Tuesday 30 June 2015

Guillaume Tell: hitting the mark

Graham Vick, in his production for Pesaro's Rossini Opera Festival now on DVD, palpably does; Damiano Michieletto at the Royal Opera, though his imagination and stagecraft are not entirely pedestrian, misses most of the time. In my opinion. We were lucky for the Opera in Depth half-term on Rossini's last opera that the Pesaro DVD came out on Decca just in time; having discarded the DVD of the Scala version as a non-starter, I used that as the sole visual term of reference, with audio examples from the Pappano, Muti and Chailly CD sets as well as excerpted arias.

It was only when we were halfway through the six classes that Graham agreed to return after his amazingly candid and open chat about the Mariinsky War and Peace. He'd insisted that we watch the Act 3 ballet choreographed by Ron Howell*, and that indeed is perhaps the biggest triumph of a vision that insists on dealing with every bar (I think) of Rossini's score. As I pointed out in my Arts Desk review of last night's now-famously booed production, all of it is worth hearing; the problem is to make it all work dramatically. Graham said that he'd nearly turned Pesaro's offer down, then thought long and hard about how he could make it work (in rehearsals, below with - I think - excellent conductor Michele Mariotti, Marina Rebeka and Juan Diego Flórez).

He's never predictable, and he surprised us by saying that he thinks the long, scene-setting first act is the most beautiful of all. He was a bit hard on Switzerland, I thought, a most interesting country as I've experienced it, and so - inspired by an article in the 1990 Covent Garden programme - I ordered up two copies of Why Switzerland? by the author in question, Jonathan Steinberg - one for GV and one for myself. But he does in fact reflect the mountains and the lakes, somewhat obliquely, in his production.

The point, he said, about Act One, is the sense of a strong community. If you believe in that, you can make it work. There was no community, or only a fractured one, in Michieletto's warped vision.

Vick even includes Jemmy's virtuoso aria in Act Three and makes it work (Amanda Forsythe is wonderful, capped only by Nicola Alaimo's moving-to-tears 'Sois immobile'. Flórez, whom I've not always been that crazy about, is stunning throughout and Marina Rebeka just gets better as the show moves on). Then comes the ballet. All of it, all danced in a very stylised homage to Pasolini's Salò. There was actually more to give offence, blowjobs and anal sex included, than the one rather feeble attempted rape of Michieletto's unchoreographed approach to the Pas de trois and Pas des soldats (abbreviated by Pappano). So why was the Pesaro ballet cheered to the rafters and the Covent Garden flash of nudity booed? Because, I like to think, the former was incredibly strong and the latter just rather cliched.

At Pesaro, we also get the exquisite canon-trio for mother, son and sympathetic princess, which Pappano has unbelievably always insisted on cutting. Here's proof that it was there the last time I saw Guillaume Tell staged at Covent Garden in 1990. Rather odd blend of voices, and shame the intro is clipped, but at least we have it on YouTube:

As GV pointed out, this trio strengthens the women's roles at exactly the point where you think they've been marginalised. The scene of happy bread-breaking and coffee drinking is beautifully done at Pesaro. The final scene? More ambiguous. All idealistic revolutions turn sour, Vick suggests, and he made a point of locating this one in the 1920s, the last point at which such people power in western Europe seemed truly possible.

As you'll see from the review, there were plenty of good things in last night's opening, as one would expect from John Osborn and Gerald Finley on the EMI recording. I used quite a bit of them, but once the Decca CDs arrived, it was mostly over to Freni and Pavarotti for the lovers' set pieces.

We had 'Asile héréditaire' from John O'Sullivan (reincarnated, methinks, in J, likewise an heroic tenor but much too loud and a bit worn in 1929), Martinelli and Pavarotti, while Giuseppe de Luca triumphed in Tell's plea to his son (though Alaimo, I think, was even better). I loved every note; as I wrote in the 'Rachmaninov and Rossini' piece, there's always some unusual twist of phrase or instrumental colour in even the most melodically ordinary of the numbers - and very few don't rise to the lyric heights.

Now we're on to Strauss's Intermezzo, and watching FLott's Christine reminds me why I found the Garsington production so undernourishing and implausible by comparison. Now I'm back in love with the piece, having asked some big questions - or had companion Edwina made me think more about what I'd taken too much for granted - at the time of the live performance. Next year at OiF: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, La forza del destino, Boris Godunov, Enescu's Oedipe, Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest and, for the whole of the summer term, Tristan und Isolde. Do join us from September at the Frontline Club - which has airco of which we were very glad yesterday. Though inevitably a student or two began to find it too cold, and perhaps it was.

