Tell stripped of Romanticism

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.

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