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How can an opera director present the melodrama of grand opera to a modern audience?

With Guillaume Tell in rehearsal, we look at the challenge of making the heightened emotions involved convincing.

By Sarah Hibberd (Royal Opera Writer in Residence)

17 June 2015 at 2.36pm | 3 Comments

The heightened emotions and rapid juxtapositions of contrasting moods we find in grand operas such as Guillaume Tell have proved a challenge for modern audiences seeking more nuanced and realistic storytelling. They are traces of a theatrical tradition that has largely been forgotten, but which shaped artistic development during the 19th century: melodrama.

Melodrama was a type of popular spoken drama that emerged in the wake of the traumatic experiences of the French Revolution. Simple stories of good triumphing over evil were told, with minimal but effective musical accompaniment that established character and conveyed emotions at a stroke: (unnerving) tremolo strings, (alarming) diminished 7th chords, (dreamy) pastoral melodies and (rallying) trumpet fanfares. These were matched by equally simple gestures, stances and facial expressions. Melodrama’s power and popularity came from its directness. The leading purveyor of the genre, Guilbert de Pixérécourt, claimed that his works should be comprehensible even without the words. And Eugène Scribe, the Parisian librettist with whom composers from across Europe sought to collaborate, was also a prolific writer of melodramas. While the language of melodrama can be found in much opera of the 19th century, nowhere is it more obvious than in grand operas – as anyone who saw Robert le diable at the Royal Opera House a couple of years ago may remember.

The melodramatic is a mode that modern audiences can struggle with and which directors are wary of. Tell’s tyrant – the Austrian governor Gesler – reminds us of the moustache-twirling villains of Victorian melodrama and silent film, the permanently heightened emotions can seem over the top, and the tendency is often for directors to adopt an ironic, arch tone. Yet one of grand opera’s most revolutionary qualities was its ability to draw an audience into the drama and propel it through the action. The contrast with the carefully controlled elegance and economy of 18th-century serious opera still in repertory at the Opéra in the 1820s was profound.

The approach of director Damiano Michieletto has been to embrace this aesthetic, making visible – through movement, gesture, stance – the emotions that the music embodies, rather than resisting it. Thus from the first rehearsals the singers have been encouraged to be physical: to grab hold of each other, to struggle, to hug, to interact with members of the chorus too. Strong, simple gestures – glances between singers on different parts of the stage – and strong physical reactions, all help to take in at a glance the significance and detail of what is unfolding.

Perhaps the best way of understanding what this means is to look at the classic video recording of Tell under Riccardo Muti’s baton back in the 1980s. Although it employs beautiful back projections of an Alpine landscape, there is very little movement from the singers – in terms of gestures, interactions or use of stage space. Such visual stasis here renders the work profoundly undramatic, dull and – in spite of some beautiful singing – the characters appear unmotivated and wooden. It feels even longer than its four hours.

If the rehearsals are a good measure of what is to come, this production will draw us into the ‘world’ of the Swiss peasants and we will be swept up in its drama. Though I will be interested to see whether we as an audience remain resistant to the melodramatic qualities of the work.

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.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Hélène and Jean Peters and David Hancock.

By Sarah Hibberd (Royal Opera Writer in Residence)

17 June 2015 at 2.36pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Damiano Michieletto, grand opera, Guilbert de Pixérécourt, Guillaume Tell, melodrama, Production

This article has 3 comments

  1. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 23 June 2015 at 2:45pm Reply

    Once again, many thanks Sarah. You may feel it will be excellent if audiences are fully caught up in the melodramatic qualities of the work I certainly do,.As one who has been privileged to both act in and direct Victorian melodrama, certain texts demand a heightened approach to both words and characters so that the theatrical impact may be fully realized.
    This is not to suggest that audiences boo Gessler ,although at the end of the recent ROH I due Foscari, Maurizio Murard's scheming senator was so brilliantly sung and acted that his rich interpretation of this Machiavellian character was good naturedly booed in true pantomime tradition during the curtain call!
    As a follow up to the discussion about Tell and Il Trovatore, you may be aware of the 1930 recording of the latter conducted by Lorenzo Molajoli..It is a performance firmly in the verismo manner of singing and results in a powerful and full blooded interpretation.

    Perhaps a verismo approach to Tell on the part of Damiano Michielto will result in a similar memorable operatic /dramatic experience?

  2. Sarah Hibberd responded on 24 June 2015 at 10:44pm Reply

    Thanks so much Tony. Melodrama is a sadly forgotten genre (!), but I think it is the key to understanding so much music drama of the first decades of the 19th century. It's wonderfully satisfying to find a good villain!

    Thank you for the Trovatore reference: there are some lovely clips on YouTube in which the energy of the performance really comes through. I'm already looking forward to the Michieletto/Pappano Cav and Pag at the Royal Opera in the autumn.

  3. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 27 June 2015 at 3:55pm Reply

    As ever, you are most welcome Sarah. You are absolutely right when you say that melodrama is the key to understanding and enjoying so much opera especially in the early stages of the 19th century .From what I know of him, I am sure Nicolas Courjal will be a splendid villain indeed!
    The new Cav and Pag will certainly be interesting ,and I am very much looking forwa\rd to next year's new productions of Il Trovatore at Opera Bastille and ROH.

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