Covent Garden’s William Tell is ‘inexcusably nasty’

Covent Garden’s William Tell is ‘inexcusably nasty’


norman lebrecht

June 30, 2015

First broadsheet reviews of last night’s storm-tossed production pulls no punches.

Richard Morrison writes on the Times website:

william tell2



With one inexcusably nasty five-minute sequence, rightly greeted with a performance-stopping furore of boos probably unprecedented in Royal Opera House history, this show went from four stars to one. An over-reaction? Not if you saw 20 men from the chorus pull forward a woman, taunt her, strip her naked and then pile on to rape her. Explicitly and downstage.

That this gratuitous degradation should be presented in 2015 Britain by the nation’s most highly subsidised arts institution shames not only the production’s director, Damiano Michieletto, but also Covent Garden’s chief executive, Alex Beard, and the director of opera, Kasper Holten. Why did they concur? I was shocked to see children in the audience.

Full review here (firewall).

More reviews as they come in.

Michael Church in the Independent:

Some directors love to shock, but Damiano Michieletto got more than he bargained for when he staged a slaveringly-protracted stripping-naked of a female actor in a gang-rape chez the evil Gesler in Guillaume Tell: the auditorium was swept by a sudden hurricane of booing so loud, so angry, and so unanimous that the music was drowned and the scene brought to an embarrassed halt.

This Italian director may have urgent things to say about Nineties Bosnia – whither he had transplanted Rossini’s Swiss melodrama – but it took the unprecedented gut reaction of 2000 punters to ram home the tastelessness of his little idea.

The mass-bathing of a group of nearly-naked four-year-olds in the next act was no less gratuitous.


Yet there is also much to like in this production, which has allowed Antonio Pappano to see staged the opera he has long championed.

More here.

Tim Ashley in the Guardian:

The Royal Opera is, perhaps, going to have to start reconsidering its priorities and its relationship with its audience after the first night of Damiano Michieletto’swretched new production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. The groundswell of concern about the bifurcation between musical excellence and weak theatrical standards at Covent Garden has been gathering for some time now. Michieletto’s decision to re-cast the third act ballet – in which the tyrannical Gesler’s henchmen force a group of girls to dance with them – as a protracted and pruriently voyeuristic gang rape, resulted in an immediate reaction of unprecedented anger, as sustained booing swept through the auditorium, drowning out the music, and continuing until the end of the episode.

A few individuals carried on heckling the singers – unfairly – through to the start of Act IV. Not everyone, it should be added, had got that far. People were voting with their feet as well as their voices: quite a few had already left during the second interval.

Alexandra Coghlan in the Spectator:

Let’s talk instead about how Michieletto’s production — lazy in concept, violently ugly in execution — doesn’t earn the extremity of that scene. There’s an emotional and dramatic void at the core of the show, partly born of Rossini’s ponderous score (which has moments of astonishing beauty and drama, unfortunately stitched together into a rather unwieldy whole), but mostly sucked hollow by a director who misunderstands his material. To include all the opera’s ballet music but to deny it any dancers is misguided; to supplement that lack with second-rate mime from the singers is just plain wilful.


VIDEO: How they booed the director (starts at 4:10)


  • DLowe says:

    Hear Hear, Richard Morrison!

  • william osborne says:

    “…but it took the unprecedented gut reaction of 2000 punters to ram home the tastelessness of his little idea.”

    And of course, while the mass rape was actually happening in Bosnia, those 2000 “punters” barely said a word. They didn’t want to be troubled with such nastiness…

    • DLowe says:

      How do you know what any of those punters were doing?

      • william osborne says:

        The obvious point is that the world stood by and did nothing. Especially notable was the inaction of Europe even though the events were happening in Europe and the crimes committed by Europeans. The war was finally ended by the Dayton Accords worked out at an air force base in Ohio. Europe remained ineffective to the end. OTH, they can certainly boo when faced with the memory of the events staged in the ROH. The ironies are apparent, and of course, will be duly overlooked.

      • La Donna del Largo says:

        By the same token, Mr. Church should not pretend he can read the “punters'” minds en masse. Two thousand people booing have very likely something close to 2,000 reasons for doing so.

    • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

      Really? REALLY? You know all those members of the audience, do you? You know what their feelings were for the poor victims of the war in the Balkans? By the way, even a cursory reading of the reviews shows that this production did not specifically relate to the recent Balkan conflict.

      No man can possibly know the trauma that a women’s mind undergoes when she is raped. I have seen, personally, the aftermath of a violent rape. I have seen the victim cut themselves, drink themselves into a stupor, smash their head against a wall to get the bad thoughts out.

      Rape is about far more than the possession of a woman’s body against their will. And they are left with the aftermath, not the rapist, not those who sympathise. Them. Alone.

      And you feel that this should be depicted in a five minute vignette in a C19th opera?


      I don’t think I have felt this angry in years.

      • DLowe says:

        Well said.

      • william osborne says:

        No, I feel these themes should be examined in contemporary forms of music theater, not a dead art form that sits socially mute on the margins of society.

        OTH, if you haven’t been so angry in years, maybe the production has some worth after all…

        • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

          As angry as I am at the production, I am as angry at you for what you have posted here today.

          Europe played no part in the Balkan conflict? Really? I should tell that to the friends I have who served with the British Army as part of the UN and EU peacekeeping forces. I should tell that to the two friends who drove on convoys, both of whom have described to me having guns held to their heads whilst their lorries were looted. Or to the friend working for the Red Cross, who as part of their work had to see things that none of us had to see. The Dayton Accord was signed were it was because it was neutral ground. Learn a bit about European history. Then comment.

          But in your reductive universe, you bring all of this complexity down to the supposed culpability of an audience, some of whom might not have even been born when that conflict took place.

          And, equally, you reduce rape to something compartmentalised, clinical, incompatible to an art form you profess to hate.

          Opera is an infinitely expressive art form that has many things to say. The graphic depiction of rape and rape alone in opera, in any art form, trivialises it and misunderstands why it is so horrific, especially if it is filleted into an existing story and brings no focus onto an examination of the highly complex consequences it engenders.

          No man has a right to bring this to the stage. Not. A. One. It is completely beyond our understanding.

          • Frankster says:

            There is an ongoing investigation of alligations that UN and allied troops have sexually molested both children and adults of both sexes. That has been in the newpapers for some time. I understand that you personally might feel that rape has no business on stage but I have seen depicted it in the theater literally all my life as well as the cinema and even the ballet. If you feel that opera is a particular art that should not expose audiences to these images, it would be helpful if you could express these ideas. Many feel that opera is not relevant to young people and contemporary issues and it might explain the average age when you look around the lobby.

          • william osborne says:

            So the UK wasn’t neutral territory in the Balkan Conflict, but the USA was? To insulate the horrors of rape from artist expression would be deny the validity of some of the most important art works in history, including a long narrative poem named “The Rape of Lucrece” by some UK fellow whose name you might have heard.

        • pooroperaman says:

          So what did you do to prevent rape in Bosnia, Mr Osborne, and what are you doing now to prevent rape wherever you currently live?

          • william osborne says:

            I’ve devoted my life to the topic. I’ve written three music theater works about violence against women, and two specifically about sexual violence (“Street Scene for the Last Mad Soprano” and “Cybeline.”)

            “Street Scene for the Last Mad Soprano” deals specifically with portrayals of violence against women in opera. For documentation see the two dissertations written about my work, especially Dr. Jessica Butler’s which can be found on this page, along with an 18 page article she wrote about “Street Scene.” A video of Street Scene is also on the site, along with a short demo video, and a slide show of screen shots from the production:


            See also the dissertation about my work by Dr. Jesús Fernando Lloret González, a professor at the University of Málaga, Spain, entitled: “Fusión del Teatro Y La Ópera a Través de Los Medios Audiovisuales: La Trombonista Abbie Conant Y El Compositor William Osborne.” (“The Fusion of Theater and Opera Through Audiovisual Media In the Work of William Osborne and Abbie Conant.”)

