6:21pm Reply

    Its unfortunate, but perhaps understandable, that the ROH has enlisted a woman (and she has agreed) to defend a disgusting, gratuitous display of sexual violence in their efforts to spin the response to the dreadful direction of this fine opera. Its also unfortunate that so many of the patrons writing here seem more offended and embarrassed by the booing than by the sexual violence. God, mustn't interrupt our enjoyment of a good gang rape. Let those who don't like it quietly leave, we like to watch! To try to reframe the discussion in terms of "new" vs "old" interpretations is disingenuous. In my experience most opera patrons seek out innovative and challenging productions,. They also know garbage when they see it and are sick of seeing so much of it on European opera stages. This director was in way over his head and fell back on the last refuge of the mediocre - sex and violence, preferably at the same time.

    Sarah and others, why don't you join me in donating the amount equal to the cost of a ticket (preferably the highest priced one) to one of the many excellent agencies that work to stop violence against women in war zones and help the victims. Mr. Holten and Mr. Micheletti maintain this violence is so important that it just had to be portrayed in such length and graphic detail onstage. To show how sincere their belief is I suggest they donate Mr. Micheletti's salary for the direction of this opera to one of those organizations.

  67. Ella Parks responded on 1 July 2015 at 11:53pm Reply

    Is there anything more hideously self-serving than a man defending his right to watch a good gang rape?

  68. Antonia Syson responded on 1 July 2015 at 11:56pm Reply

    Sarah Hibberd emphasizes an obvious point: "Whether or not we 'agree' with a particular interpretation, we surely need to acknowledge that operas are complex and living works." Both Hibberd and Orr in the "Guardian" seem to assume that those of us objecting to this offensive and muddled "Guillaume Tell" would resist *all* stagings that layer the original scenario (indicated by the libretto) with fresh times, places, political frameworks, or imaginative spheres. Personally, I've been addicted to opera for 30 years, since being taken as a 12 year old to the Jonathan Miller "Rigoletto" at ENO, set in '50s Little Italy, which became a modern classic among opera productions. My addiction was fostered further by many other innovative and stimulating ENO productions in the Elder/Pountney era (as a teenager I would queue for the £2 gallery seats), and when I moved to California in the mid-90s I was shocked by the stodgy literalism of many San Francisco opera productions of the time. Like many who come as often as we can manage to Covent Garden for the (usually) sublime musicianship and (sometimes) imaginative and persuasive stagings, I look for productions that sharpen our perceptions of the music drama. Often a thorough re-imagining of the dramatic situation intensifies the interaction between words, music, and visual effects. Recent examples that come to mind are the Chicago Lyric "Werther", Glyndebourne's and the Met's "Nozze di Figaro"s ('30s and '60s Spain), and Glyndebourne's post-WWII "Falstaff," war-torn "Ariadne," and '50s "Don Giovanni". I'm also sympathetic to productions like the recent "Manon Lescaut" and "Maria Stuarda" at ROH: they didn't wholly convince (in Manon L the biggest problem was that the set's unhappy acoustics swallowed much of the sound), but they were coherently thought out and lucidly presented responses to those operas. Monday night's "Guillaume Tell," on the other hand, was the most wretchedly self-indulgent opera staging I have seen in 30 years of passionately enthusiastic opera-going in the U.S., U.K, Italy, France, and Germany. (The recent RO "Rusalka" is the only other misstep that even comes close in self-indulgence and ineptitude).

  69. Sarah Hibberd responded on 2 July 2015 at 12:15am Reply

    I've not been 'enlisted' by the Royal Opera - or anyone else - to 'defend' the production. I had the opportunity to observe the rehearsal process, and - like many members of the audience - found it a powerful and compelling treatment of the drama. I'm interested in the varied views of the work from people who have attended it.

    A production that smooths over or ignores the violence and misogyny in a story - as displayed by the Austrian soldiers in Tell – is offensive. The violence against women alluded to in the libretto – and a fact of war zones through history – contributes to the strength of feeling we have for the Swiss cause in the opera.

    Of course this doesn't have to be made so explicit in a production, and nudity and violence _are_ sometimes deployed gratuitously. On this occasion, however, I feel it is dramatically motivated, and contributes to how we might want to understand the opera's wider metaphorical meanings - as some of the earlier posts on this blog suggest.

  70. Alan Robinson responded on 2 July 2015 at 10:52am Reply

    I was unfortunate enough to have a ticket for the first night of William Tell. The opening of the production was like a cross between an advertisement for IKEA and Toys are Us! The visual dullness and the constant pointless re-arranging of the chairs was distracting and cut across the beauty of the music. I felt very sorry for the musicians. A production dull beyond measure. I left at the end of the first act.
    Looks as if I chose the better part when I read reports of the rest of the evening. Another Casper Holten triumph!! NOT.

  71. Anna Brierlet responded on 2 July 2015 at 10:57am Reply

    Sarah: you simply keep stating the same point and it doesn't make your argument anymore convincing. Equally you refer to others in the discussion agreeing with you. It's true that some do, but the vast majority don't and you seem utterly unwilling or incapable of acknowledging that. When will you engage with the many other issues raised here aside from the violence towards women? Points have been raised time and again about the production as a whole: it's incoherence, failure to communicate, comic book (literally) "symbolism", failure to engage with the music etc etc. Your one trick stock response is beginning to get tired and very irritating. You must have more to say than this!

  72. Peter Rabb responded on 2 July 2015 at 11:01am Reply

    Am I alone in noticing that many of those defending this production either have Italian or invented names and exactly the same errors of grammar and spelling? Methinks something is afoot.

  73. David O'Brien responded on 2 July 2015 at 11:38am Reply

    As a composer of more than a dozen performed stage works I spend hours trying to work out how to say what is needed as succinctly and clearly as possible, and not to get bogged down in irrelevant detail, which will confuse the action. Clarity of communication, keeping the drama flowing is paramount. I am sure Rossini and all other people who have tried to write opera will have worked that out. When a director approaches my work, I am happy to take on board new insights that help this progress( and rewrite as necessary), but will do my best to stop irrelevancies being added that will confuse. What seems to have happened here is that a Director has pushed the elastic narrative of what Rossini is saying to breaking point by adding something that may be referred in the libretto, but not explicitly present in the action. If you break that narrative thread you lose the audience. This is clearly what has happened here. The audience seemed unable to be involved on this journey, ( maybe too many inconsistent symbols, unclear staging) and were alienated from a work they want to experience resulting in exasperation.Even when updating a work, the parameters set by the composer and librettist need to be respected, or the work flounders and disappears. A lot of the comments above suggest this has become sadly common recently, with incompetent stagings of works that should have a regular footing in the repertoire, but are probably unrevivable.This is certainly an issue the ROH management need to reflect on.There are plenty of operas that reflect different realities of war, and DIE SOLDATEN has a hugely disturbing rape scene, and unsettling score to match.Perhaps the director would be better suited to this.The unprecedented salvo of mainly negative reactions to this should not be ignored. On both sides there are intelligent, well informed comments, but overall the message is loud and clear. This staging does not work

  74. Geoff Roberts responded on 2 July 2015 at 12:15pm Reply

    I am surprised, if you are an academic, that you should wish to skew your responses by specifically requesting 'to hear more from people who did enjoy the production -or aspects of it.'
    My wife and I specifically timed our return from Sydney to enable us to see William Tell on stage before watching it again at the relay this weekend. Last week, at the Sydney Opera House, we saw a production of Turandot in which heads literally did roll and were carried to the front of the stage on a platter. This was in the context of a stunning production which is in its 25th year.
    Contrast this with the mindless daubing of blood over Tell and his compatriots and the gratuitous sex, violence and humiliation that went on at Monday night's performance.
    My wife and I paid more than we have ever paid before at Covent Garden to sit in the second row of the stalls as a special treat.
    Perhaps it would have had less impact had we been further away, but unlikely judging from the riot in the amphitheatre.
    I was so affected by the rape scene that the remainder of the opera rather drifted by me, I was however, still alert enought to register the total inappropriateness of the undressing to their underwear and bathing of some very small children.
    Alex E in his post of 1.48am on 1/7 covers most of the points in this completely crass production. The video and on stage nonsense completely ruined the overture for me even though it was beautifully played. We know that they use guns in war and all carry with us very recent images of atrocities committed with machine guns-- but William Tell is about the use of arrows as the character in tights laughably set out to demonstrate.
    I should add that my favourite opera production of the past few years is English Touring Opera's 'Siege of Calais' updated to the siege of Leningrad which is enacted in the grungiest dirtiest set imaginable. As you would expect there is violence and suffering and although I have seen it 4 times in the past 2 years it leaves me totally moved at the final curtain. The Director is James Conway who runs ETO and is based in London. I have never seen a production by him which has been less than excellent. You would do well to contact him to help you develop your understanding of opera production.

