With a toned down rape, it’s a wonder what all the fuss was about.

Live cinema broadcast from Royal Opera, London,
July 5, 2015

Thousands of words had been written about this production of Guillaume Tell before I got to the cinema broadcast of its third performance. On the opening night, a rape scene in the third act provoked sustained booing from the audience, which in turn generated a huge amount of interest from the mainstream press. Most of the critics present condemned the scene, but primarily as the worst excess of a confused and misconceived production.

That turned out to be true, but there is still plenty of interest here. Director Damiano Michieletto has some big and ambitious ideas for the piece, some of which work better than others. Rossini’s final opera is also his longest, and his most radical. The story of the Swiss struggle for independence from the Austrian Empire is presented in epic terms. William Tell is the leader the rebellion is waiting for, a destiny he spends most of the opera reluctant to accept, eventually spurred on by his idealistic son Jemmy. A romantic subplot is also tied into the struggle, with a Swiss patriot, Melcthal, in love with an Austrian princess, Mathilde. She is the only sympathetic Austrian here – all the others are two-dimensional military types – no question they are the bad guys.

Michieletto brings the conflict into sharp relief by updating the action to a contemporary setting. We are told that this is the Balkans of the 1990s, although that is never made explicit. The sets and costumes are drab, the lighting low. The scenario lends itself to cinema transmission – what apparently seemed like wanton grimness to live audiences comes over as gritty realism on the screen. That said, Rossini conceived the piece as an up-beat crowd pleaser, and Michieletto seems intent on continually pushing it in the opposite direction. The first act scenario is the most effective, set in a bunker, the rebel’s hideout, all grey concrete and flickering neon. The later acts are set in front of a large uprooted tree with the stage covered in soil: direct, if crude, symbolism for the uprooted Swiss people and their struggle for their land.

Another strand of the production concept concerns Jemmy, Tell’s son. As the overture reaches its martial conclusion, we see him playing with toy soldiers, and then reading a comic book about the adventures of William Tell. This raises an interesting idea that is never explored in detail: that the modern-day Tell is becoming the hero of legend through the fantasies his son projects on to him. A third element of the production makes the link, although even more tenuously. A huntsman, dressed in traditional William Tell/Robin Hood garb, appears regularly, and, although silent, plays a key role in many of the crucial events. Is he, perhaps, the embodiment of Jemmy’s fantasies of the mythical hero? Or perhaps he represents the destiny that Tell himself must face? Sadly, the figure is presented in such an ambiguous way that neither of these ideas is properly explored. However, he does give the production its bows and arrows, a necessary plot device (the apple on the head) that would otherwise seem hopelessly anachronistic in the modern day setting.

Big ideas, only some of which hit the mark. Michieletto is more successful in his directing of the singers, and all the leads are projected as real and complex characters. Here he is helped by an impressively strong cast, all of whom make a compelling case for the music and the drama. Gerald Finley is ideal as the conflicted Tell. His voice has depth and authority, but he also blends well into the many ensembles that Rossini uses to represent the solidarity of the Swiss (an expanded Royal Opera Chorus, who excel throughout). Sofia Fomina is excellent in the trouser role of Jemmy – even if Michieletto’s ideas for this role seem conflicted, Fomina is always able to make the part convincing. John Osborn has the ideal tenor for the demanding role of Melcthal. He can act too, but what you go home remembering are all those effortlessly supported top notes. Malin Byström, as his lover Mathilde, matches his high notes in their duets – an ideal vocal pairing. Only one Australian singer in the cast, Samuel Dale Johnson as Leuthold, one of the Swiss contingent, whose run-in with the Austrian army in the first act forms a motivation for the later uprising. It’s a small part, but Johnson gives his all, and holds his own in this uniformly impressive cast. Conductor Antonio Pappano is on top form too, always in his element with Rossini. The impetus for this staging was the commercial recording he made of the opera in 2011, which also featured Finley, Osborn and Byström. The success of that recording is continued in this staging, even if the superlative music-making ends up bolstering an imaginative but flawed stage conception.

And what of that rape scene? By this third performance it had been toned down to the point of becoming utterly inconsequential. Directors often make changes as productions go on, and more often than not these involve reducing any sensationalism. Even so, given the near riot in the stalls on opening night that these changes placate, the result seems like a very timid act of self-censorship. That, in turn, speaks of a general lack of self-confidence from the director about his most bold ideas. He seems to have three competing concepts for Guillaume Tell – the Balkans updating, the son projecting his ideals on to the father, and the mythical hero staking the consciousness of the otherwise ordinary man. Any of these could have worked well if explored in more dramatic and psychological detail. But together, the ideas grate against each other, reducing a potentially grand conception to something altogether more mundane.

Guillaume Tell screens nationally at Palace Cinemas, August 7-12