The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London found itself under a spotlight that had nothing to do with musical values. Monday evening the Royal Opera presented the first performance of a new production, directed by Damiano Michieletto, of Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell opera. Music originally intended for a ballet divertissement was used, instead, to depict the violent revelry at a banquet of army officers in a setting that Michieletto transplanted from thirteenth-century Switzerland under Austrian occupation to the bloody conflicts that emerged following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the Nineties. That violence was described by Rebecca Reid in an article that appeared on the Web site for the London Telegraph this morning as follows:
The scene was apparently harrowing to some audience members, as the officers force champagne down a woman’s throat, molest her with a gun, strip her and force her to lie on top of the banquet table.
This was enough to draw boos from the audience during the performance, followed by aftershocks in the Twittersphere. Reid reproduced the following tweet from Michael Arditti:
Senseless, sensationalist Guillaume Tell complete with gratuitous nude rape scene @RoyalOperaHouse represents new nadir. Heads should roll.
Reid followed her reportorial account with an extended analysis, which also addressed the issue of sexual violence in episodes of Game of Thrones on HBO. However, before considering her observations, I feel it necessary to observe that here, in my own home town of San Francisco, we have been dealing with a similar situation in our War Memorial Opera House.
This year the summer season of the San Francisco Opera featured the world premiere of Two Women, a new opera with a score by Marco Tutino and a libretto that he wrote in conjunction with Fabio Ceresa. Sung in Italian, that libretto is an adaptation of a script by Luca Rossi based on Alberto Moravia’s 1958 novel about conditions in the vicinity of Rome between 1943 and 1944 (that time of the Second World War when Benito Mussolini ceded control of Italy to the Nazis), La Ciociara (the woman from Ciociaria), which is also the Italian title of the opera printed on the cover of the score. Moravia’s novel is best known through the 1960 film adaptation by Carlo Ponti, directed by Vittorio De Sica and starring Sophia Loren in the title role. In the United States, however, the film was released under the title Two Women, referring to the relationship between Moravia’s protagonist Cesira and her teenaged daughter Rosetta. the opera was staged by Director Francesca Zambello (who has also staged operas at Covent Garden).
Now, with absolutely no intention of trying to get into a “numbers game,” I wish to point out that, over the course of Zambello’s staging of the opera’s narrative, both of these two women are raped. Cesira is raped in the very first scene of the first act, when she is trying to persuade the truck-driver Giovanni to drive her and Rosetta to Ciociaria to escape the Allied bombing of Rome. The rape takes place while Rosetta’s shop is being leveled by bombs.
The two women never make it to Ciociaria. In the following scene they get as far as Saint’Eufemia, which they think will provide refuge until they learn that the Nazis are coming. The beginning of the second act sees them in Fondi, where Michele, who served as the women’s protector in Saint’Eufemia, is captured by the Nazis and turned over to Giovanni, now offering his services to the Nazi troops. The women return to Saint’Eufemia, which they find in ruins. They also find the church being looted by Moroccan Goumiers, colonial troops of the French Expeditionary Corps. The Moroccans take a break from their looting in favor of raping both of the women.
The audience was clearly disturbed by this latter scene, even more than by the opening. While there was no booing during the performance (which I took as a sign of just how deep the impact was), when the three vocalists portraying the Moroccans came out for a bow, they were booed (as was Mark Delavan for his performance of Giovanni and Christian Van Horn as the Nazi Major, who arrested Michele). Now there are any number of really nasty villains in the opera repertoire; but, to the best of my knowledge, this was the first time I encountered this kind of audience reaction during the bows. I came away with the impression that the sexual violence was so hard to take that many in the audience needed to boo just to get their reaction out of their system, so to speak. As a result I was more sympathetic toward their booing than I was with the smiling reaction of all of the vocalists involved, which seemed to say, “Hey, it’s only a show.”
This brings me back to Reid’s analysis of the situation in London. I feel that the most important point she was trying to make in her article was that, where sexual violence is concerned, it is never “only a show.” As she put it:
If these scenes aren’t horrific then they aren’t doing their job.
In other words the audience should be seriously discomforted by those scenes, and I suspect that Reid would agree with my assessment of the audience reaction during the bows in San Francisco. Booing the perpetrators was the only way in which the audience could move on from what they had experienced.
However, Reid also observed that rape should be depicted not simply for disturbing the audience with graphic violence. What is far more important is whether or not what Reid calls “the after-affects of such an abuse” are also depicted. This turns out to be the heart of the final scene in Tutino’s opera, in which we experience the deterioration of Rosetta’s character. Fortunately, this is realized musically without the intervention of any bel canto “mad scene,” which would have been entirely out of place in the overall musical conception of the opera. Indeed, the audience is informed of those after-affects (I assume this was not a spelling error on the part of either Reid or the Telegraph editors) primarily through how Zambello changed the nature of Rosetta’s movements on the stage.
In that final scene we see that Cesira is less devastated by having been raped for a second time than she is by the prospect that her relationship with Rosetta has been irreparably destroyed. Indeed, it is only in the final measures of the opera that mother and daughter are reconciled. While the motivation behind that reconciliation is not spelled out, the sense seems to be that they both know that, with American troops now occupying Italy, their future will remain uncertain. Reconciliation seems to be their recognition that they will need each other in order to face that uncertainty.
My guess is that Reid would have taken this resolution as being too cut-and-dried. Her other major observation is:
Rape is violent physically, but the emotional trauma is felt long after physical recovery.
In that respect Reid held up Joanne Froggatt’s depiction of Anna Bates in Downton Abbey. Reid felt it was important that the Downton Abbey narrative did not try to cut corners or smooth harsh edges in depicting Anna’s slow and often painful recovery. However, in the context of Tutino’s efforts, that narrative would probably require another opera; and he would not be able to turn to the works of Moravia for a point of departure.