  75. Nola Daniels responded on 2 July 2015 at 1:00pm Reply

    So Sarah: defending the production (often under an assumed name and therefore anonymously) is brave ("those who have braved the blog already") try to make unfashionable but reasoned points in the knowledge that you will be branded a prude, an anti-intellectual and a dinosaur isn't. Very academic

  76. Nola Daniels responded on 2 July 2015 at 1:11pm Reply

    Interesting that - contra Sarah Hibberd - most of those acting for the defence are not defending the production per se (or at least not in any detailed and reasoned way). They appear to be defending their right to see women and children being abused on stage; a quite different thing. Sarah - you may be calling for intellectual support for your position but you seem to be getting the usual "I defend my right to be offended" ie I like watching the powerless being demeaned. Strange world.

  77. Mark Billinge responded on 2 July 2015 at 2:33pm Reply

    Like many others I was seriously disturbed by the rape scene in particular - but not for the reasons the Director intended or those defending it probably imagine. I have been thinking about my reaction and trying to analyse why I found it so distasteful.

    Those trying to make comparisons - ie we've seen worse, or it wouldn't cause outrage on any other stage - make, I think, a fundamental mistake and weaken their argument by assuming that a rape scene is a rape scene in any context (oh it's just another rape scene yes I've seen that before and this one is marginally worse/better). Depicting such acts can only be sanctioned in context specific ways: did it need to be shown, did it add to our understanding, did it provoke in us to the right kind of thoughts and reactions. Perhaps because it seemed so gratuitously applied or because what had led up to this (a couple of dreary hours) was generally so poorly conceived, I have come to realise that my revulsion/sympathies were based not on my belief that a swiss peasant was being raped by an Austrian soldier but - so disengaged was I from the drama at this point - I simply felt that a poor actress was being paid to be stage raped by a bunch of chorus members. As someone else has remarked, the evening suddenly became about the actress not the character or the evil. In short there was no suspension of disbelief that caused me to identify with the drama: surely a fundamental failing in ANY theatre. I was simply one human being conscious that I was sitting in a theatre watching another human being being subjected to something in which I did not wish to be complicit. Had I been absorbed in the drama I might not have read it so literally or reacted so personally.

    Like many others I simply had no interest in Tell (William, Guillaume or Gugliemo) thereafter. This was a final straw and I left the theatre at the end of the performance feeling diminished in a way I have never experienced before - in this or any other theatre. (I stayed until the end only so that I could express my feelings to the Director and his team.) It was a saddening evening and I hope not to find myself in a similar position again. I hope that even those who consider me a prude and a reactionary will regard this as an attempt at a thoughtful contribution.

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 3 July 2015 at 12:53am

      This is a thoughtful analysis of your feelings about the scene, Mark (and Antonia), and I have sympathy with your views. I agree that one needs to stay 'in' the narrative to be persuaded by what happens, and that there is distinction between a motivated piece of action (i.e. that is set up by the drama/libretto) and a persuasive piece of action (i.e. that draws one in). The direction of the rape scene needs careful thought: the movement and actions of the characters of course, but also the screaming of the women (which as I think I said in an earlier post I found particularly chilling - perhaps because it jolts one out of the narrative, and is a 'real' sound in a stylised piece of pantomime). And perhaps the length of the scene too encourages one to disengage from the drama.

      I imagine that many who have commented on this blog would still prefer the scene to be omitted altogether. But if audience engagement/ absorption in this scene had been maintained more effectively, it may have earned its place in the opera for some.

  78. Antonia Syson responded on 2 July 2015 at 3:15pm Reply

    Thank you, Mark Billinge – you expressed precisely what many of us doubtless experienced on Monday evening: "my revulsion/sympathies were based not on my belief that a swiss peasant was being raped by an Austrian soldier but - so disengaged was I from the drama at this point - I simply felt that a poor actress was being paid to be stage raped by a bunch of chorus members."

    Because of the context in this crassly patronizing production, the scene seemed utterly unjustifiable: a facile exploitation both of the horrible reality of sexual violence as an ingredient of war and political oppression, and of the actress performing this mock-gang-rape as part of an expensive opera production.

    Presumably the context came across more convincingly to those involved (actors, singers, conductor, as well as writer-in-residence) throughout the rehearsal process, which is chiefly a fragmentary experience for performers. But in its totality for (most of) those coming new to the production, it was abhorrent, and not in the way that those involved surely intended.

    Otherwise, perhaps the inclusion of this scene indicates a failure of proper collaboration between the production team, cast and conductor.

    Given that the ROH warned us of gunshots etc in the cast sheet, it's tempting to think that the lack of warning of this scene was meant to increase its shock effect - yet another symptom of the facile shoddiness of this production.

  79. Brendan Skinner responded on 2 July 2015 at 6:13pm Reply

    I believe the spontaneous expression of disapproval during the rape scene amounted to a "not in my name" moment, the object and target of which was not a gang of occupying Austrians but the production team and their vile exploits. We were made complicit in something in which we wished no part.

  80. Kate responded on 2 July 2015 at 8:12pm Reply

    I've bought a ticket for Sunday's streamed performance but, having read the reviews and comments, I shall not be going unless the weather forecast is torrential rain. I wanted to listen to glorious music NOT watch gratuitous violence. Shame because my last opera was
    La Bohème which had most of the cinema audience wiping their eyes. I'd watched that in the Covent Garden piazza when Domingo was singing and it was wonderful then. Why on earth have the Guillaume Tell production team thought it necessary to include prolonged horror. Now I shall never know the opera, well unless a difference production is streamed to deepest Cornwall.

  81. Paul Harris responded on 2 July 2015 at 9:45pm Reply

    No wonder so few people go to the opera. They are the lucky ones as they don't have to suffer rubbish like this. Foolish decisions within Royal Opera House. No doubt this is some weird attempt at marketing through controversial headlines in the newspapers. Hopefully, this will have backfired.

  82. Sarah Hibberd responded on 3 July 2015 at 12:32am Reply

    I'm amused by the suggestion that I am posting (consistently ungrammatical) comments under a pseudonym. And intrigued that inviting a broader range of views about aspects of the performance and production (more representative of the reception in the auditorium) should somehow 'skew' the discussion.

    What I would like to do is encourage debate about the production, its reception, the wider implications for opera performances today - among contributors to this thread. I am grateful to those who have joined the discussion in that spirit.

    An idea raised by Robert Pullen (above) is: 'the drama and invention inherent in Rossini's score was conjured up so much more vividly in the concert performance headed by Tony Pappano five years ago at the BBC Proms with almost exactly the same cast'. And 'I have lost count of how many times in recent years the emotion and drama of a work gets thrillingly conveyed in concert yet comes across pale and enervated when staged, despite of – or probably because of – the director’s mission to convince us of the work’s modern relevance.'

    Indeed, concert (or semi-staged) performances can often be powerful interpretations of a work, and bring an intensity to the music and text that can be lost in a full production.

    Given the strength of feeling on this blog about a perceived increase in unsympathetic productions at ROH and elsewhere, is there a case for having more concert or semi-stage performances of operas (and cutting subsidies to opera companies - or redistributing funds across fewer full productions)?

    Or would this be a dangerous move with worrying ramifications - for opera companies, directors and audiences?

  83. John Assirati responded on 3 July 2015 at 8:50am Reply

    I earlier suggested that we were lucky that William Tell's son was not shown to be raped in this production and Philip asked me is it somehow worse that a boy be raped than a girl. The short answer is no. However, there are other considerations. First, we are shown an anonymous or token woman being raped and that is different to the same thing happening to a main character of either gender. Second, is the question of age. In real life I am more shocked if the rape victim is very young or very old.

  84. Liam Thorne responded on 3 July 2015 at 10:20am Reply

    Paul: no chance this will backfire (sadly). Unfortunately people will now go to see what the fuss was about, wait for the rape scene, decide it was "not as bad as I was led to believe" and ignore the fact that this is a dreary, ignoble and soporific piece of toss. With luck, however, they will decide ROH is now the bore of the London theatre scene and give it a wide birth in future. What goes around ...

  85. Penny P responded on 3 July 2015 at 10:38am Reply

    I attended the second performance last night with some trepidation; like most of the rest of the audience I had seen and read much adverse comment. However, its an opera I'd never seen and therefore decided to go, although there were empty seats even in the amphitheatre. I thought the singing overall was wonderful, and I include the chorus in this. As for the rape scene, I wondered what the fuss was about....or had the ROH reduced its impact after the first night? It was obvious what was happening but certainly didn't seem gratutitous. Rape happens in thess situations. What I found even starnger was the undressing and bathing of a group of young children in act 4....why? It was distracting and unecessary. I am glad to have had the chance to see this opera but its perhaps not one I would see again. NO booing last night, lots of warrm applause and cheers at the curtain calls, and flowers for Simone!

