Kiss and #Tell

Did the Royal Opera House bow to the pressure of Twitter’s Deus ex Machina?

Has the furore become a fudge?

When opera makes the front-pages it rarely bodes well. On Monday night the Royal Opera House turned into a congested abattoir of outraged mooing after the premiere of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. At allegro speed news of the 5 minute rape scene –and the unprecedented level of curtain call booing- spread online.

But when the gossip hacks arrived for Thursday evening’s second performance with their cultural skewers sharpened in the name of moral decency they were in for a surprise. Expecting a debauched gangbang their copy was spoilt by a production about as raunchy as an in flagrante tussle in Downton. Rather than being naked the actress covered herself. This altered the tone of the scene to make the rape less explicit and more stylised. If there was any booing it was drowned out by roof-raising applause. Quite rightly. Antonio Pappano conducts a world-class cast and Damiano Michieletto’s staging –earthy, oddly cinematic- brings something moving to a story full of archetype and patriotic bravura.

Was the opening night fracas just an elaborate stunt? Reviews that abysmal get noticed. The Stage’s barnstorming one-star assassination described a show that has to be seen to be believed. The furious blogs that followed by those who hadn’t seen, and had no interest in ever seeing, a production that dares to present a horrendous act horrendously carried the opera to new quarters. Thursday night was packed- and not just by restless journos.

Great opera has always tried to smash through the atrophied conservationism of its patrons. No one had more contempt for their high society spectators than Wagner who wrote operas so that latecomers missed the best parts- so much so that his routine-disrupting caused a riot at the Paris premier of Tannhäuser. Michieletto’s disruption -more the beat of the Coliseum than Covent Garden- is welcome.

Yet the fudge of Michieletto’s pledge not to change anything after the opening night and Thursday’s attenuated act three points to another issue. After Thursday’s performance several audience members were complaining of self-censorship. You could say there’s no pleasing them, but it does seem that the ROH wants to have it both ways: defiant in the face of pressure and responsive to the concerns of its patrons. Those close to the production claim that, rather than being up to Michieletto, the choice to conceal was the actress’s decision. Having been ‘exposed’ on the front page of the Standard for the sheer scandal of doing her job this explanation is understandable.

Where the twitter tenor did afford Guillaume Tell heights of publicity rarely achieved by traditional opera it also appears to have been the Deus ex Machina –propelling a perception of scandal that ultimately forced the hand of those creating the art.

Responsibility also lies with an opera-bashing press eager to sniff out the next crisis in institutions perceived as elitist and undeserving of their subsidies. The journalist I was seated next to on Thursday was gone by the interval — disappointed not to be able to fill her notebook with salacious bile. If she’d stayed for the impressive final act she would have heard the eponymous hero sing “Everything here changes and grows in grandeur”. I hope some reviewers were taking note.

Gerard Corvin

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