David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine.
For ‘William Tell’ Nerds, The Met Does (Reasonably) Well by Rossini's Epic
Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 11:39 AM
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.