William Tell – Royal Opera House – 5th July – Kiss & Tell
There is one scene in this production which aptly summarises the gratuitous perversity of its whole. It occurred not long after the now infamous “rape” a la ClockWork Orange perversely acted out over pretty the Rossini dance music for the original ballet.
The scene is for female chorus and two sopranos. In this production the women are accompanied by children – some indeed very small – who, whilst the two principals sing – are undressed to their skimpy underwear and washed on stage. There is no reason for this. The audience was invited to oggle at this side-show rather than concentrate on the singers. At the very least visually the kinder-strip wreaked of prurience and at worse it evoked something much more sinister….
William Tell is a troubled Opera with a patchy performance history. It is self consciously Grand Opera a genre still only in its infancy at the time of composition. At its best the music is mesmerising – rising to vast crescendos of soloists;chorus and orchestra. Like Wagner the characters have leitmotif – Rossini’s invention. Like Meyerbeer it’s a sprawling entertainment made up of many elements. Written for the French Opera that necessarily included dance or ballet music and an incidental music to set scenes – like the fabulous storm music at the end. It has an equally sprawling overture which is twice the length of the famous bit that everyone knows – the music used in TV series of The Lone Ranger – announced by the unmistakable flourish of hunting horns. These operas we meant to be elaborately staged – they were really the Epic Movies of their day.
This is essentially a story of good and evil – the evil represented by Gasler (a sort of Sheriff of Nottingham figure) the good by Tell. Dramatically the libretto is based on a Schiller play and is a complex study of the politics of the state and of the nation – a conflict between personal liberty and feudal duty. This conflict is made flesh as it were in the person of the heroine – the local princess Mathilde. For all its obvious drama the elements of this strange giant of an opera never quite meld into an intoxicating dramatic whole – though in their own right the elements are quite extraordinary. Rossini’s genius has so many original vocal ideas that others like Verdi and Wagner and even Meyerbeer would freely plunder to develop to effect.
In order to convince this opera of all needs a lavish production that fills in the gaps. What we had was one idea – the horrors of war – with which we were beaten over the head for 5 unrelenting hours. Some of it was silly – a ghost carrying a suitcase in front of the great trio of Act II; some of it was insulting; some of it was adolescent – the use of toy soldiers and a comic book; some of it gratuitous; very occasionally some of it resolved into a wonderful still tableau that indeed caught something of the grand in Grand Opera. But the fact is the whole thing was bloody awful rather than bloody and awful. It was an insult to the audience that the production only managed to add injury after injury.
Productions that court controversy deserve all the opprobrium they get. Cutting out the scenes designed to shock – there was not a lot left except a stage covered with compost and a big dead tree. These were the leitmotif for the barrenness of the producer’s imagination. It was telling in its lack of response to the variety of Rossini’s musical inventiveness. It is the vice of our times to believe audiences can only hold one idea in their heads. It is the vanity of producers to think we need continuous visual distractions or we’ll get bored. This William Tell was an exemplar of both these vices and vanities. In the end it was (rightly) buried alive under the weighty grandiosity of its conceptual pomposity.