* I thought Graham was kidding when he said he'd been asked to 'direct' La bayadêre, but apparently not. He hasn't decided whether he'll do it yet. 


Susan Scheid said...

David: I’ve been constantly astounded, in reading the Berlioz Memoirs, how often and amply he vents his considerable spleen about Rossini, as in this passage: “Rossini’s melodious cynicism, his contempt for the traditions of dramatic expression, his perpetual repetition of one kind of cadence, his eternal puerile crescendo, and his crashing big drum, exasperated me to such a degree as to blind me to the dazzling qualities of his genius and the real beauties of his masterpiece, the Barbiere, with its delicate instrumentation and no [italicized] big drum.”

It seems, however, that William Tell also escaped his wrath. He apparently wrote a long laudatory analysis of it. His appreciation extended to the smallest detail. He writes of the singer Duprez that

“In the air, Asile héréditaire. . . he never would give the G flat (the enharmonic of F sharp), which Rossini had placed there so skillfully and appositely in order to bring back the theme in its first key. He always substituted an F, which produced an insipid harshness and destroyed the whole charm of the modulation.

“One day . . . the idea occurred to me to murmur in his ear Rossini’s phrase with the G flat.” Despite protestations and a promise to do so, “Neither for me, nor for himself, nor for Rossini, nor for music, nor for common sense did Duprez ever do the G flat in any performance . . . . Neither saints nor devils could make him give up his abominable F. He will die impenitent.”

Your next season of Opera in Focus includes a splendid selection. Lucky are those who will have the chance to take the course.

David said...

Yes, Sue, we looked at Berlioz's admiration for Guillaume Tell. He must have admired so much about Rossini's orchestration, too. Meyerbeer is risible by comparison, for all his Berliozian striving for the odd special effect.

Our tenor last night, American John Osborn, really went for it and didn't falter. It looked as if he might on the vey last note, but it just held. A seriously musical tenor, too, with (I thought) excellent French.

Don't know whether all this press storm in a teacup about the attempted (not realised) rape scene in the new Covent Garden production has reached you over there. The fact is, as I've twice written, is that the scene is not totally disharmonious with the situation (Austrian soldiers humiliating Swiss peasants) nor completely gratuitous but just not very well done. Vick/Howell's take has more exploitative sex but with clothes kept on and a stylised choreography. There is no choreography at all at the Royal Opera. That what Michieletto tried to convey should shock anyone is risible, but that's the line the media is taking.

Anyway, I was not happy to be surrounded by booers who wouldn't shut up and even barracked the final curtain (which was well done on all levels). I fled before the curtain calls. I think we agree that if you dislike something, you simply don't applaud.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I didn't know of it. I would have been appalled to be subjected to watching such a scene, whether well-done or not, though, out of respect for the performers, booing wouldn't be my likely response. I thought Michieletto's comment demonstrated what I think is a tremendous problem in the thinking on inclusion of such scenes. Per the Guardian, "He said he had no intention of changing anything. 'If you don’t feel the brutality, the suffering these people have had to face, if you want to hide it, it becomes soft, it becomes for children.'” His comment suggests to me a failure of imagination--why is it thought that a graphic scene is best suited to convey brutality adequately? In present times, we are saturated with brutal images from the "real world," and I think the effect is far more often to be hardened against them than to "feel the brutality," let alone to be inspired to do anything constructive about it. To my mind, suggestion is far more powerful than the explicit, and the explicit too often devolves down to the exploitative, no matter the intent.

David said...

The problem, I think, is that you're left with a long stretch of ballet music in which an oppressed people has to go through 'folkloric' routines for a palpable sadist and his men. Cutting the ballet music evades the problem, but something has to fill that time plausibly. That's why I think Howell's stylishly brutal choreography did its job so much better.

Representing a violence that isn't actually there in the scenario is what I find gratuitous. Oddly, this was closer to the nub of the story than nearly everything else Michieletto came up with. But it was just shoddy. And I've never heard such groans when the woman was stripped just before the potential rape was halted in its tracks.

