At what point does art go too far?
At what point do artists stop and think that perhaps their actions go beyond what is necessary to make a point?
At what point do artists think they should speak up?
I wonder if any of these questions came up during the gestation of the new production of Guillaume Tell at Royal Opera House?
Of course I think that productions – art in general – should be challenging but an advisory that the “production features a scene involving an adult theme and brief nudity” did nothing to prepare me – or quite a lot of the audience – to the escalating and vicious violence inflicted on Schiller’s play and Rossini’s opera by director Damiano Michieletto. I don’t think I’ve attended any performance where booing has actually been heard during the performance itself. But as it became apparent that the rape scene wasn’t going to stop, as it went beyond uncomfortable to disturbing to watch, an isolated boo in the upper reaches of the auditorium gained momentum until quite a large number of the audience were booing.
Normally agnostic about booing, I admit that on this occasion I was on the side of the outraged. If Michieletto thinks it is fine to depict such graphic savagery – completelout of sync with the original libretto – then members of the public can exercise their rights too.
I questioned Covent Garden’s support of Thaddeus Strassberger’s Glare at the end of last year. In my view, the objectification of women and the violence against one of the leading female singers in Strassberger’s production was questionable and the sudden violence at the end was neither smart nor honest to the plot.
With Guillaume Tell, Covent Garden went even further. During rehearsals didn’t anyone step back and think that in the context of the story and of the music, what Michieletto was asking the performers to do was wrong?
If it’s okay to ask performers what their stance is on Putin’s homophobic intent, then one has to ask what the performers in this production thought during rehearsals? And more importantly what they think after the audience’s reaction on the first night?
That single error of judgement sadly marred the entire experience for me. A staid and stodgy first act and a general creative malaise in terms of the production had begun to be redeemed in the Second Act. But despite a general improvement in the singing, and an increased athleticism and drama in the pit, the rape scene could not be erased or swept to one side. The singers, and in particular Gerald Finley, Malin Byström and John Osborn gave some committed if uneven performances.
They were, quite rightly, recognized and cheered by the audience but if opera is the complete experience, then the worm in this apple made the whole thing unpalatable.
It completely destroyed the magic.