            In the mid 70s, when my wife and I were students, she was sexually assaulted on the campus of Temple University in Philadelphia by psychopath who had recently been released from prison. Two days later he assaulted another woman with an ice pick. Not long afterwards he was apprehended, then we had to go through the trials. He was sentenced to many years in prison.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      As the French say: les bras m’en tombent…

  • nimra says:

    Those who haven’t seen this production shouldn’t be entitled to an opinion (I haven’t seen it either). One should beware of prejudgements; such issues are rather complex and can easily become an ideological battleground – it all stands and falls with the artistic quality of the production. (As always, the devil is in the detail.)

    • Simon S. says:

      Oh, who needs to see a production if they know that Regietheater is evil? And why should an upper class audience that wants to enjoy a play on problems of earlier times be bothered with the problems of our time?

    • Michael says:

      I was there. The signs that the audience was not happy were evident well before the violent rape scene. There had been much incomprehensible and provocative “staging” to confuse and distract: never in 40+ years of opera going, including many outrageous controversial productions which I have admired, have I found it so difficult to concentrate on the music. The long and violent stripping and attacking of one woman was the straw that broke the camel’s back: the climax where the producer’s many idiosyncrasies became simply tawdry, cheap and gratuitously nasty.

      I feel performances should not be interrupted by booing, but I had a clear feeling last night that the initial boos were picked up in a swell by angry (and disappointed) not shocked patrons who do not normally boo and we’re doing so for the first time in their life.

      As shocking and disturbing to me was the stripping to their underwear of young children before ritual washing/cleansing in zinc baths – in their underwear, although we can legitimately surmise that the original thought was that they should be naked. Frankly, I think there we were all too stunned to boo.

  • J. says:

    Remembering the best essay about the “amazing” Regietheater:

    • nimra says:

      These are mere turf wars. I am not a proponent of Regietheater but there exist wonderful so-called Regietheater productions as well as appalling ones. No generalizations, please.

  • J. says:

    These productions should be staged in Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea. I would love to see the reactions of William Osborne’s commie heros.

  • ANON says:

    I find it a bit peculiar that the hecklers who found it so offensive thought it ok to shout out using so many expletives. ( ‘F*****G disgrace and S**T are two examples clearly heard) …..

  • Angela Rodion says:

    I was at Wormsley last week for Garsington Opera’s “Death in Venice.” Charmingly and delightfully the production is actually, noticeably so, set in Venice and is an object lesson in what a first rate opera production should look like.

  • Luk says:

    I think you have to consider the theatre where the show will be presented when you prepare a production and there was a gross misevaluation from Micheletto (who, incidentally, has signed some of the best opera productions in the past years) and Holten’s part. Things that can be done, I don’t know, at the Komische Oper in Berlin or in Amsterdam are perhaps not suited for the Covent Garden or the MET.
    This doesn’t mean that conservative theaters are forced to endure boring and uninspired productions and the experimental ones the worst excesses of Regietheater, but the producer should be aware of the limits of the audience of each place, trying to push the boundary as much as he/she sees fit without crossing the line.

    I personally think a rape (or whatever) -can- be shown or hinted at in opera staging, if in context and not gratuitous just for the shock value. I also accept provocation but not for its own sake. It’s a fine line and it must be evaluated case by case, there’s no general rule.

    • Angela Rodion says:

      You’re quite right, and what Holten did in Copenhagen (I saw his awful Cavalleria there not so long ago) does not go down well at the Royal Opera House, which, after all has a reputation to uphold. Is it time for Holten to go? A decided yes from me.
      Mr Michieletto has done excellent work elsewhere apparently, but misjudged his audience in London. As a friend pointed out to me recently, fifty years ago Covent Garden was one of the very few houses that didn’t have a production by Wieland Wagner. There was a feeling by the management (Sir David Webster) that Covent Garden should not do what other opera houses did. Certainly it did not mean that every production was successful, but did, I have been told, make for a very interesting time. Holten is mistaken if he thinks Covent Garden is just another opera house in Europe. It isn’t.

  • Beaumont says:

    Given Mr Osborne’s comments here, I have a wee bit of a problem recognising his qualifications to talk about mass rapes in Bosnia….