  86. Brian Bolster responded on 3 July 2015 at 11:03am Reply

    To ROH: an honest answer please! Reactions to the now infamous gang rape scene are so different between those who attended the first and second nights that one is moved to ask whether any changes were made. Was it by any chance shortened or was the scream omitted or was the actress more hidden by the chorus etc? If you have made changes (even nuanced ones) that would be no disgrace. If you have made such changes but won't admit it, that would be deeply cynical and unfair to those who are now accused of making a fuss over nothing. On the face of it it seems unlikely that the demographic of the two nights would be that different - hence the puzzlement at the polarity of views

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 3 July 2015 at 11:47am

      Dear Brian

      I'm not aware of changes having been made to the production but I will check with Opera Company that this is the case.

      Best wishes


    • Kasper Holten responded on 5 July 2015 at 3:49pm

      Dear Eve, Brian and others,

      Sorry for the delay in answering – as you can imagine, we have had a rather busy week here at The Royal Opera. I am sorry if you feel we have not been transparent about what happened with the scene in act 3 of Guillaume Tell.

      We did in fact put out a press statement about the two smaller changes to the scene that was implemented for Thursday, but we should possibly have done it before and also let you know here.

      The tweaks were requested by the stage director. It is common practice that a director makes some adjustments during a run of performances, and the same can be said of the conductor, who will often give musical notes after each performance.

      We at the Royal Opera House support the director in this right to make artistic judgements including any tweaks or changes to a production. The scene that caused some concern at the opening night has not changed in its essence or main layout. It is the same duration and makes the same point that we continue to find valid for the theatrical context.

      Best wishes
      Kasper Holten

  87. Geoff Roberts responded on 3 July 2015 at 11:18am Reply

    I'm sorry if the technical term 'skew' your responses caused you some problem. I imagined that any academic would understand that if you request responses of a certain type (in this case positive) you are likely to get more of them and diminish the objectivity of your work.
    I have said enough about this dreadful production but am getting increasingly irritated by the statements and letters issuing from the Royal Opera House.

  88. Margaret Dunster responded on 3 July 2015 at 11:35am Reply

    I attended on Monday and like many felt very discomforted by numerous aspects of this production. I am always willing to ask whether I am right or wrong but felt - given the balance of views expressed - that I was not far out of line. The much more positive reaction of those who attended the second night opens up the question again for me but also prompts another. Was this a level playing field? Did the second night audience see a modified version or were they persuaded by the production in ways many in the first night audience were not? I don't feel I can measure - or question - my reaction unless I know that everyone who is now adding to the debate saw what I saw.

  89. John Assirati responded on 3 July 2015 at 11:41am Reply

    I was a booer on the opening night. I would have booed the bathing of the young children in Act 4 but feared that it would turn their unease into distress.

  90. Anna Brierlet responded on 3 July 2015 at 12:17pm Reply

    I really think we are all losing the plot here. This is becoming a discussion solely about whether the rape scene is good bad or indifferent. Surely the bigger question is how such an irredeemably dreadful production (in all it's worthless glory) ever got on to the stage. Its failings as theatre are so manifest that someone should have pulled the plug long ago and employed a competent MODERN - yes MODERN - director to rescue it. The ENO Quenn of Spades is a perfect example of updated and intelligent stagecraft from a director who understands opera and knows how to direct his forces. Oh and it has a gang rape scene in it. We knew exactly what had happened but we didn't see a second of it. No Tell is an abomination because it is poor. Let's not let ROH off the hook by pretending it's all about the rape scene. Its about quality control and the employment of directors who have nothing if interest to say.

  91. John Assirati responded on 3 July 2015 at 12:55pm Reply

    Anna, unfortunately there are plenty of people who think the production is a good one so I can't see how there is ever going to be agreement between the two sides.

  92. Alex E. responded on 3 July 2015 at 3:29pm Reply

    Anna Brierlet: thank you for your last comment (3 July 2015 at 12:17pm), I could not have put it better myself!

    Sarah Hibberd: Personally, I think you are perfectly right in asking if anyone has anything positive to say about the production; however I am not surprised at the lack of response.

    > is there a case for having more concert or semi-stage performances of operas (and cutting subsidies to opera companies - or redistributing funds across fewer full productions)
    My 2p:

    1. There is a case for making sure that the music and the singing are _never_ playing second fiddle to "thought-provoking".

    2. There is a case for considering how much "thought-provoking" modern opera audiences actually need, considering the demographics of the opera-goers. "Provoking" is a rather telling word in this context - but perhaps I am splitting hairs here :)

    3. There is _definitely_ a case for better quality control, particularly in expensive productions. The kid from the overture (Jemmy-to-be) might as well be the Director's self-portrait - playing with his toys until he is bored stiff and completely ignoring the beautiful music and the audience. All fun and games - except in Mr. Michieletto's case the toys happen to be the great soloists, the expensive props and the whole company of the ROH, and the very considerable cost of this enjoyment has to be borne by the paying audience, the Arts Council and philanthropists supporting the House. There is a fine line here of course, plays cannot be directed by committees; but someone has to oversee the overall quality of productions, and whoever is doing it now - IMHO is not doing a very good job.

    4. There is a case for making an effort to keep the trust of your loyal audience and listening to feedback. I wonder if any of our comments here and elsewhere on the ROH website will be reviewed by the powers that be at the ROH; Sarah Hibberd: will they?

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 4 July 2015 at 5:35pm

      I certainly don't assume 'that "sympathetic" high-quality full theatrical productions are no longer achievable for the ROH' - far from it. I was rather trying to encourage those who seem to be suggesting this to explain where such an argument takes us, and what they would like to see happen.

      Re: your point 4 'There is a case for making an effort to keep the trust of your loyal audience and listening to feedback. I wonder if any of our comments here and elsewhere on the ROH website will be reviewed by the powers that be at the ROH; Sarah Hibberd: will they?'

      The ROH told me that they are interested in me trying to generate some informed debate on this blog. That is my interest too - and is why I have been trying to elicit a wide range of responses (i.e. reflective of the full range of views expressed elsewhere - positive, negative, and the many shades in between) and am grateful to those who have engaged in that spirit.

      Of course I have no control over what happens next, but I hope that there will be some interest in reading what we, collectively, have to say, and reflecting on the principle themes of our discussions.

  93. Graham Lloyd responded on 3 July 2015 at 6:24pm Reply

    Is it too much to ask that ROH returns to appointing Directors who have an eye, an ear and - whisper it low - an affection for the works they undertake. Perhaps someone who rather than trying to "prove" something simply creates the theatrical, aesthetic and emotional space which allow an opera to "prove" itself

  94. Oliver responded on 4 July 2015 at 3:00am Reply

    I attended the second night (and rather wished I had been at the first where is sounds as though there was at least some excitement). I travelled from Europe to do so: I wanted to see Tell and I wanted to hear Pappano do it.

    My conclusion: this was one of the dreariest and most alienating nights I have spent in a very long time. Almost from the start (how my heart sank as the projection screen lowered) I felt so disengaged (excluded?) from the "drama" that I cared nothing for any of the characters or their fates: whether they lived, died, triumphed or fell off the stage (the last of these seemed quite possible at several points). By the end I was just glad it was over. The music making was fine if unexceptional but what's the use of that if everything else is working against it. Say what you like an opera production which leaves you feeling this indifferent is not a success.

    I agree with whoever said - elsewhere in one of these blogs - that you felt some sympathy for the actors/singers mired in this mess but nothing at all for them as the characters they were portraying. Did they buy in to this I wonder or was part of the problem that they disliked the production as much as I did and perhaps subconsciously distanced themselves from their roles. I don't know.

    What I do know is that It cost me quite a tidy sum to buy my ticket, travel, and stay overnight. Was it worth it? Well it was a lesson learned: stay at home and listen to the (better sung and better played) recording. Bye bye Royal Opera House.

  95. Alex E. responded on 4 July 2015 at 3:59am Reply

    Sarah Hibberd:
    > Given the strength of feeling on this blog about a perceived increase in unsympathetic productions at ROH and elsewhere, is there a case for having more concert or semi-stage performances of operas (and cutting subsidies to opera companies - or redistributing funds across fewer full productions)?

    Sorry, but your question rather seems to assume that "sympathetic" high-quality full theatrical productions are no longer achievable for the ROH. Forgive me, but I strongly disagree with this view.; the ROH simply has to attract the right kind of talent (as per Graham Lloyd's post above) and have the right structure in place (managerial, operational, financial, etc) to provide support.

    Perhaps one point to add to Graham's wishlist: you need directors who not only come up with interesting ideas, but also know how to implement them, how to make them _work_. An example (one of many that I can think of): covering stage with "earth" might sound like a good idea during preproduction, but when it does not work a) visually, b) practically, c) acoustically - you have to recognise it and find a way around it, and if you cannot / would not - you are not doing a terribly good job as a director. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and if ROH doesn't want so much humble pie time after time - you have to change the way your kitchen is run.

