For ‘William Tell’ Nerds, The Met Does (Reasonably) Well by Rossini's Epic

Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 11:39 AM

Bryan Hymel as Arnold and Marina Rebeka as Mathilde in Rossini's Guillaume Tell. (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Don't leave before Act Four.

Even if you've committed a mere double-digit sum toward the ticket price of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Guillaume Tell, the best music, performances and scenic effects don't arrive until the last half hour, which many at Tuesday's opening night missed. What came before was more than three hours of music and two intermissions, in an opera that unfolds in a different time zone with the kind of expanse and musical formality that made Rossini's final opera an epic — as such things were known in Paris in 1829.

In our 90-minutes-no-intermission theater world, you may not think the last half hour is essential to this dramatization of 14th century Switzerland vanquishing its Austrian dictator. But the ultra-high tenor role of Arnold (the conflicted freedom fighter) that has contributed to the opera's neglect in many capitals doesn't come into its own until a big Act Four choral scene, "Amis, amis, secondez my vengeance," that has relentless (and thrillingly placed) high Cs. Even if not all of them came out spot-on on Tuesday with Bryan Hymel, the tenor lynchpin of the cast, they were close enough to show what the opera can be, and what a seamless marriage of character, drama and showmanship was achieved by the fully matured Rossini.

Also in the final act, Pierre Audi's production — seemingly set in Victorian times — dispenses with a certain amount of eccentricity and blatant misfirings to arrive at an extremely memorable stage picture in which pillars of light come together to create an abstract sun rise. Both Gerald Finley in the title role and conductor Fabio Luisi have an intensive history with the original French language version (presented here) that makes the opera worth seeing through to the end.

As ubiquitous as the opera's overture is, Rossini's grandest opera is encountered usually in concert performances (this Met production was the first in 80 years) that are often cut. This performance lost about 15 minutes; true Tell nerds (of which I am one) are grateful that it stopped there. What sets Tell apart from the rest of Rossini is its dramatic specificity: Many of the formulas that the composer had endlessly recycled in the past are tossed out. Even the ballet music (obligatory in French opera) is engagingly integrated into the plot. Throughout the opera, you feel like you're hearing the composer's true voice. Though Rossini wrote seemingly effortless tunes, few are as scrumptiously lyrical as "Sombre foret," which features an unusually rich orchestration, though I never knew how rich until hearing Luisi conduct it on Tuesday.

Musical matters were generally well in hand, though Hymel wasn't quite firing on all cylinders and was ungraciously drowned out at times by his leading soprano Marina Rebeka, with her bright, penetrating voice. In the title role, Finley's medium-weight baritone wasn't the most natural fit for the role — Thomas Hampson's darker instrument is more convincing for cursing the enemy — though he is unquestionably a great singer worth hearing under any circumstances. He succeeded through his innate intelligence and nobility. The Met chorus was a major gift to the opera.

Any approach toward staging the piece is destined for partial defeat. The opera's storms, lakes and the famous scene where Tell shoots an apple off of his son's head yield a lot of Swiss storybook cliches if portrayed realistically. Take an abstract approach like Audi and it rings false in different ways, but is at least decorative. The George Tsypin set had a bridge that came and went for reasons not always discernible, an abstraction of a village square where the oppressed Swiss were forced to dance themselves into exhaustion, and any number of flourishes so marginally effective that they're diffiuclt to remember, much less to describe. Sometimes the production supported too specifically. Good guys wore beige. Supporters of the evil dictator Gesler (sung with command by John Relyea) were more slick in black and gray, though the set for their headquarters was Satanic red. Or apple red?

Agree or disagree with the production, it usually didn't get in the way. And Tell nerds will probably settle for that.

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Comments [8]

Miriam from NYC

I certainly agree about some of the sillier aspects of the scenery: Mathilde sings her lovely aria about the beautiful forest among a group of boulders that looked like baked potatoes; the three towers moved on and offstage are topped by rock slabs - WHY? (One possible theory is that they are symbolic of the heavy domination of the Swiss by the Austrians!)

This was my first encounter with this opera. The music is wonderful, and the orchestral and singing performance were topnotch. But I certainly would have preferred a traditional setting.

Nov. 10 2016 06:00 PM
Rosanna from NYC

I found this production disappointing and think it goes steadily downhill after Scene 1, which is supposed to be a Swiss lakefront. Why, oh why, did the director put two 19th century ballroom costumed-ladies in Act 3 to whip the 15th century Swiss peasants into their forced Habsburg-homage dance? During the 2nd intermission I overheard several patron complaints about that, and in fact, some audience members seated near me departed for good even before Act 3 ended! Plus the mobile rock formations and tacky planks construction in Act 4 that is supposed to be Tell's cabin are just pathetic. Luckily for the Met's administration, the soloists, chorus, orchestra, & conductor performed admirably on the evening I attended, and garnered many warm ovations. Rossini's glorious score won out, but how many more of these incongruous productions will audiences have to endure before the pendulum swings back to more traditional esthetics from inappropriate abstraction?

Oct. 24 2016 07:39 PM
Nick from Tampa

Why does this opera need a "new" time warped staging? It's so rarely performed.It's not that the audience has seen it so many times, a new version must be presented!

Oct. 22 2016 09:29 AM
Nick from Tampa

Since this opera is rarely performed, why not stage it in the tradition manner? It's not like everybody has seen it so many times, we must have something "new".

Oct. 21 2016 02:36 PM
Alfredo R Villanueva from NYC

I am so tired of Eurotrash transpositions of periods in opera, I will not go to this GT. The Met has been infected with lousy productions. Soon we'll see an Aida with Palestinians as Ethiopians and Israelis as Egyptians (though it might actually make some sense). No, no,no.

Oct. 20 2016 01:12 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

@Paul: You might be right. I do not know everything even if I act that I do.

Oct. 20 2016 07:09 AM
Paul Capon from Thunder Bay, ON

Indeed great final chorus, but I thought it sounded like Berlioz.

Oct. 20 2016 12:05 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

A most glorious final chorus. Sounds Wagnerian.

Oct. 19 2016 01:27 PM

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