Staging the unstageable: Rossini, Red Apples and the Red Sea

Posted on Gwen, 2014-08-22 12:34 by Opera Explorer

Rehearsals are currently underway for our two new Rossini productions, William Tell and Moses in Egypt, as well as the revival of Bizet’s Carmen. Within the space of a few metres, it is possible to pop into Switzerland, Egypt or Spain, or, alternatively, sample stories dating from between three thousand, six hundred, or a hundred and sixty years ago, in a mixture of French and Italian.  And as if it weren’t enough for these operas to require monumental suspensions of disbelief, the stories of William Tell and Moses in Egypt pose two particularly enormous challenges for the stage. 

In the Swiss legend, archer William Tell defies the Austrian General Gesler by shooting an apple balanced on his son’s head, while Moses in Egypt depicts nothing less than the parting of the Red Sea. In the first case, how does one go about realistically staging the apple moment without inadvertently impaling the soprano playing the part of young Jemmy (in this production, played by Fflur Wyn)? Equally, in Moses, how can stagecraft conjure up the miracle, without reducing the audience to tears of laughter, as apparently happened at the premiere at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1818? In the world of live theatre, we don’t have the useful aid of cut-away filming, as in the 1950s TV adaption of the Swiss tale starring Conrad Phillips. In the opening credits, we see the crucial moment enacted by the dashing Phillips, who executes the shot as the camera cuts between him and his son.  In the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston as Moses, the miracle is shown with projections and wind machines, as an awestruck Hebrew utters the immortal line, ‘God opens the sea with the blast of his nostrils!’ 

What are our options, then, for staging the parting of the Red Sea? In the production talk-through to the cast and WNO staff, Production Director and WNO Chief Executive David Pountney stressed the need to evoke a kitsch-free Switzerland in the design for William Tell. Even if we resist a Heidi-esque setting, Moses in Egypt is equally at risk of clichéd beards, goat herds and beige robes, before we even get to the miracle. Contemporary accounts from Rossini’s day state that the Moses premiere made use of the age-old ‘blue material’ technique for the Red Sea. The comedy of the anti-climax was only worsened by the addition of several small children to agitate the fabric from beneath. 

Rossini’s response was to precede the parting of the waters with a prayer led by Moses, Dal tuo stellato soglio, (‘From your starry throne’).  In the original version, the action rushes more or less straight from the Hebrew peoples’ panic as they find their path barred by the Red Sea, to the wondrous resolution. The bold simplicity of Rossini’s rising melody, which slowly builds from minor to major, and solo to choral singing, adds gravitas to proceedings, and it went on to become one of the opera’s most popular pieces. By all accounts, the opera had quite a different impact on Parisian audiences in 1827. Melina Esse writes that: ‘The work caused multiple attacks of brain fever in young women and even prompted enthusiastic spectators to launch themselves from the opera-house balcony’. I hope the staff at Wales Millennium Centre are ready!

In Guillaume Tell, written two years later, in 1829, Rossini has perhaps learnt from Moses, and again precedes the moment of dramatic climax (and potential scenic anti-climax!) with a tense, prayer-like aria for William Tell; ‘Sois immobile’. He instructs his son, Jemmy to stay completely still, and to look to God for help. Both ‘Sois Immobile’ and ‘Dal tuo stellato soglio’ have the sense of taking place out of time, or in slow motion. They are the operatic equivalent of seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes, like a Matrix-style 360-degree camera zoom, which circles the souls of the protagonists before the deciding moment.

Outlandish spectacles like these are nothing out of the ordinary for this art form. The huge forces of opera incline it towards near-impossible coups de théâtre. For example, the final scene of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung depicts the palace of the Gods being consumed by a raging fire as the Rhine overflows its banks. Stagings of this moment have ranged from light projections to the dismantling of the stage, all of which require collaboration with the audience’s imagination. Of course, these epic production demands have the ultimate secret weapon in the form of the music: perhaps the most fantastical of reality-suspending devices. The alchemy of stagecraft, orchestra, chorus and soloists is where the real magic will happen. 

I should add that David Pountney has refused to reveal how he plans to solve either of these challenges, and I’m sure it will be worth coming to see these new productions, just for this. Until then, let us hope that for the sake of soprano Fflur Wyn, David Kempster - playing the role of William Tell - hones his archery skills! 

What is the most incredible spectacle you’ve ever seen on the opera or theatre stage? How was it achieved? Share your most memorable opera and theatrical experiences with us in the comments box below.

Sophie Rashbrook