  96. James D responded on 4 July 2015 at 11:47am Reply

    I have been going to the opera for more or less half a century and it has been the great enrichment of my life. About twenty years ago I took the decision that I would go only to operas that I did not know (well or at all) or that I had never seen in the theatre. I did this because I felt that I wanted to know whether these operas were great OPERAS or (where I knew the works from recordings) just good (or indifferent) music.

    For this reason my hope and expectation if any production is that it will allow the opera to prove itself. If it turns out to be a dud then so be it; and I don't regard this as a waste of time or money. On the contrary I know that I can quite happily listen to it at home with no loss.

    What I find particularly disappointing is the feeling on leaving a theatre that one still doesn't know if the work is a truly great opera because the production never gave you the chance to find out. (I know it is sometimes said that some works need help - if they need a little, fine; if they need a lot they are probably not great works).

    Thursday's Tell certainly fell into the category of "I am no further forward" in my knowledge or understanding of this work. If anything I left feeling that it probably wasn't a great work but that may be unfair. If a different production came along I might give it a chance (though I would probably wait for a review) but as things stand I add it to my list of works containing good music which I can equally well experience at home. In other words: the reject pile

  97. ajwh responded on 4 July 2015 at 12:01pm Reply

    I went to the second night, and I gather from Today's times that what I saw was a little modified.

    I agree with Alex E. and Robert Pullen. the direction was terrible - mainly because it was unrelated to the story. The key scenes were just ignored. One more example: In Mark Valnecia's article on the history of the opera in the ROH magazine, he talks of "intriguing challenge ...{of] the arrival from afar of three separate choirs of 'habitants des Cantons'". This is there in the text and music - but nothing that I could see happened on stage.The challenge was met by ignoring it.
    This happened all too often - see numerous posts above..

    Listening to the comments from other members of the audience, this seemed to be the shared opinion, best summarised as "it would be great on radio 3".
    The director MUST listen to the words and music and work with them, not bend them to his ideas.

  98. Ian C responded on 4 July 2015 at 12:21pm Reply

    While no one is unaware of what transpires in the world around us, not everything benefit's from graphic display. At one time it was appropriate to insinuate to make a point. Standards have fallen to a low level in various areas of life, but that Covent Garden should display these low standards, for the sake of 'art', is nonsense.
    I see no reason to attend Covent Garden until decency returns.

  99. Eleanor responded on 4 July 2015 at 2:51pm Reply

    I am not amongst those willing to absolve Mr Pappano from responsibility in this affair. He went along with it, he has defended it and moreover (in my opinion) he presided over a distinctly lacklustre run-through of the score.

  100. Mark Billinge responded on 4 July 2015 at 4:21pm Reply

    Sarah: Now that a little of the heat is going out of this discussion and a certain measure of calm is descending, I thought I would trouble you again with a few observations on the trajectory of the discussion as a whole.

    Before doing so, however, may I say that you have borne quite a hostile barrage of comments with some fortitude. I do not believe that the majority who have written bear you any grudge and I hope you will not take personally remarks addressed to you as the only person even vaguely "representing" the Opera House who is willing to listen to our frustrations and respond to them. I am sure that an increasing part of that frustration has been the otherwise notable absence of the House's voice - apart from the troika's rather self-serving statement and a few technical interventions regarding House policy on capitalisation and French accents (big deal). I hope then that you will forgive us our excesses (ROH regulars are not a bad lot) and sift from them the meat of our difficulties with this production. Even better if you could pass on the balance of views to ROH. I doubt they are listening to us.

    On any number of occasions you have called - not unreasonably - for voices in defence of this production to put their case. Sifting through this and the other ROH "blogs" I can find none willing to do so. There has been some defence of particular aspects of the Director's work (the rape scene has been the major focus) but these defences have been more along the lines of freedom of expression and the perceived boundaries of theatre (as well as Mr Michieletto's apparently rather elevated "reputation" (really?). None has amounted to a sustained and well-argued defence of the production as a whole. To charges of unmusicality, poor stage-craft, technical infelicity, cliche, laziness, intellectual poverty, emotional vacuity etc etc there has been absolutely no response. Why?

    Those who dislike this production have given many grounds and much context for their settled opinions. This doesn't of course make them (I should say "us") right but it does mean we've stated our case(s) and asled for them to be countered. As I have said, answer comes there none. Judging from this "conversation" then (and were this a Court of Law) you would have to say that the prosecution has it.

    So what do we conclude? That those who disliked this production know why they disliked it, whilst those who thought more highly of it don't know why they did so? I doubt this - there are certainly no grounds for assuming that all the intellectual resources stand on one side and against Mr Michieletto. So the reluctance can only be explained by arguing (a) that no-one really liked it but many don't want to side with those they have classified as prudes, Victorians, dullards, reactionary pensioners, anti-moderns, fuddy-duddies and even Mary Whitehouse supporters (I am pretty sure she's dead), (b) that their defence is voiced in support of a perceived "principle" (our rights as adults to watch whatever we choose) than in support of this specific example, (c) that their reasons for liking Mt Michieletto's work cannot be expressed in ways likely to persuade others to the cause. (I am usually open to persuasion but where none is offered I tend to stand by my initial view.) There may be many other explanations but until we hear from a reasoned supporter of this production willing to engage with the debate we will never know.

    You probably had no idea quite what you were taking on when you agreed to do this, but hats off to you for trying.

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 6 July 2015 at 11:32am

      Many thanks, Mark. You're right that there have been many detailed explanations of the (varied) reasons why people have disliked the production (along with the 'heads should roll' comments), and I have found these fascinating - and agree with some of the points made. And you're also right that although there have been expressions of appreciation too, these have been less detailed (hence my invitation for people to say a bit more from this perspective).

      I've tried to suggest in my previous comment some of the particular challenges posed by grand opera, which has its own very particular aesthetic. My (implicit) point of comparison has been other modern productions of grand opera, which for me can be very dull, confusing and/or static (and feel much longer than their 4 hours or so), or they are severely cut and reworked to confirm to the structure of Italian opera. My appreciation of Michieletto's production, therefore, is to do with the way in which he has taken the opera seriously on its own aesthetic terms, tried to bring out the human drama by making the characters' psychology visible, and create a sense of continuity of character through the (disjointed and rather messy) story.

      Clearly this has not been a complete success - and for me there are moments when interesting ideas/ conceits are not followed through, or become distracting. I'm not persuaded by the toy soldiers, for example, and have mixed feelings about the 'historical' Tell. But voices I have heard around me at the performances, including last night, and some of the press coverage, suggest that for some he has created a powerful - if flawed - drama, which is well worth seeing. Perhaps the most 'successful' aspect is the singers' commitment to the 'drama' - the nuance of expression and understanding of their characters that creates some memorably moving moments.

  101. Mark Billinge responded on 4 July 2015 at 5:26pm Reply

    I missed a trick:an other explanation: it's possible that those of us not appreciative of this "treatment" are so beyond the pale that we are thought irredeemable and so so not worth engaging. Sorry I should have thought of this earlier

  102. Sarah Hibberd responded on 4 July 2015 at 7:00pm Reply

    Having read back though the comments on the blog – and with Alex’s question about whether the ROH is interested in what we have to say in the back of my head – I thought it might be useful to address some of the recurring themes in a bit more detail over the coming week. My approach will be to think about the inherent challenges presented by Tell (a French grand opéra with a distinctive aesthetic), Michieletto’s approach during the rehearsal process, and the problems identified by contributors to this blog in the performances.

  103. Sarah Hibberd responded on 4 July 2015 at 7:03pm Reply

    Some of the complaints about this production have been around the idea that it is not always clear what is going on, that it is boring, that the stagecraft is lacking, that one doesn’t feel engaged by the drama.

    I think these perceived problems stem from the relatively unfamiliar (to us) aesthetic of grand opéra. The aesthetic is melodramatic, founded on contrast and juxtaposition rather than development, and with rather two-dimensional characters. Gesture and movement work with the text and music to create and clarify meaning visually. There are lengthy declamatory passages, substantial stretches of orchestral music and ensembles – and relatively few solo arias. This is very different from contemporary Italian opera, although of course Rossini was to a certain degree trying to meld the two traditions.

    Some directors resist the melodrama, ignore the role of gesture, cut swathes of recitative and orchestral music, and ignore the flaws and gaps in the narrative and characterisation. I think that Michieletto has genuinely tried to address these potential problems – not from a 19C perspective, but from an intuitive approach to the libretto and score that happens to resonate with 19C practice.

