LONDON (Reuters) - Gioachino Rossini's opera "Guillaume Tell" (William Tell) about the Swiss patriot who shoots an arrow that splits an apple atop his son's head is famed for its overture with the galloping horse theme used in "The Lone Ranger" television series.
Now it will go down in the annals of London's Covent Garden for a new production that was roundly booed by an opening night audience on Monday for a scene of full frontal nudity that Rossini could never have imagined when he wrote the work that had its premiere in 1829.
There was plenty of cheering for the singers and musicians as well, but the audience reaction to the nudity was so strong in Britain's usually decorous premiere opera venue that Kasper Holten, the ROH's director of opera, issued a statement afterwards expressing sorrow for any distress caused.
In the scene, an actress who is not part of the singing cast is manhandled during a banquet by a group of officers in the Austrian army, which is occupying Switzerland and oppressing the local residents.
The officers force champagne down the woman's throat, fondle her with a gun and, in the bit that caused the most commotion, strip her and force her to lie on top of the banquet table.
"The production includes a scene which puts the spotlight on the brutal reality of women being abused during war time, and sexual violence being a tragic fact of war," Holten said.
"The production intends to make it an uncomfortable scene, just as there are several upsetting and violent scenes in Rossini's score. We are sorry if some people have found this distressing."
Even some of the cast were not entirely comfortable with the scene that Italian director Damiano Michieletto created for the production that featured an all-star cast, including American tenor John Osborn, Canadian baritone Gerald Finley and Swedish soprano Malin Bystrom, with ROH music director Antonio Pappano conducting.
Osborn, who plays a Swiss patriot torn between his love of his country and his love for Bystrom's Austrian Princess Mathilde, said that perhaps the molestation scene went on longer than necessary.
"Maybe it went a little longer than it should have, but it happened and I think it's an element you can use to show just how horrible these people were that were occupying this town," he said.
Michieletto said he had no intention of changing anything.
"If you don't feel the brutality, the suffering these people have had to face, if you want to hide it, it becomes soft, it becomes for children," he said backstage after the boos had died down following the final curtain.
Editing by Ken Wills