Damiano Michieletto © Pietro Spagnoli
Damiano Michieletto
© Pietro Spagnoli
First, some facts. Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is set in the occupation of what is now Switzerland by the Austrian Empire. The opera (in its original form) makes clear that the occupation is a brutal one and that its local commander Gesler is a brutal, sadistic man. As was normal for a Parisian Grand Opéra of the period, Guillaume Tell contains ballet scenes: the one in Act III is called the “Pas des soldats” and lasts just over five minutes. The stage directions in the libretto are as follows:

Des soldats contraignent des femmes suisses à danser avec eux. Les habitants témoignent par leurs gestes leur indignation de cette violence. (My translation: “Some soldiers force some of the Swiss women to dance with them. The locals’ gesturing indicates their indignation about this violence”).

In this season’s new Royal Opera production (my review here), director Damiano Michieletto stages the “Pas des soldats” as a dumb show (not danced) of the mental torture and gang rape of a Swiss woman. For around four minutes (according to my memory), the woman is manhandled, forced to sit on soldiers' laps, doused in champagne, has hands up her skirts, is rebuffed at every attempt to escape. Eventually, she ends up lying on the top of a long table, where she disappears under a pile of soldiers, from which she emerges, briefly, stark naked. The scene ends and the woman disappears off-stage. A large number of people in the audience booed loudly during the scene on opening night: I can’t tell how many, but I’m fairly sure it was the loudest booing I’ve ever heard in mid-performance.

And now, the opinions. After the show ended, I heard several patrons describe the production as “disgusting”, including one who described it as “the worst thing Covent Garden have ever done, beating even Maria Stuarda”. Social media commentary was more mixed, with some agreeing with the disgust, some feeling (I paraphrase) that it was merely a pointless cheap trick, some furious with the booers for depriving them of their right to watch the production and draw their own conclusions and some feeling that this was a completely legitimate and logical device for showing that occupations are brutal. In the real world of military occupation, the argument goes, soldiers don’t just force local women to dance with them, they rape them violently – to show anything less is unacceptable sugar coating.

What interests me most about these reactions is that the actual nudity and sex did not seem to me to be very graphic or explicit at all: a few seconds of seeing a woman with her clothes off is hardly ground-breaking stuff in opera, nor is the updating of a medieval setting to modern times where the weapons are nastier and the uniforms more drab, nor is the idea that violent scenes should be depicted on stage in a hard hitting way. So why did Michieletto’s staging cause such an uproar? I will confess, at this point, that it disturbed me deeply and I spent two thirds of the scene hoping it would end soon.

Much of the answer, I believe, lies in a passage from the fantasy author and screenwriter William F Nolan, quoted by Stephen King in Danse Macabre when describing “the art and science of scaring the crap out of people”. Nolan points out that “nothing is as frightening as what’s behind the closed door”: if you want to really terrify and disturb an audience, their own imagination is a far more powerful tool with which to do so than anything you can create explicitly. When the door opens and the ten foot tall bug is revealed, the audience is actually relieved: “A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible, but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.”

The point in Guillaume Tell is that the dance sequence is a long one. In the course of the four minutes, the audience had plenty of time to use its imagination to predict what was about to happen to the unfortunate woman. When she disappeared under the pile of bodies, every last atrocity built up in the audience’s head was happening there on stage, an impression that was confirmed when the woman emerged naked – in spite of the fact that the reality was that we were only looking at a pile of bodies and a few seconds of nudity. The effect was far more powerful than any graphic sex could possibly have been.

The second reason, I think, is that the whole scene took place to the accompaniment of music which was as pretty and cheerful as Rossini can be. Juxtaposing horrible violence or with cheerful or uplifting music isn’t a new trick, particularly in the world of cinema: the archetype, for me, is the scene in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange where the juvenile delinquent engages in the most extreme “ultra-violence” to the accompaniment of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or the helicopter flight in Apocalypse Now to the accompaniment of Ride of the Valkyries. I once heard David Gilmour of Pink Floyd describe the juxtaposition of depressing lyrics and uplifting music as the platform on which the band’s success was built, an idea readily understandable by listening to Time from Dark Side of the Moon. In Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera The Passenger, the use of Bach’s D minor Chaconne in the midst of the concentration camps was one of the most gut-wrenching operatic scenes I’ve ever experienced. Combining violence and rousing music creates a potent brew.

I respect what Michieletto was trying to achieve, but I think he succeeded rather too well. Yes, we are watching a horribly brutal occupation, but that point had been totally made by the end of the first minute of the scene, had been done to death by the end of the second and was simply gratuitous by the fourth (the few seconds of nudity, for me, were a release, just as King and Nolan describe). The undesirable effect of staging the scene in that way was that it seriously unbalanced Act III: my level of discomfort was such that I wasn’t able to concentrate nearly as much I would have liked on the crucial scenes that follow the Pas des soldats (including the lovely duet between Tell and Jemmy, Tell’s great aria “Sois immobile” and the famous apple-shooting). While I generally prefer opera productions that work with the musical and dramatic intent of the original to those which attempt to subvert it, I can accept subversion which makes me think – but it’s disappointing if important sections of the piece are damaged.

In my opinion, it’s not enough for a Regietheater director to have a concept which is artistically valid and self-consistent. The director must also sell the concept to the bulk of his audience: they must leave the opera house feeling that their understanding of the human condition has been enhanced in some way, whether intellectually or by direct appeal to their emotions. Unlike, say, a sculpture or installation, an opera production is a transient thing: its only value is in what it communicates to its audience on the night. Whatever the shocked opinions of the first people who saw Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, generations afterwards have been able to debate its position in the annals of Dadaist art. Other than via the highly imperfect medium of video, an opera director does not have that luxury.

And so, I believe that Michieletto’s “succeeding too well” translated into failure – more precisely, a failure to transmit his ideas to his audience. It’s possible that Michieletto considers the Covent Garden audience to be a bunch of self-satisfied bourgeois who needed to be shocked out of their complacency. Perhaps he’s right to do so. But if that was his intention, he failed: the scene was overdone to the point that for a large number of (presumably) the most complacent, he caused merely disgust. For many others, the predictable booing spoilt their enjoyment as well. And neither of these things serves anyone.