    • william osborne says:

      The VPO’s concert in Sarajevo was surrounded with ironies, though not as badly as its concert in Mauthausen. See this summary of the press from the event:

      Gestures of tolerance and peace from an orchestra that forbids membership to people who are fully Asian and have Asian family names. (Now we’ll get some posts about how there’s never been an Asian good enough to be admitted, etc., etc,….)

      These are examples of how artistic relationships to horror can indeed by characterized by falseness and hypocracy.

  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    And so the dancing around the subject begins, I see.

    At no point have I said that the subject of rape should not be represented in ANY art form. I would be quite open to the subject of rape being treated in an opera.

    What is important is, firstly, the CONTEXT.

    I don’t believe it is necessary for a rape to be graphically depicted. This has all the marks of fetishisation. I believe that graphic representations of an act such as rape do not deter violent rapists. Most violent rapists are psychopaths or sociopaths and are undeterred by moral petition.

    The subject of the rape of a woman is best tackled by women. A man is statically far less likely to have suffered rape. He is far less likely to understand the emotional crisis that it brings with it, and its enduring nature.

    The Rape of Lucretia is a fine example of this. Neither Britten nor his source material can make this entirely satisfactory. Lucretia is raped, Lucretia feels she will never be clean again, Lucretia kills herself. A milestone for it’s time perhaps; but hardly satisfactory for our modern age.

    With regard to the Dayton Agreement. Even a limited knowledge of the Second World War would tell you why the agreement couldn’t be signed in the UK.

    • william osborne says:

      This is exactly the point. Shakespeare wrote the poem, and Britten used the story centuries later. Artistic expression is a processor of constant evolution that defies conceptions of exclusion about who and who can’t address topics.

      • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

        Oh, dear. Britten didn’t use Shakespeare. Britten, or rather his librettist Ronald Duncan, used Andre Obey’s play. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Please. Just. Stop.

        A man is not capable of putting himself in a woman’s place to describe the emotions she feels during and after the act of rape. Neither can he tell a woman about carrying a child in her belly, or about childbirth.

        Stick to what you know – which seems to be very little indeed.

        • william osborne says:

          I said Britten used the story, not Shakespeare’s poem.

        • Olassus says:

          Osborne knows plenty and isn’t bent on personally attacking others here.

          • Glenn Hardy says:

            That’s certainly true. And given what he’s just been subjected to, is showing remarkable restraint. Kind of like the grown-up in the midst of squabbling children?

  • Jeremy Lock says:

    The vast majority of people did not boo or walk out last night. How Richard Morrison can give the performance 4 stars if it were not for the 5 minute ‘incident’ is beyond me; it was dire from the first to the last minute.

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    For the stage director it’s probably ‘trebles all round’. This species rarely suffers from negative publicity.

  • El Grillo says:

    I actually ignore this stuff.
    I actually want to hear the music, and that supersedes whatever the blink is going on on stage, often.

    I have a DVD of La Finta Giardiniera, and I wouldn’t have said anything about the bizarre attempt to “historically update” the opera there, but for this, here.

    Sometimes I actually do pay attention to the staging, but….

    I don’t want to see the whole idea of what time has passed, and is left perfect (what it was in the beginning), to see this mangled with someone’s ideas of how he’s going to use it to make a statement, no matter how politically acute it might seem. I don’t think that they’ve taken the trouble to look and see what the opera really is about. It’s disrespectful and they wouldn’t even know it. Like umpteen hybrid soloists putting their “mark” on the concerto repertoire, and even thinking that’s what it’s about, and advertising themselves that way, and have it sell. If the stark rift was there in the past, what there is now between what these people make and how much money actually goes into nurturing creativity, I don’t think that the whole repertoire would have blossomed into being, the same repertoire they use to “make a mark.”

    And if they wanted to have an opera that makes such a statement there ARE composers such as Gubaidulina or Penderecki that could pull that off, perhaps; and then there are others like Part and there was Gorecki.

    Is this a problem that these are composer that actually have something to say rather than they go along with the whole clique?