    Criticisms suggest, however, that the production has lost something in translation from the rehearsal room to the auditorium. The singers’ flow of movements – their use of stage space and their gestures – so carefully worked out in the (comparatively) intimate space of the rehearsal room with director, conductor, répétiteur and each other, where every sung word is both audible and charged with meaning and emotion, are somewhat dissipated on the stage. The much-maligned ‘soil’ does hamper movement and dampen the singers’ voices. Our understanding becomes more approximate (leading to boredom? confusion?). Summarising surtitles become the principle source of meaning: gestures are not always strong, simple and clear enough; words are not always fully audible (and in any case, at Covent Garden the majority of the audience are not native French speakers). And our level of understanding is also affected by where we are in the auditorium.

    But what is the solution? Surely it’s not just down to the soil. Have other directors of Guillaume Tell managed to capture the aesthetic and produce a persuasive piece of music theatre? Or is grand opéra destined to be Italianised – as it so often was for London audiences in the 19C – its distinctive qualities smoothed into more familiar patterns? Or heard only in concert performances?

  104. Patricia Holroyd responded on 4 July 2015 at 7:28pm Reply

    According to the press, changes have been made prior to the cinema relay (although not perhaps to the especially perverse child pornography scene? )

    Why are these changes not announced via 'News' on ROH website? if not, why is this section of your web-site classified as 'News'?

  105. susan responded on 4 July 2015 at 7:52pm Reply

    Sarah, as an earlier commenter said, you just keep digging ....

    You defend the gang rape scene by saying a production that "smooths over or ignores the violence and misogyny in a story - as displayed by the Austrian soldiers in Tell – is offensive." Are you suggesting that all the other productions of this opera that haven't staged full fledged gang rape scenes complete with nudity and whimpering are offensive? And that I assume the libretto they were working from also contained the slender reed upon which you are hanging your defense of the gang rape as an necessary and integral part of this production. But for some reason the others didn't feel a gang rape is needed for the audience to feel "sympathetic" to the Swiss side, or to grasp the "wider metaphorical meaning" of the opera. I would have thought both of those are not difficult to get in this particular opera. You state the libretto is about violence and oppression from beginning to end. But somehow the audience would miss all that if we weren't treated to a full on gang rape. You set up a false choice between gang rape or "smoothng over" violence and misogyny. Perhaps those other productions found other more intelligent and imaginative ways of conveying the powerful themes - could that even be possible?? In fact, as many others have stated, this production is a failure of imagination on the directors part from beginning to end.

    You and the ROH is adding insult to injury in your responses to YOUR audience's comments on this production. Any sentient human being is aware of sexual violence in war zones. In this case, as is the case far too often in European opera productions, the audience has far more intelligence and imagination than the director.

    Your response to the numerous comments about the increase in dreadful ROH productions is truly astonishing in its wilful misunderstanding. The solution isn't more semi-staged productions. Its hiring some decent directors - that's what YOUR audience is saying again and again. The fact that the message seems not to be getting through perhaps provides a clue as to why the ROH thought it necessary to stage an extended and explicit gang rape for people to understand that William Tell deals with violence and misogyny.

    You may not have been "enlisted" by the male troika at the ROH, but you do seem to be joined at the hip in your responses.
    However, I note you did not respond to my suggestion of a donation to organizations that help victims of violence against women in warzones. Perhaps the ROH doesn't feel strongly enough about sexual violence to spend money on it, except by staging gang rapes for audiences.

  106. Eve Hale responded on 4 July 2015 at 9:18pm Reply

    To: Ellen West

    In reply to Brian Bolster's question as to whether any changes were made to the controversial rape scene in Thursday's performance compared to Monday's you stated that you did not believe so but would check. Nothing followed.

    We now learn from both the Times and the Independent that significant changes were made. Why have you not admitted this? Your disingenuity in this matter is staggering. Many people who attended on Thursday are wondering what got into those who made such a fuss on Monday. Fact: we did not see the same performance.

    How typically shabby of ROH to announce a principle, back down from it and hope no one notices. Changes were made: good. Untruths were perpetuated: not good. You really do go from bad to worse.

  107. Tom Spencer responded on 5 July 2015 at 11:49am Reply

    On 3 July Brian Bolster asked if some changes had been made to the production as given on the first night. It sounds from subsequent newspaper reports and from some of the 'why such a fuss?' comments being posted against some of the initial complaints (of which I was one...) that this has indeed been the case. On 3 July Ellen West agreed to look into Brian's query. How have you been getting on Ellen? Can we have an honest and full response from the 'troika' please.

  108. Catherine W. responded on 5 July 2015 at 4:25pm Reply

    To Michael Varcos-Cocks :
    I am French.
    Writing "OPÉRA IN FOUR ACTS" is right.
    Omitting accents on capital letters is considered an error ; in French, the accent has clear orthographic value (see the position of the French Academy, “Accentuation des majuscules”, at

  109. Alice responded on 5 July 2015 at 8:32pm Reply

    I have just seen Guillaume Tell and thought that it was phenomenal. Thank you ROH.

  110. John Assirati responded on 6 July 2015 at 8:16am Reply

    I have recently watched a dvd of the La Scala version of William Tell in Italian conducted by Muti - a traditional interpretation.
    I found it disturbing that the Swiss hunters sing that there is nothing finer in life than enjoying the dying gasps of chamois.
    Real dead deer are paraded on stage.
    My point is that we need to understand how people thought in the past (including 19th century librettists) and that I find this more challenging than glib generalisations about modern times.

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 6 July 2015 at 4:14pm

      Yes, John, I've seen the Muti recording from the 1980s, which - for me - obscures much of the dramatic detail, and is consequently rather dull, in spite of some beautiful back projections of mountains, and some fine singing. (And of course it is in Italian...)

      I also find the question of how/what people thought in an opera house in the 19C a fascinating one. Even if we can get close to producing a historically accurate version of a work (though actually there is so much we don't know, and so much we wouldn't tolerate, regarding performance practice, special effects, lighting etc), we can't recreate the mindset or eyes/ears of an audience of 1829. We can guess at the sorts of things they enjoyed, associations they made, expectations they had, and contemporary reviews make for interesting reading. We also know that operas often underwent radical changes - sometimes with the composer's involvement, sometimes without, and that Rossini would not necessarily be surprised at (or disappointed with) modern interpretations such as this one.

      The challenge for modern directors is finding a balance, so that the 'original' work isn't overwhelmed by an insensitive interpretation, but that its relevance and interest for an audience remains. In other words creating an operatic experience, rather than just recreating an opera.

      And of course 'an audience' isn't a homogenous entity - as reception of this opera has demonstrated, we have wildly varying tastes and expectations. We experience Tell with Verdi, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Berg... - and previous interpretations - in the backs of our minds. The business of judging what an audience wants is very differnt today than it was for Rossini.

  111. David O'Brien responded on 6 July 2015 at 9:19am Reply

    Ms Hibbert opens the question of how to acceptably stage old and dated works. In the land of Shakespeare we are rather good at this. Welsh National Opera succeeded in staging TELL earlier this season to both critical and audience acclaim at a fraction of the ROH budget.What worries me most is the technical incompetence I saw. The video screen was lowered so far that anyone sitting higher than the Grand Tier (ie more than half the audience)could not see the action behind.Did the director bother to check the sightlines from the Balcony let alone Amphitheatre? Most of the night the lighting was "atmospheric" , meaning it was hardly possible to see who was singing. Even the most important aria SOIS IMMOBILE left Gerald Finlay in the dark whilst his wife(not in the scene normally) was seen in bright neon light setting a table. if you cannot see the performers how can you get involved ? if the Management of the ROH are determined to alienate their core audience, it begs the question of who is the Opera House for? In a world of Arts Council cuts, they are asking for trouble. We may end up with only concert performances whether we like it or not. This director has been booed in Milan Salzburg etc, and now here. Since when has been regularly booed been a passport to success? For years FAUST (another French Grand Opera) was thought to be unstageable in our time.Along came DAVID MACVICAR who delivered a stunning new staging of this work. It CAN be done, but book COMPETENT people !

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 6 July 2015 at 4:35pm

      You make an important point, David. The experience can differ greatly depending where one is in the auditorium - or indeed watching the live relay, when the camera controls what we see rather too precisely. My impression is that directors and designers in general do not pay enough attention to what is visible beyond the dress circle. And the lighting effects can on occasion be (unwitting) approximations of the dim oil and gaslighting endured by 18c and 19c audiences.

      I disagree with your reading of Poutney's Tell for WNO though. It was cut substantially, the updating (with trench coats) reminiscent of many productions from the 80s, the chorus generally very static, and the (modern) irony rather tedious. Critics on the whole seem to have been rather underwhelmed by the production, and emphasised the quality of the singing and playing - the merit of the production in this light is that it didn't distract from the music in the way that Michieletto's production has for some, but was safely dull. There are many who have posted on this blog who seem to believe that the music is the most (only?) important thing in an opera, but it is drama too -- especially in the French form. Poutney's Tell reminded me of how wonderful the music is, but made want to see a better music-drama.

