New York, Metropolitan Opera: “Guillaume Tell”

New York, Metropolitan Opera, 2015/2016
Opera in four acts. Libretto by Etienne de Jouy and Hippolyte-Louis-Florent Bis, assited by Armand Marrast and Adolphe Cremieux, based on Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller’s play Wilhelm Tell
Music Gioachino Rossini
Guillaume Tell GERALD FINLEY
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Conductor Fabio Luisi
Production Pierre Audi
Set Designer George Tsypin
Costume Designer Andrea Schmidt-Futterer
Lighting Designer Jean Kalman
Choreographer Kim Brandstrup
Dramaturg Klaus Bertisch
New York, November 5, 2016
If there is a reason why Gioachino Rossini’s music has made its mark in pop culture, it definitely has to do with his fun and frantic overtures. The overtures to the Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La gazza ladra have been featured in Looney Tunes cartoons and have accompanied Alex and his Drogs as they cause mayhem in the movie, A Clockwork Orange.  The overture to Guillaume Tell is no exception.  Rossini’s final opera begins with a miniature symphony whose final allegro is immortalized as the theme song of The Lone Ranger.  However, the overture also contains the “Ranz des veches” the Swiss cattle call which is used in almost every cartoon to show either peaceful nature scenes or someone waking up.  Unfortunately, the opera as a whole is nowhere near as popular as the overture.  This year the Met’s new production, directed by Pierre Audi, marks the company’s first performance since 1931 and this is also the first time the work will be given in the original French.  This is a great disservice to the work as it’s a mighty swan song for Rossini.  It is definitely his most ambitious if not his most physiologically complex work. Perhaps the works absence can be contributed to its length.  A complete performance of the work, which rarely occurs outside of special occasions, takes more than 6 hours.  Or it could be that William Tell is considered the Grandfather of French Grand Opera, a genre predicated on spectacle and massive crowd scenes that are out-of-date in an era of minimalism.  Yet for all of that, the piece is a tale of what happens when individuals are unwillingly swept up in the greater forces of nationalism and patriotism.  It is doubtful whether William Tell actually existed and it is still more doubtful if he ever shot an apple off of his son’s head.  But, Rossini makes use of Tell’s myth to examine how rebellions put stress on personal and family relationships. The Met’s current version supposedly contains more music than the version performed in 1931, however, it was missing the Trio for the Princess Mathilde, Tell’s son Jemmy, and Tell’s wife Hedwige, which unfortunately is one of the most beautiful pieces of the opera.  Nonetheless given time restraints, cuts are necessary.  In the pit Met principal conductor Fabio Luisi gave a clear and buoyant reading of Rossini’s score.  The music was serene and energetic when called for.  As Tell the incomparable Gerald Finley brought the same emotional intensity that has made his performances so memorable.  His repertoire covers a wide-range from Dr. Atomic’s J. Robert Oppenheimer to Pelléas et Mélisande’s Golaud and Anna Nicole’s Howard K. Stern.  Finley managed to convey both Tell, the compassionate father figure and Tell, the somewhat reluctant freedom fighter. Marina Rebeka has a wonderfully full-bodied voice which she used to great effect as Mathilde, the Habsburg Princess in love with a Swiss Revolutionary.  She also possessed great flexibility which she used to great effort for the vocal fireworks of the third Act.  At times however, she seemed to lose stamina which is understandable in this marathon work. Tenor Bryan Hymel portrayed Arnold the Swiss Army captain haunted by the murder of his father.  Hymel has made a name for himself in French Grand Opera.  He recently sang Énée in Les Troyens at the Met and the title character in Robert le diable at London’s Royal Opera.  Unfortunately, he frequently sounds pinched and this performance was no exception.  Janai Brugger was wonderful as Jemmy, Tell’s son.  She was appropriately sweet and naïve.  Also, Marco Spotti was a strong Walter Furst.  John Relyea physically and vocally inhabited the demonic Gesler and Sean Pannikkar was appropriately slimy as Rodolphe, Captain of Gesler’s guard.  Michele Angelini lent his smooth tenor to Ruodi, a small part but Angelini is someone to watch for in upcoming seasons.  Maria Zifchak is not the sweet voiced tortured Hedwige one usually hears, but she became more compelling as the evening went on.  Kwangchul Youn as Melcthal, Arnold’s father gave a sturdy performance; he aptly played the part of awise elder. Pierre Audi’s production comes to the Met from the Dutch National Opera.  His goal was to set the work amongst the natural beauty of Switzerland.  He also wanted to include the crossbow, something so crucial to the story, in the designs of props like boats and towers.  Unfortunately some aspects of this production did not make sense.  During the Overture, for instance, Tell mourns a dead body, which looks like his son, but his son doesn’t die.  During the first Act the set designed by George Tsypin is a simple sky blue background, appropriate since they are at the shores of the Swiss lakes, however, there is a boat hanging from the ceiling giving the impression that they are underwater.  The same can be said of the second Act, which had rocks dangling from the ceiling.  I understand that the idea was to get some perception of distance but it didn’t come through that way.  Also, at times the stage direction was confusing.  For example, the second Act opens with Matlidhe waiting in a clearing for her lover to arrive.  Arnold walks on stage during her famous aria “Sombre forêt” and began searching for her as she sang.  This would make sense but at times he was right in her sight-line, which made it difficult to believe that she was alone. Finally, in the fourth Act, after Arnold’s rousing call-to-arms, the chorus exited while Arnold remained on stage and brooded.  As their leader; he should’ve taken charge immediately and been the first one off stage.  Regardless of this production, Guillamume Tell is an incredibly moving work and we can only hope we don’t have to wait another 80 years to see it again. Photo Ken Howard