Now we've got a prurient press longing to know more about other 'shocking' scenes in opera and probably encouraging people to take a look at what actually isn't any good (as with Bieito's law-of-diminishing-returns violence, which becomes risible).

Susan Scheid said...

David: A thoughtful view from you, as always. Of course, whatever anyone else may have intended, the press, from your description, has once again taken the lowest of low roads and any opportunity for intelligent discussion goes by the boards.

Susan Scheid said...

David: as it turns out, a very thoughtful discussion has been going on, started by the marvelous singer Lucy Dhegrae. Tamzin Elliott (composer of Gloria and the Night Watch, among other things), in her response, nailed it, in my view. Here's what she wrote: " I watched an opera in Germany that had many graphic rape scenes in it and all I could think was that that material was being stolen from the countless people that had to endure rape in real life. Some tragedies are obscenely cheapened by being put on stage. To me it did not seem relevant to say putting rape on stage made people more aware of it - it was so clear that there was a lack of awareness of just how tragic the experience they were portraying was."

David said...

Was it sparked off by this controversy, Sue? Of course I agree about the cheapening of an act and that the tragic consequences are what need to be shown. We don't see the Duke rape Gilda, but we see what a mess she's in (though it's male wishful thinking, perhaps, that she pursues the 'I still love him' line). The music can say it all about the violence (of course Rossini's Pas des soldats doesn't). Is it only contemporary composers who actually feature rape on stage?

In this instance I could see that the harrassment of the woman was edgy enough in itself, and that it certainly didn't need to go so far as stripping her on the table (reportage seems to have got it wrong that the actual rape was shown - it was cut off by the next piece of action). That was the problem with the lack of choreography - with nothing focused to offer for the stretch of music, there had to be more 'infill'. Anyway, my point is still that it was cliched and not well done

Susan Scheid said...

David: The discussion was prompted by an article at National Public Radio about the portrayal. (As I recall it, it described the scene correctly, and also linked to other sources.) I've no doubt, by the way, about the accuracy of your judgment as between the two depictions. It's such a shame when this happens. Though of course I haven't seen the production, it seems abundantly clear that Finley and others involved deserved much better than they got as a result of Michieletto's blunder.

David said...

More food for thought for you and your friends, perhaps, from my ever-articulate colleague Alexandra Coghlan writing in The Spectator:

'That the debate, as it currently rages, centres on the acceptability of depicting rape on stage at all is worrying — a prudish self-censorship that places audience comfort above all, missing, or denying, the point of art. That some seem more concerned with the manner of its depiction — "gratuitous nudity" is a phrase that has come up a lot — is even more worrying. No amount of euphemistic skirt-fumblings and decorous fadings-to-black (how naked is too naked?) can, or should, make it palatable. Let’s talk instead about how Michieletto’s production — lazy in concept, violently ugly in execution — doesn’t earn the extremity of that scene.'

Susan Scheid said...

David: "Michieletto’s production — lazy in concept, violently ugly in execution — doesn’t earn the extremity of that scene." Yes, 'is it earned' is the central issue.

Catriona said...

Susan - thanks for the Tamsin Elliott quote. I haven't seen the Guillaume Tell, but I was very uncomfortable about the version of Lulu at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years ago, which claimed to be about the (s)exploitation of women and black women in particular, and had Lulu spending most of the performance in her underwear and being groped by men. Far too often, women spend too much of a performance in a state of gratuitous undress.

David said...

Lulu is a fascinating case in point - a play about male fantasy about an abused girl written by a man turned into an opera on same by a man usually directed by a man. Which doesn't mean that men don't always 'get it'. Graham Vick and Christof Loy have given us far more complex portrayals of Lulu than the fishnet tights and underwear version.

Liam said...

What an exiting article. You grap and use the available recordings but first you must know of them.
Trying to educate librarians in dublin of free access to live opera on internet. They are slow to grasp the availability

David Damant said...

I would imagine that a cross bow ( in the hands of an expert) is more reliable in the exactness of its aim than a long bow, so if you have to shoot an apple off your son's head choose a cross bow - as I presume from the picture and from history William Tell did. It is also the case that in battle the later long bow was superior, so long as the archer was trained from his earliest years

David said...

Thanks, Liam. David, there is no 'history' re William Tell - only myth. All we have is one old manuscript as evidence of what eventually became known as the Oath of the Three Cantons on the Ruetli (in which Tell, in Schiller's play, has no part as by then he's not convinced that active insurrection will help)