  112. Eleanor responded on 6 July 2015 at 9:49am Reply

    Just heard Gerald Finley on Radio 4's Start the Week talking about the contract between audience and singer and arguing that booing a performance is no more transgressional in etiquette terms than applauding. Both can stop a performance and (my interpretation) both can break the mood. He then went on to say that you know people boo but not why. As a great admirer of his (and so that he knows for certain the object is not him) might I suggest someone directs him to these blogs?

  113. Alaister responded on 6 July 2015 at 11:30am Reply

    Further to Eleanor, I too heard Mr Finley and agree with him. For me many performances are ruined by over-enthusiastic applause and bravos. Covent Garden is far from the most egregious example in this regard (try the Met) but it happens far too often. Might I suggest to those who believe emotions should be contained and expressed only at the ends of Acts that they follow their own strictures with regard to appreciative applause? To have one rule for approval and another for disapproval seems, at best, capricious.

  114. Jim Townshend responded on 6 July 2015 at 11:35am Reply

    Posted by Robert Wharton on one of the other blow: "So Tony, not the triumph you were hoping for after so many years of preparation. So Kasper not the revival of a flagging reputation you desperately needed. So Alex, not the leap into the brave new ROH era you must have craved. Looks like Rossini has had the last laugh. Wily old fellow: he's done for you all."

    Perfect! Says it all.

  115. Gillian Knight responded on 6 July 2015 at 11:57am Reply

    It would be more than helpful if those, like Alice, who thought this production "phenomenal" (one contributor said it was "brilliant") would add a little to their declaration by explaining why they thought so. like so many others who have written here I thought it was dreadful - and for the many reasons already advanced: ineffective stagecraft, unmusical direction, poorly conceived dramaturgy, distracting, dull, old fashioned, cliched production values. I would like to know, if I am wrong, what I have missed, what insight I have failed to appreciate and how my understanding and appreciation might be improved. Unless someone says why this is great, I remain at a loss. Persuading people to your point of view requires a reasoned case otherwise it just looks like cheerleading for something you can't really justify. Anyway it would be good to hear about this productions novelty, aesthetic attraction, clever insights, startling revelations and innovative technique. Or perhaps genius just can't be explained.

  116. David Mason responded on 6 July 2015 at 5:07pm Reply

    Sarah: your reply to David O'Brien is simply breathtaking. Talk about physician heal thyself.

    So the WNO production was reminiscent of stagings of a previous era, anachronistic in its appropriation of modern concepts (irony apparently, though as a device it's not staggeringly modern), the chorus choreography was poor, the critics were underwhelmed but the music making was good. Ring any bells closer to home?

    I am sorry, but like the ROH hierarchy, you really are deaf if you don't realise that those of us who despised this performance despised it (on the whole) for precisley the reasons you project on to the WNO production. And not for the first time on this blog, I think you are completely wrong.

    • Sarah Hibberd responded on 7 July 2015 at 5:02pm

      Just observing that 'anachronistic' use of modern ideas (and I'm not suggesting that irony is 'modern', just its application in this case) is not inherently good or bad, successful or inappropriate, etc. For me, Poutney neglected and obscured the drama with his 'concept', Michieletto brought the drama out.

  117. David O'Brien responded on 6 July 2015 at 7:12pm Reply

    Thank you for responding to my comments, Sarah. To add to your discourse on 19th performance the most important thing is that the audience then were regulars. They knew the plots. They knew the stars and cheered the arias. They were not passive. In a world of candlelight the threat of ghosts and supernatural were much more accepted than today's worldly wise audiences.The composers and librettists did not worry about character development and authenticity, just to get on to the next big set piece as efficiently as possible, and offer spectacle. The fact that "ROB ROY" was the most performed "opera" in UK for best part of seventy years is more to do with audience familiarity with the story and Henry Bishop's inclusion of Scottish folk songs (AULD LANG SYNE) giving an exotic colour to the proceedings. French Opera developed a greater musical integrity with the score by one composer rather than a juke box verision. English performances continued with bowdlerised versions even of Rossini, including songs added by Bishop. The importance of combining spectacle and ballet, combined with the biggest budgets in Europe, gave Paris Opera it's lead in developing it's own unique mix that we know recognise as French Grand Opera. Everyone knew the legend of William Tell ,and went to many performances, so the work became ingrained in their consciousness, a luxury these days few of us can indulge. Talking about freedom from repression was something most of the audience could identify with (like ROB ROY).Our challenge is to tell what is now an unfamiliar story, but we should honour the special mix of performance skills that it was created for.. ie include DANCE. ROSSINI created a gift for even a contemporary production with his Act 3 dances, with the subtext of threat. . will they, won't they. . rather than of course they will.. they are.. and my god can they go any further ! We need to respect the boundaries Rossini and his librettist set, and make sense of the drama, as McVicar did so successfully in FAUST. There is a life for these works, but we need to respect them. I am not saying slavish reality stagings, nor am I saying a futurist staging could not work, in the right hands it could. You may have been less than enthusiastic about Poutney's version, but he did not insult his audience the way this one cleary has.

  118. Simon Cornish responded on 6 July 2015 at 8:14pm Reply

    Sarah: I think time to finally call it a day. re: Poutney and WNO. The words 'shoot' , 'yourself' and 'in the foot' come to mind.

  119. Devan Wells responded on 6 July 2015 at 10:44pm Reply

    Dear Sarah:

    I cannot believe that you actually wrote about Poutney:
    'the updating (with trench coats) reminiscent of many productions from the 80s, the chorus generally very static, and the (modern) irony rather tedious. Critics on the whole seem to have been rather underwhelmed by the production, and emphasised the quality of the singing and playing'. So different rules apply to WNO than ROH?

  120. Danbury responded on 7 July 2015 at 12:33am Reply

    Since the troika declare themselves “aware of public reaction” it will not have escaped their attention that settled critical opinion (in the published press as well as on the various ROH blogs) agrees this is a dog’s breakfast of a production which should never have seen the light of day. And let’s not deceive ourselves (i.e. yourselves) that this is all about the first night’s reaction to one scene or that the crisis is over. It’s a turkey, plain and simple, from start to finish, in whole and in parts. A blue-riband of a bird of which the reformed Scrooge could only have dreamed… but I digress.
    Since issuing that statement, you have supported the production in principle whilst altering it in practice (you did eventually come clean but it was pretty much dragged out of you) and you have stood steadfastly by your Director whilst backing quietly out of the room. (It’s not been a great week Mr Michieletto has it?) I am not sure where this leaves you in the “artistic integrity” stakes (the high horse which you proudly mount), but no matter. You are where you are: I would say between a rock and a hard place but that sounds a tad comfortable.
    Clearly the production should disappear without a trace, but I imagine it will be revived partly to save face (or rather to avoid admitting to a fundamental mistake) and partly to recoup money on a production no other House is likely to take. Unusually, you couldn’t find a co-producer for Tell (did Mr Michieletto’s stellar reputation precede him?) and no one’s going to bail you out now. So this is a turkey for which you paid handsomely and all by yourself. (Or rather out of the Arts Council’s pocket. But let’s not go there - a phrase I am sure you have whispered to each other with some dread over the past few days.) Tell will then disappear - remembered (if at all) for all the wrong reasons. In the meantime you (and certainly not I) have Cav and Pag to look forward to. Oh Lord …that probably seemed like a good idea at the time too .. “Dear Mr Michieletto, in light of your recent Guillaume Tell, we are writing to say” … No you are going to have to live with that one too.
    Which leaves us with the real issue issue: the widening rift between musical and production standards in the House and your habit of appointing inept directors (other than and as well as yourself Mr Holten)
    Unhappily for the three of you, after closely examining Tell, many have been moved to broaden the analysis, shedding a fierce light on “the track record”. As a result, any number of productions for which you haven’t really been forgiven (and which you intend perhaps quietly to retire) come back into the equation. Is GT an unfortunate one off? No siree: it’s just the latest in a veritable production line of turkeys (have you considered Bernard Matthews as a possible sponsor - “Come to the Royal Opera House - It’s Bootiful - Well very very occasionally”)
    I believe there is a growing disenchantment with ROH amongst a paying public which is now suspicious of the House’s interest in them and increasingly resentful of the huge public subsidy poured into the creation of - shall we be charitable - theatrical dross. They will ask why ENO’s budget was slashed, why ROH was cushioned and why the House deserves their continuing support when it patently has no interest in pleasing them.
    These are dangerous times for the publicly subsidised arts and there is a growing realisation that the current management at ROH may not be the right men (sic) to navigate them. The storm nearly did for Tell. Beware: Tell and its predecessors might yet do for you.

