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.