Damiano Michieletto’s production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House in 2015 was controversial because of the replacement of the Act 3 scene where Austrian soldiers force Swiss girls to dance with them with something far more explicit. It is a tough scene to watch but it’s absolutely consistent with a very thoughtful overall approach to the piece. After all what do occupying troops do with village girls? The director, rightly I think, sees the piece as being about the brutality of military occupation and colonialism but also recognises that the Tell legend, especially in its Schiller version is overlaid with euphemising Romanticism. Michieletto’s production both strips away and draws attention to the Romanticisation. He sets the piece in a roughly contemporary setting. To me, the civilians look 1950s but Gesler’s men look more modern. The actual action is played out unsentimentally, indeed brutally, in this time period. The ballets, one of the principal euphemising agents, are all replaced by more realistic action. To draw attention to how the legend has been transmitted two devices are introduced. Tell’s son Jemmy has a comic book version of Schiller which he consults at key points and there’s a silent character; medieval Tell, straight out of the legend with feathered cap etc who appears whenever the morale of actual Tell or the Swiss in general needs a boost. It sounds a bit corny but it really does the job.
The production is effective in other ways too. The settings for the “Swiss” scenes are quite naturalistic suggesting a closeness to Nature. Gesler’s men are really unpleasant, especially their leader, Rodolphe, who is set up as an interesting foil to their boss. Gesler here is supercilious and cruel but not nearly as thuggish as Rodolphe. Tell is conflicted. He’s a Swiss patriot and knows his duty but he also knows the risks and has to be held to the task both by Jemmy and mythical Tell. Taken altogether I think it’s one of the most thought provoking productions I’ve seen recently without being unduly weird.
It’s also very strongly cast. Gerald Finley plays Tell convincingly and with absolute vocal security. John Osborn has the notes and the agility for the terribly tricky role of Arnold. There are are high C sharps coming out of nowhere in his music and he manages them extremely well. Malin Byström is a magnificent Matilde. I couldn’t make up my mind whether the musical highlight was “Sombre forêt” or her Act 2 duet with Osborn. Osborn’s Act 4 cabaletta would be a candidate too. Sofia Fomina manages the difficult job of actually looking like a young boy while singing very well. There aren’t really any weak links but in the interests of CanCon I’ll draw attention to Michael Colvin, on ROH debut, as Rodolphe. His thuggish characterisation is quite stunning and he sings very well too.
The chorus, two of them really, are immensely important in this piece and they are excellent, which isn’t always the case at ROH. Antonio Pappano conducts and I think he’s at his best in this space. The more dramatic end of Rossini, Verdi and Puccini seems to be his sweet spot and this is Rossini at his grandest. Once again I was left wondering where he would have gone musically if he hadn’t quit after Tell.
Video director Jonathan Haswell does a good job of representing the stage action on the screen, including effectively capturing the video projections of Jemmy’s comic. Turning to AV quality, this is a rare situation where I was able to get hold of both the DVD and Blu-ray releases. The transfer to DVD is pretty good. It’s an HD recording with very good sound (DTS and stereo) although occasionally the voices seemed balanced a little far back. It’s not a big enough stage to really push the limits of DVD picture quality. That said, the Blu-ray is quite surprisingly superior in just about every way. The picture is clearer, especially the capture of the video projections. The sound differences are even more noticeable. The DTS-HD track is more detailed and has more dynamic range than either of the tracks on the DVD version. Individual instrumental lines come through with greater clarity and the voice balance is easier on the ear. Where the DVD sometimes sounds a bit muffled on the Blu-ray it just seems quieter. Altogether a convincing demonstration of the merits of Blu-ray technology. There are some useful extras on the disks (common to both versions) and the booklet is lavish with a very good essay by Jonathan White. Subtitles are English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.
As of now there are two strong video versions of Guillaume Tell available; this one and the 2013 Pesaro production by Graham Vick. Neither is “traditional” and both are well worth seeing. I suppose, eventually, they will be joined by Pierre Audi’s version at the Met but at time of writing that has yet to appear on DVD. ETA: It didn’t get an HD broadcast so maybe not.