sun 16/06/2024

William Tell, Welsh National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

William Tell, Welsh National Opera

William Tell, Welsh National Opera

Rossini's last opera is finely done but has rather too many longueurs

The Tell family: Leah-Marian Jones, David Kempster and Fflur WynRichard Hubert Smith

A few months ago, while looking something up about Liszt’s piano piece “Chapelle de Guillaume Tell,” I discovered to my horror that William Tell – like Robin Hood – may never have existed. Even the apple, like the one in Genesis (there is no apple in Genesis), seems to have been made up by someone or other.

Tell none the less lives on, if nowhere else, in Schiller’s play and Rossini’s opera based on it, of which everyone knows the overture and – perhaps without realizing it – some of the ballet music. But this is a long opera, even as somewhat cut in David Pountney’s new WNO production; it has a great deal in it that even many Rossini lovers don’t know. And a lot of this is very fine stuff indeed.

Rossini’s serious operas are generally less well-known than his comedies, and some of them – to tell the truth – are quite dull. His Moses in Egypt, also in this WNO season (October 3), abides our question. Even William Tell has its mauvais quarts d’heure, to quote Rossini’s own joke about Wagner. But the good moments in it more than make up for the longueurs; and they turn out to have been highly influential. For instance, so famous a piece as Verdi’s “Di quella pira” in Il Trovatore is more or less a rip-off of Arnold’s Act IV cabaletta in Tell. Elsewhere one might hear early Wagner, even snatches of Berlioz and Bizet, both admirers of the work. Rossini may have been moving towards something new in music drama. But he never got there, because William Tell, composed at the age of thirty-seven, was his last opera, and in the remaining thirty-nine years of his life he never again wrote for the stage.

The work’s length and generally slow pace present obstacles to a sophisticated modern staging. The choral writing, especially, is terrific, but the choral action, as such, is somewhat inert. For an opera about liberation from the oppressor, there’s a good deal of standing around and facing front, partly because Rossini dwells at length on the episodes where the Swiss folk kowtow to the Austrians; not till the end of the second act (almost two hours in) does active rebellion start, and even then it’s expressed through a series of slowish choruses for the canton representatives – a political moment rather than a battle scene.

Pountney seems to accept this monumental aspect of Rossini’s dramaturgy, and there are times in his staging when one is uncomfortably reminded of the old days at Sadlers Wells where the chorus stood and delivered, occasionally slapping each other on the back or raising a beer tankard. When Tell shoots Gesler, the Austrian soldiers, stuck up on a high gantry, do nothing but look helplessly on.

Amir Hosseinpour’s quirky choreography brilliantly suggests enforced festivity and ritualised abuseRaimund Bauer’s sets, backed by pivoting dun-coloured screens with vaguely montagnard projections, far from suggesting the smiling mountain scenery of Jouy’s original libretto, darken the action and turn it inwards. Movement is mainly provided by Amir Hosseinpour’s quirky choreography, brilliantly suggestive of enforced festivity and ritualised abuse. Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s vivid costumes feed a certain ambiguity in this whole approach: are we in rural medieval Switzerland or some proto-Soviet hell with the workers in grey tunics and caps? Stag-helmeted armour for the Austrians might imply antique oppression of the hunted by the hunters, or it might suggest a much more recent horror in the German lands. None of this is unreasonable. Rossini offers plenty of hunting imagery as an expression of power; his writing for valve horn – a recent invention in his day – is spectacular. But what we hear is sometimes more mobile than what we see.

The opening night had problems not entirely of the director’s making. It may be partly his fault that Barry Banks, pictured right as Rossini’s Manrico-figure Arnold, is a foot or so shorter than his beloved Mathilde (Gisela Stille), and that this vision of absurdity is aggravated by Arnold’s plus-fours and fluffy hair-do. It was hardly his fault that Stille was under doctor’s orders not to sing, so was reduced to a fairly sketchy miming of the part while Camilla Roberts sang (beautifully) from the side. Fortunately, Banks also sang with fine tone and considerable bravura, so that it was just possible to ignore the geographical oddity of their duets, which are among the most brilliant things in the whole work.

Tell’s music, by comparison, is largely subdued, and David Kempster, every inch the calm, dignified, peace-loving folk hero, provides an authoritative but somewhat languid presence; even when shooting the apple, he doesn’t in fact shoot, and instead the lights dim and a deus ex machina simply takes the apple off Jemmy’s head – a big disappointment for lovers of stage illusion. In fact Pountney’s most inspired idea all evening is strictly an irrelevancy: having the orchestra’s principal cello, Rosie Biss, dress up as a Victorian artiste and play her opening solo alone on the stage – a wonderful solution to the director’s nightmare dilemma of what to do during the overture.

With all these reservations, it’s a good and welcome revival, well sung in the original French. The chorus is on top form, as usual, making the most of music that must often remind them of their favourite early Verdi. From a large an entirely excellent cast, I would also single out Fflur Wyn’s charmingly boyish Jemmy, and Clive Bayley’s superbly villainous and resonant Gesler, in Pountney’s trade-mark wheelchair. Luciano Botelho sings the fisherman’s opening song exquisitely: the prototype, perhaps, for Wagner’s Steuermann. Carlo Rizzi conducts, with style and energy, and the orchestra does Rossini’s score – one of his best and most consistently interesting – almost complete justice.

Rossini may have been moving towards something new in music drama, but he never got there


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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