  121. Axel responded on 8 July 2015 at 12:56am Reply

    I just did a quick check of the National Gallery's on-line catalogue and immediately came across eight rape scenes. There are probably many more. All of the paintings display nudity (not surprising), several of them are extremely disturbing, despite some (equally disturbing) genre-specific idealisations. Several of them are set in a context of war. Most of the scenes refer to mythical or biblical events, but their representations are translated into a different temporal context, usually the period when the paintings were produced. Often they depict details that go beyond the narrative content of the historical sources on which they are based. Are we to ban these masterworks by Guido Reni, Rubens, Giordano and Veronese from the Gallery, only because they disturb our senses, or because they remind us of mankind's dark nature? Although some patrons of the ROH seem to think of Covent Garden as an extension of their private mansions, art has always been more than pleasant entertainment for the living room. At all times, starting with the very beginning of opera in 1600, theatres have translated operatic plots into different historical periods, drawing out aspects that matter for the specific context of their performance. Often it has been this particular aspect of music theatre that made opera relevant to its audiences or caused a production's success. As for the narrative function of the rape scene in Michieletto's production, it is perhaps useful to have a look at Schiller's 1805 play on which Rossini's libretto is based. (Dr Hibberd has pointed out that audiences today are not necessarily as familiar with the play as opera goers in the 1820s!) If the rape scene didn't belong to the plot one would have to cut the play's entire first scene. In Schiller, the entire play depends on the very physical description of what happened to Baumgartner's wife, causing her husband to brutally slaughter the perpetrator and then seeking escape. It's simply there, undeniably. In the libretto we have it as well, though less explicitly. Given this context, is there anything wrong with a director looking back at the libretto's sources? Unlike some of the commentators in this blog, Dr Hibberd actually knows a few things about nineteenth-century opera, its historical context and its literary sources.

    • David O'Brien responded on 10 July 2015 at 11:06am

      Are we performing the play or the opera? Whatever Rossini and his librettist's reasons were for editing it, the Schiller scene is not in the opera. I am sure the Schiller scene does not ask for rape to be performed explicitly stage centre. There are many operas dealing not just with rape but all kinds of sexual perversions, torture and murder.If it is well written, the composer and librettist will prepare audience giving the director huge scope in staging something that is CENTRAL to the action. Audiences may not like it,(and have the right not to buy a ticket) but usually they can and do accept it. What is unpalatable is taking a magnifying glass to a footnote and pretending it is central to the plot. It is not. The great pictures you refer to may be about rape. It is their central theme. It is what the artist is talking about. We can like it or hate it, and move on.In William Tell it is not the central theme. Not one of the characters in the libretto is threatened with rape. Not one scene does either, and of course therefore Rossini does not compose music for it as it is not there .What we were given was a superfluous, added on. Not in the score. This is why it is causing upset.It has no place here. By placing it stage centre and so explicitly it completely distorts the opera.Nothing in the previosu

  122. John Assirati responded on 8 July 2015 at 5:31pm Reply

    Thanks, Sarah, you make some valuable comments. However, I do take issue with the realism of the rape scene in an historic opera. I do not consider myself a prude as I do not object to such content in a play or, even less, in a film. Two examples spring to mind. I found the film version of Alan Bennett's The History Boys far less effective than the stage play. This was because the heightened realism of the film was quite frankly absurd compared to the magic of the atmosphere and the effect on the imagination created on stage. With regard to depictions of depravity I think those in the very fine film of Last Exit to Brooklyn were enormously powerful, one scene showed the major female character in a confused state voluntarily succumbing to gang rape or at least multiple partners in succession. This was drastically justified and was true to the book. However, in my opinion the rape scene in this production of William Tell was gratuitous and misjudged.

  123. John Assirati responded on 8 July 2015 at 5:35pm Reply

    I meant in the penultimate sentence 'dramatically' justified.

  124. John Assirati responded on 8 July 2015 at 5:42pm Reply

    Oh, and however dramatically inert the La Scala performance was, at least the audience enjoyed it.

  125. John Assirati responded on 8 July 2015 at 6:18pm Reply

    Another scene I object to, that of the bathing of young children in Act 4, serves no dramatic purpose. That anything can be shown on stage is, of course, nonsense. To be realistic the young children would be bathed in the nude, yet even the ROH had enough sense not to show that.

  126. Alex E. responded on 8 July 2015 at 6:29pm Reply

    Sarah Hibberd: sorry, have to interject with a quick technical note - hope you will find it helpful. I almost missed your reply to my earlier question, and here is why. Due to the format of this blog, a reply to an entry is displayed right after the entry it replies to, with no visual indication that it is in fact a reply; also, there are no notifications of replies via email to an original poster.

    Here is what happened: you seem to have pressed "reply" on my _earlier_ entry, and we ended up with your reply (4 July 2015 at 5:35pm) preceding my question (4 July 2015 at 3:59am), rather than following it. Hope it makes sense. I have already sent a couple of suggestions via the "Contact Us" page - hope the ROH techies will take notice.

  127. Alex E. responded on 8 July 2015 at 8:31pm Reply

    Sarah Hibberd:
    > I hope that there will be some interest in reading what we, collectively, have to say, and reflecting on the principle themes of our discussions.

    Mark Ronan (whose review I fully agree with BTW) mentioned in his tweet a survey that ROH is sending out; I was wondering if you know who is meant to take part in the survey, and whether one can volunteer their opinion (albeit not a terribly enthusiastic one), in order to be counted.

    Mark's review is here:

    Incidentally, I would also recommend a review by Robert Hugill:

  128. Alex E. responded on 8 July 2015 at 9:49pm Reply

    Sarah Hibberd:
    > I thought it might be useful to address some of the recurring themes in a bit more detail over the coming week.
    Yes please; I would be very interested to hear more about this from a professional.

    > My approach will be to think about the inherent challenges presented by Tell (a French grand opéra with a distinctive aesthetic), Michieletto’s approach during the rehearsal process, and the problems identified by contributors to this blog in the performances.
    What I urge you to do is consider not just what Mr. Michieletto & Co _intended_ to do, but what they _actually_ did and what we, the audience, saw happen on stage.

    > it _does_ work as a piece of convincing and powerful theatre.
    It might have worked on a big cinema screen with its pans and zooms and some clever editing. Stage, on the other hand, is a totally different matter. Could you perhaps talk about specific examples? Here are some suggestions of mine (all photos are from ROH stock):
    - people smearing dirt and blood on faces and vests - why? IMHO it just looks silly and degrading.
    - people taking their clothes off, for no apparent reason (such as Mathilde pictured here) - why?
    - Jemmy running around with a sword - why?
    - the uprooted tree being turned one way and then another, as if it was in a giant microwave - did no one think that, unless this serves a purpose, it would be distracting?

    > ...I realise that some are simply unsympathetic to the approach in the first place, and that dramatic logic is not the most important consideration
    On the contrary: to me personally, dramatic logic is of utmost importance, and this is where I thought the production fails miserably. Could you please explain how the following is logical?
    - the shaky footage a la "The Blair Witch Project" of Jemmy playing with toy soldiers for the overture projection. Whose "point of view" is this?
    - hiding, digging out, and subsequent burning of love letters - is it logical, given the context of the staging?
    - crossbow and machine guns in one "frame" - is it logical? Why not get Tell to use a gun, rather than a crossbow, for the famous "apple" shot? Why mix oil and water? What was the thinking here?
    - the bathing of children - where is the logic (other than simply filling up the time)?
    - the clash of different types of lighting in a scene (chandelier vs. neon) - what kind of logic does it follow? What purpose does it serve?

    My own attempt at answering some of the questions above boils down to these two key points:
    1. Mr. Michieletto & Co failed to cope with the sheer scale of the production - the size of the stage, the number of people on stage at any given moment and the "dramatic logic" of their behaviour, etc. To me, the production team ended up rather looking like a bunch of kids who got hold of a huge canvas and a box of paints, but don't really know what to do with it all.
    2. Mr. Michieletto & Co failed to cope with the scale and the true nature of the score. Instead, they pushed _their_ own story forward, perhaps with good intentions, however in doing so they chose to ignore the music and the text. To wrap up, I simply _must_ quote here a tweet from Neil Rathmell: "#ROHTell was like one song to the tune of another. Composer and director completely at odds. Rossini won, but only just."

  129. Steve responded on 9 July 2015 at 8:38am Reply

    Overall a fair attempt to link together this long and often beautiful opera. Moving scenes of a son being reunited with his mother, a son's grief and anger at his father's death, an opression of a people and their eventual inevitable uprising. Did "that" scene fit the bill? I think not - with so many ways to express the opression of the people it came across as gratuitous, unnecessary and frankly lazy in thought. An easy way to raise the blood pressure and indignation of the people - the very fact it has distracted us from the rest of the opera shows just how out of place it has become. Of course sexual violence happens in conflict and of course this is totally unacceptable - here it was also totally out of place to my mind. Disrurbing - yes, harrowing - yes, helped the opera - no.

