Like most boys growing up in the US during the 60’s I played “army” growing up. This is a nice way of saying that I and my friends played "war." We had our toy soldiers, our toy guns and our fake uniforms. As little boys it was pretty harmless playing around the house, but as we got older we would link up with other boys and turn our neighborhood into a battleground. It was fun – mostly. Nobody got hurt – usually. It was fantasy. That was a long time ago. In the intervening 50 years or so I have learned that fantasy and reality are not the same. The reality of war is much uglier than the fantasy and lots of people get hurt – not just the combatants, but innocent people get hurt in a huge variety of ways. Specifically innocent people who happen to live in the way of advancing troops are often caught in the crossfire; and women who encounter enemy troops accidently have been raped, beaten and killed for centuries. This is part of the reality that we like to pretend doesn’t exist. But it does exist. Sexual violence is a part of warfare now and it has been going back as far back as we have records in history. The reality of warfare is violent and horrible. But the fantasy persists, and we often do not like to have our fantasies ruined by the inconvenience of reality.
I finally had the opportunity to watch the very controversial production of the opera “William Tell” by Rossini that recently had its premiere and was subsequently broadcast to cinemas. This production aroused such ire and upset at the premiere that the performance was interrupted with boos. Specifically a scene of sexual violence was depicted with stark reality (read nudity) to the extent that many were upset. In the performance I watched however the scene had been modified (the nudity removed), but the sexual violence was depicted with just as much starkness as I have ever seen on stage. The social media reaction has been predictable. Many seem to believe that opera (and art in general I suppose) should not enter the realm of realism but confine itself to fantasy. The libretto is (supposedly) set in a long ago time so we should keep it there and let the story play out as a fantasy. That is what the composer intended after all, isn’t it?
Maybe - maybe not! It should not be a surprise that I have a problem with this attitude. First, let me address the contention that to change the setting somehow dishonors the composer and librettist: This of course assumes that folks making this claim have actually either seen the opera or read the libretto. This usually turns out not to be the case. Often those who are the most offended by “updated” productions have neither seen the production in question nor read the libretto. 2nd, why do we naturally assume that the composer or librettist would not want their work to be interpreted in a way that brings the work to life in new and unique ways that find ways of speaking to new generations? Is it better to keep these works as museum pieces to be trotted out to provide an escape? That to me is not art, nor is it what opera is about. And I do not believe that most composers would want their works to be relegated to being museum pieces. I think this is especially true with Rossini and this particular opera. “William Tell” was a complete change of direction for this composer and he seems to have been quite intent upon depicting the reality of warfare violence, including sexual violence.
In its 4 acts this opera is really quite a violent work. The opera begins under the cloud of oppression and threatened violence. The Austrian occupation of Switzerland has taken a toll on the people. They try to continue with their lives, but it is not easy. Then a character named Leucholt arrives (in this production covered in blood). He has caught a soldier raping his daughter. He murdered the soldier with an axe he confesses and is now trying to escape the soldiers who are after him. Tell agrees to help him escape. But the consequences for Tell's action are grave. The Austrian soldiers swoop in and treat the residents with brutality, eventually murdering an old man (Mechthal) who dares to oppose them. This offstage rape and the murders are then the catalyst of the remainder of the plot. Rape and violence are a part of this opera from act 1. And then in act 4 (according to the libretto), the soldiers force a group of local girls to dance for them. This is described in the English libretto as “violence.” In this production however the scene has been refocused and has only one woman who is gang raped by the soldiers. There is nothing remotely appealing about this scene. It is harsh and unpleasant. I found it hard to watch. But I felt that it was completely consistent with the opera, and not only the director’s vision but with libretto itself. Perhaps the nudity in the scene pushed it over a line. I don’t know, since there was no nudity in the production I saw. But sexual violence is a reality of war and it is in the libretto. Those who are so offended by this scene might consider turning their outrage against the current perpetrators of this kind of horrendous abuse of innocents who are caught up in war. Sexual violence continues to be a horrible reality even today in the 21st century.
For me what made this production outstanding and remarkable was the way the fantasy of war was juxtaposed with the reality of war. Tell’s son Jemmy plays with toy soldiers and reads comic books about war, specifically about the legend of William Tell, while he is living the harsh reality. The opening scene was absolutely outstanding in setting the atmosphere. The chorus in particularly was magnificent. They certainly had lots to do and sang incredibly well. I think my favorite scene was the finale of act 2 where the Swiss men all come together and pledge to each other their commitment to rid their land of the oppressor. Musically and dramatically this was a very powerful scene. The famous scene of shooting the apple off the boy’s head was done very effectively as well.
The cast was terrific. Gerald Finley was an outstanding Tell. He brought his beautiful voice to this role and the result was a complex interpretation of this character. This was not a one dimensional Tell. John Osborn was equally outstanding as Arnold, the son of old Mechthal who is caught between his duty to his country and his love of the Austrian princess Mathilde, sung by Malim Bystrom. The remainder of the cast was equally outstanding. There was not a weak link among them. I particularly liked the young soprano who played the boy Jemmy (I don’t have her name unfortunately). She perfectly captured the struggle between fantasy and reality that is focused on this character.
In short, I thought this was a profound, moving and powerful production and and an outstanding performance. This should probably be rated R, but there is here in this production a message we all need to hear and take to heart. Within the last 15 years we in the west have been way too cavalier about committing ourselves to war. Politicians in this country still promote the idea that the solution for global problems is to go to war! This is crap! We need to begin to move away from the idea that violence is the way we conduct diplomacy. Every military engagement that we have entered into since the invasion of Iraq has simply made things worse, especially for the innocents who are caught up in this – for the women, the children, the elderly and the sick. Maybe this production will call into question the degree to which we are all still caught up in the fantasy of war and prompt us to begin to ask more questions of our leaders.
Last comment – I made a comment on social media to the effect that this opera – William Tell - is not the Rossini of the Barber of Seville, Cenerentola or L’Italiani. Someone took offense at this comment, but it is true. This is not the Rossini most of us are familiar with. This opera is not even “Donna del Lago.” Musically this work seems to me to represent a completely new direction for this composer. Not only the choice of the subject matter, to which judging from the music, he was totally committed. But the music itself is powerful and moving. There is no harpsichord. There are still recitatives but there is a move towards blending the recits into the fabric of the opera – this of course is one of the Verdi’s great accomplishments. But here is a step in that direction before Verdi. Also Rossini’s use of the chorus has no parallel in any of his other works as far as I can tell. In fact, I cannot think of another Bel Canto opera that uses the chorus in this manner. It is tragic that Rossini did not continue to compose after this opera and chose to abandon composing operas after he wrote Tell. I would like to see this opera performed more often and I would vote for bringing this production to the Met. I hope that many will take the time (3 hours and 45 minutes) to watch this production. It is worth every minute.