Casting Your Fantasy Opera Production

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Scratch any opera lover in the right place and you are likely to get a wish list of the dream works that his local opera company should stage and how that production should be cast. I have long dreamed that my local company, the Metropolitan Opera, should do Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, the original French-language version of a glorious grand opera that has not been done by the Met in any form for 80 years.

The opera, based on Friedrich Schiller’s German-language play, Wilhelm Tell, had its premiere at the Met on November 28, 1884 in German, a language Rossini would likely have found risible. It was composed to a French libretto and Rossini created an Italian-language version. In the Met’s earliest years, it did seasons in which all operas were done in German, including the great Italian classics as well as French masterpieces.

A German Tell was done three times in its first season and then eight more performances up to 1889. On November 12, 1894 it returned as Guglielmo Tell, the Italian version. It appeared three times and then it was gone until 1923, when it had 12 performances over two seasons. It returned once again in Italian, in 1931, under the baton of Tullio Serafin, the maestro who would later become the guiding spirit in the career of Maria Callas. The very last performance of the Italian Tell was on December 5, 1931.

The Met has never done Rossini’s original Guillaume Tell, one of the greatest of all operas! It got a rare performance in concert on July 9 at the Caramoor Festival for which I wrote a preview post last week. I held my breath in hopes that it would be a success. I would leave that determination to critics and audience members but, in most ways, I had a grand time hearing this amazing score played well by conductor Will Crutchfield, his orchestra, and a cast of talented singers in most of the leading roles. They included bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs (Tell); mezzo-soprano Vanessa Cariddi (Hedwige, Tell’s Wife); soprano Talise Trevigne (Jemmy, their son); soprano Julianna Di Giacomo (Mathilde, an Austrian princess); bass Scott Bearden (Gesler, her father) and tenor Michael Spyres (Arnold, her beloved). The chorus, made of young artists, was outstanding in an opera full of amazing choral music.

Rossini’s opera has about five hours of music and, given my druthers, I would hear every note. But, through the years, its infrequent stagings have been done in shorter versions because it is so expensive to produce and so demanding on the musical forces. But this is my fantasy, so indulge me please. Major opera companies such as the Met plan five years ahead of time, so let us think about how it could present Guillaume Tell at long last in French in, say, 2017.

I have thought for years about how I would cast the Met version. Thomas Hampson, who has performed Tell elsewhere, was my choice for that role. He could still do it if he chooses to. Marcello Giordani, with his stamina and ringing high Cs, owned the role of Arnold for about a decade. He still is a marvelous artist but I don’t know if he would want to attempt this part in the future. I always thought Mathilde would be a great role for Renée Fleming and hoped she would undertake it, but I am not sure she would find it congenial now.

Casting the Perfect Tell

But at Caramoor the other night, I asked myself who could perform in my fantasy Tell in 2017. René Pape (pictured), my first choice for the title role, might seem a bit unorthodox because his voice is lower than the core of the music, but he has shown so much intelligence, adaptability and charisma (as well as singing Leporello in Don Giovanni with such fluidity), that I think he would shine. He is also an artist of considerable emotional and moral depth, something this role needs. I think Simon Keenlyside, a baritone, would bring many of the same qualities to the role and Hampson would still be superb. As Hedwige: Stephanie Blythe! She has had such an astonishing string of great performances in Handel, Gluck, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and others that we almost take her achievement for granted. Another choice would be Olga Borodina, who was an unexpectedly delightful Isabella in Rossini’s Italiana in Algeri.

Caramoor had the right Mathilde with Julianna Di Giacomo. I first heard her a few seasons ago as a last-minute, unrehearsed replacement as Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte) in New York City Opera’s performance under the baton of Julius Rudel. The great maestro, in his last City Opera assignment, brought an exquisite performance out of the young soprano and I have been following her ever since. She made her Met debut in 2007 as Clotilde, the serving woman to Norma -- the same role a young Joan Sutherland sang opposite Maria Callas. Then she did great work in 2010 in two Verdi roles, Lina (Stiffelio) and Leonora (Il Trovatore). I was an early enthusiast of Angela Meade, who would also be a splendid Mathilde, and these two artists can alternate in the role. I hope that opera managers realize that, with DiGiacomo and Meade, we have two outstanding young sopranos and both deserve careful development and attention.

Talise Trevigne was a perfect Jemmy, with her voice soaring over the others at key moments. Her acting was also affecting and I believe she still will have the resources for this role in five years. There are probably many basses suitable for Gesler so we can focus on that closer to the time.

The big question mark, as always, is the role of Arnold. Michael Sykes sang a lot of it quite well but he would need a lot of coaching and work on his stage presence. The obvious choices now would be Barry Banks, Lawrence Brownlee and Juan Diego Floréz. I admire them all and each would bring different strengths to the role. Let us see how young tenor Alek Shrader develops. He might also rise to the occasion five years from now.

Why The Conductor Matters

The most important figure in Guillaume Tell is the conductor. It requires someone with energy, focus, a dramatic impulse and what is known in Italian as rigore, a combination of tenacity and passion. Tullio Serafin had all of that. Although the opera is in French, it was composed by an Italian and needs someone who feels italianità in his marrow. It is also necessary to know how to accompany singers across the many hours so that they do not flag. 

My pick for the maestro would be Gianandrea Noseda, chief conductor of the Teatro Regio in Turin, which now rivals La Scala as the top company in Italy. He had a long collaboration with the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester. There he did a highly successful cycle of Beethoven symphonies. Beethoven and Rossini were the two great masters of the orchestra in the first three decades of the 19th century and their innovations influenced Berlioz and Wagner. I thought of his conducting of the second act of Un Ballo in Maschera at the Met while listening to the long love duet of Mathilde and Arnold in Tell. And his rigore in La Forza del Destino at the Met in the orchestra, chorus and soloists shows he has the chops to do it in Tell.

I can’t wait to hear what the Met’s peerless orchestra and chorus do with the glorious music Rossini wrote. As to who should be the production team for this new Guillaume Tell at the Met? Let me fantasize some more. In the meantime, think ahead like an opera manager: What opera has been forgotten, ignored or badly served that you would present in five years? Why did you pick that opera? What theater would it be performed at? Whom would you cast and who would conduct? If you wish, mention who would direct and design your fantasy production.