Opera's Rape Scene Prompts Backlash ; 'Guillaume Tell' Premiere at Royal Opera Is Met with Boos and Criticism

By Bilefsky, Dan | International New York Times, July 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Opera's Rape Scene Prompts Backlash ; 'Guillaume Tell' Premiere at Royal Opera Is Met with Boos and Criticism


Bilefsky, Dan, International New York Times


A gang-rape scene including full frontal nudity and torture that prompted loud booing at the premiere of "Guillaume Tell" at the Royal Opera n Monday.

Gioachino Rossini's opera "Guillaume Tell" has long been known for a scene in which Tell is forced to shoot an arrow at an apple perched on the head of his son Jemmy, chopping it in half but leaving the boy unscathed.

Now, however, audience members at the Royal Opera House in London may remember it for a different reason: A gang-rape scene including full frontal nudity and torture that prompted loud booing at the production's premiere on Monday, an outpouring of criticism of the Italian director Damiano Michieletto on social media, and a rare but short-lived apology from the Royal Opera's young and provocative director, Kasper Holten.

Rossini's opera, which was first shown in Paris in 1821 and has inspired generations of composers, recounts the story of a Swiss freedom fighter who vanquishes Austrian forces who are occupying Switzerland and terrorizing the locals. Needless to say, a call for nudity is conspicuously absent from the 19th-century libretto.

Yet even at a time when modern audiences have grown accustomed to a steady stream of provocative, director-driven opera productions -- witness Calixto Bieito's current production of "Carmen" at the English National Opera, during which a group of smugglers beat to death and urinate on the officer Zuniga -- some in the audience at the Royal Opera were reportedly visibly upset, if not scandalized.

The moral outrage spurred by the performance underlined how the debate of how much is too much -- fanned in popular culture by the strong backlash against the sexual violence portrayed in the popular HBO series "Games of Thrones" -- is tipping into high culture.

"A lot of people go to the opera to be entertained, and they don't want to be offended and shocked," said Mark Pullinger, editor of the classical music website Bachtrack, who attended Monday's performance. "It has been going on for years, but lately it seems to be reaching a new level."

Speaking by telephone, Mr. Pullinger said the audience exploded into loud booing, with one man loudly chanting "Shoot the director!" during a scene in Act III, in which the libretto calls for Austrian soldiers to force local women to dance. Instead, in Mr. Michieletto's interpretation of the scene, an actress who is not part of the singing cast is fondled by a group of gun-toting officers, who force champagne down her throat and douse her with it before forcing her to lie naked on a banquet table.

She is surrounded by the soldiers, before being rescued by William Tell. The rape is inferred. Writing on the website of the performing arts newspaper The Stage, the opera critic George Hall gave the production one star, calling it "a dire evening." One scene "is ramped up into a gratuitous gang-rape that provokes the noisiest and most sustained booing I can ever recall during any performance at this address," he wrote. "Intellectually poverty-stricken, emotionally crass and with indifferent stagecraft, the result is nowhere near the standard an international company should be aiming at."

Some took to social media to express their disapproval at the performance, which was also praised for the soaring notes delivered by some of the singers. …

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