  130. Graham Thomas responded on 9 July 2015 at 11:31am Reply

    I think this is probably one of the worst productions I have ever seen at ROH.

    So much excessive "dramatisation" that it was very hard to concentrate on the music and singing.

    Banal and tedious direction with ugly cluttered sets and bad lighting which actively obscured the singers at times.

    The acting apart from a couple of exceptions was uniformly horrible - there is no point in making people do things they are clearly not comfortable with and the frenetic activity (thinking particularly of the omnipresent Jemmy) added nothing to the evening.

    The one saving grace was Gerald Finley as Tell - he seemed the only person on stage who actually had a handle on his character and acted within his abilities - having said that the excruciating scenes in which he is manhandled by the spirit of Switzerland were dire. His singing in the face of all the rubbish going on around him was doubly wonderful.

    The rape scene was as distasteful as I expected, adding nothing to the whole other than cooling the audience involvement to a new low.

    I don't want ROH to simply keep trotting out the same old productions but at the same time its very hard as an opera fan to watch something that actually detracts from the beauty of the music and singing and adds NOTHING to the experience.

  131. Sarah Hibberd responded on 10 July 2015 at 8:59am Reply

    What I have been trying to suggest is something of the _specific_ challenges that Tell (and French grand operas more broadly) present to modern directors, performers and audiences. Not only is our opera-going culture very different from that of 19C audiences (of course), but Tell is not Le nozze di Figaro or Traviata: the aesthetic is less familiar to us.

    Most crucially, how should a modern director deal with the _lengthy_ passages of orchestral music (including entrance music, ritournelles in the middle of and between sung numbers), choruses and ensemble finales (with many people on stage)? In 1829 this music would have been used to develop character/drama visually - filling in what is not spelt out in the text of the libretto, with gesture, pantomime, stage movement, etc. I think the Act 1 ballet - in which Tell tries to teach Jemmy how to shoot - is a good example of this (which Michieletto has added - it's not in the libretto): it develops our understanding of their relationship and their individual personalities. Thank you, David, for filling in more of the 19C context, and thank you Alex for pointing to aspects of Michieletto's dramatic 'logic' that for some have not translated from the original concept, through the rehearsal process to the performance.

    Ultimately, a production needs to persuade its audience - in a specific time and place, with specific experiences and expectations. As the wider reception surrounding this production has demonstrated - and as comments on this blog suggest - some of us were broadly convinced by this production, some were not. Either way, it has demonstrated that opera - and its interpretation - still matters very much today.

    Those of you who are interested in the broader controversy this opera has stirred up around modern productions may be interested in this pair of comment pieces by Kara McKechnie and Peter Tregear: :

    This is my final post: my time as Writer in Residence comes to an end today. Many thanks to everyone who has joined in the conversation here!

  132. Sarah Hibberd responded on 10 July 2015 at 9:38am Reply

    PS if you are interested in reading more about Tell and the challenges it presented to 19C as well as 21C performers and audiences, do have a look at the pieces I posted earlier this year:

  133. David O'Brien responded on 10 July 2015 at 11:18am Reply

    Thank you SARAH for moderating this blog. It is great illustration of how opera matters, and even "difficult"French Grand Opera can raise passions.Wishing you all the best.

  134. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 10 July 2015 at 4:11pm Reply

    I must also add thanks Sarah not only for your splendid articles (including the one in the programme ) but also for generously leading the post performances discussion .My wife and I were privileged to attend last Sunday's performance and like you, feel it is a compelling production. At no time were we bored on unclear as to what was going on .We were totally engaged throughout and the stagecraft is quite brilliant. Musically and dramatically, this Guillaume Tell is a triumph. and a milestone in the staging of French Opera in this country,
    Yes ,I have read all the criticisms and accept every production and performance is a case of each to their own . I would, however and with respect to others, like to explain why I am nailing my colours to this particular mast .
    Without in any way seeking to be arrogant or boastful, I have mentioned above and in other blogs relating to this production that I have been following and researching productions of opera for some time -in fact sine the late 1950[s.Over the years,I have also been privileged to be involved with a leading British opera company with insight into productions and the way directors work.,I have also acted and directed in a semi professional capacity involving epic cast productions in professional theatres and large churches .It have also been involved with drama in education (including music drama ) with children /young people of all ages..
    I mention the latter because the seeing of the action of Tell through the eyes of a child is quite inspirational .I have known many children react with excitement when hearing THE famous music from the overture so much so that they have pretended to fight with swords ( yes -and guns ) as well as play excitedly with toy soldiers.. This is why Jemmy's mime during the overture is so true and such a brilliant coup ,I can also remember reading the Classics Illustrated edition of William Tell which is screened throughout the performance to confirm how the story is capturing the imagination of a child.
    The imagining of the historical figure throughout is also something which children did and still do. An innocence which adults ( with al respect )would do well to follow when in the audience for opera, ballet or a play..
    The use of children in this production is also highly significant .Someone has suggested the children were manipulated. With further respect ,I do not think so.Children of this age are very open to and respond very well to direction. These children act brilliantly throughout whether showing terror at the thought they might have to shot an old man, their concern when discovered by the hunters or their innocence when as members of a community they are bathed by their mothers as a symbol of ritual cleansing plus the fact that this may now be done safely without any likely harm from the oppressors.
    At the end ,this story belongs to the children as Jemmy encourages a companion to witness the green shoots from a ground infected till now by the tyranny and (to quote the libretto ) " ...horror of devastation and pillage ".
    The latter is also skilfully shown with the onstage death of Melcthal and the onstage humiliation of the young woman. Last Sunday , this latter sequence was both powerful and moving .However, the choreography of both horrors was outstanding as was Jemmy's imagining at the end of Act III that his comic book hero would have slain the enemy.
    Incidentally ,earlier blogs suggested that the young lady involved in the rape sequence was compelled to take part, I do no know the background to rehearsals, but there was a time when if an actor (male or female ) was not at ease in appearing nude they had the right to withdraw from the production.
    Agreed there is much symbolism in the production but it springs firmly from the libretto or Schiller's text, Incidentally ,when he finished the play he foretold it would cause a stir-he must really be chuckling at this time!
    By way of the symbolism I have in mind ,the libretto refers to being "..worthy of the blood from which we spring "-hence the powerful image at the end of Act II.
    To those who refer to such as pretentious .might it not suggest that in Damiano Michieletto we have a director of genius who respects both the libretto and the original play ? His work with both principals and chorus is outstanding and in the case of the latter worthy to stand alongside the talents of Laurent Pelly, Jean -Romain Vesperini ..Andrei Serban and Stefan Herheim.Signor Michieletto's schedule is busy from now and throughout 2016 and with such talent on display ,no wonder
    The relationships between the main characters were outstandingly portrayed as were the melodramatic aspects of the piece.
    Musically ,equally outstanding and no wonder with the talents of Antonio Pappano and Renato Balsadonna..

    Ah yes, the booing. In1983.Brian McMaster the then Administrator of WNO and Director of Vancouver Opera invited Romanian director Lucian Pintilie to stage a new production of Carmen .I quote from the Los Angeles times -May 14 1986:
    "Much of the audience went wild and not with pleasure. Malcontent traditionalists booed and hissed... they demanded
    Mc Master's head ...however, at the last performance the response was wildly enthusiastic and the audience yelled approval ".
    History repeating itself ?
    Indidentally. Brian McMaster remained with WNO and Vancouver Opera for many mores seasons as I (and I know many others ) hope Kasper Holten will at ROH .What vision on his part and that of Antonio Pappano to invite Damiano Michieletto to direct at Covent Garden
    Last Sunday ,the "bravos/bravas" were loud and most enthusiastic ,and I think you may find that when this present run is over, the bravos will vastly outnumber the booing.

  135. David O'Brien responded on 10 July 2015 at 5:28pm Reply

    I was there last Sunday and the production team did not take their curtain calls. Cheers were for the valiant and excellent cast, conductor and orchestra. No one disputes their excellence. behind me a row of 10 seats had emptied before the last Act. I have never seen so many people leave before the end, and this was a matinee

  136. Alex E. responded on 10 July 2015 at 5:34pm Reply

    Sarah Hibberd: Thank you for sharing your knowledge and for helping us to voice our opinions, however harsh they might have been.

    It is a pity that my question about the ROH survey is likely to remain unanswered; I would rather vote with my pen now - than with my feet in the future.

  137. Jacky T responded on 14 July 2015 at 3:03pm Reply

    Alex E, there was a survey, by email. We were at the opening night and received the survey recently. I wrote in great detail about the production, but will anybody read what we have written?

  138. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 14 July 2015 at 4:58pm Reply

    I am sure they will.

  139. Alex E. responded on 14 July 2015 at 7:25pm Reply

    Jacky T: thank you :)

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