By James L. Paulk
NEW YORK — Rossini’s sprawling Guillaume Tell returned to the Metropolitan Opera in October after an 85-year absence. Presented at the house in the original French version for the first time (earlier performances were in German, then Italian) and in a quirky abstract production by Pierre Audi, it was a musical tour de force.
Based on a Schiller play, Guillaume Tell (1829) combines history and myth from the Swiss uprising against the Austrians in the late 13th century. This marathon of an opera, which clocks in at nearly five hours, gives us multiple plots, a star-crossed love affair, a cruel tyrant, and the struggles of an oppressed nation.
The folk hero of Guillaume Tell is a central figure in Swiss mythology, a character not unlike Robin Hood. The stirring overture has become both a concert staple and the theme music for The Lone Ranger television show, but that identity has overshadowed and obscured the complex, often dark epic that is Rossini’s final and most ambitious work.
Tell helped usher in the era of French Grand Opera, extravaganzas that dominated Paris for most of the 19th century with massive, expensive productions, big casts, and extensive use of dancers and chorus. The genre later fell on hard times. Cost was a factor, and audiences lost their taste for this kind of vocal display and pageantry, which unfolds slowly at such great length. But a modest revival seems to be underway for Tell, with new productions popping up here and there.
Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who sang the title role, has been featured in several of these efforts and it’s easy to see why. His voice is neither huge nor especially attractive, and his portrayal isn’t classically heroic. But he has great dramatic vocal chops. He comes across as an ordinary chap who has risen to the occasion, with dignity and great humanity. At the Oct. 21 performance I heard, there was real pathos in his rendering of “Sois immobile,” Tell’s sole aria, in which he instructs his young son to remain still while he is forced by the Austrian governor to shoot an apple from his head.
Bryan Hymel sang as Arnold, a villager whose affair with Mathilde, one of the Austrian overlords, tempts him to defect. His is not the classic Italian tenor sound, but a bright, nicely focused one, with less coloring than you might prefer but with perfect control of the high C’s and C-sharps that come with the role. As Mathilde, soprano Marina Rebeka‘s bright sound, striking good looks, perfect intonation and nice dramatic instincts worked well for this demanding role. Bass-baritone John Relyea portrayed the villainous Gesler, the provincial governor, with icy cruelty and solid power.
Conductor Fabio Luisi led a sublime, atmospheric performance, galloping in the overture and lending subtle support in the set pieces. More important, he emphasized the dark underside that emerges often in this complex opera. Cruelty and violence lurk in the score, even in dance passages, and Luisi brought this forward. His appearances here, now quite rare, evoke nostalgia for “the path not taken.” For years, he was considered as a sort of artistic director in waiting here, and he remains as principal conductor through the end of this season.
Audi staged the entire opera as a series of tableaux designed by George Tsypin. Some of these are crudely utilitarian, such as the simple wooden towers presumably intended to suggest prison guard towers. But in a surreal touch, they are topped by huge stone figures. A stage-filling wooden bridge is often suspended just above the action. But its shape also suggests a boat and it, too, is laden with giant stones. At times, the images become more whimsical, as colorful geometric figures and inverted farm animals come and go.
Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, the costume designer, put all the Swiss in elegant gray robes and hats. These seem to incorporate references to medieval Swiss clothing, but the result is clearly a universal image that avoids any ethnic identity, something the production is apparently determined to do. The occupying Austrian soldiers also wear robes, but theirs are black leather, emphasizing their villainy. As an Austrian, Mathilde must also wear black, but she at least gets stylish dresses.
In the third act (of four), there is a scene where the Austrians force the Swiss to dance. In Audi’s staging, a group of whip-wielding dominatrices take charge of captive couples, made to dance for the amusement of a contingent of Austrian nobles, who wear black leather versions of 19th-century formal attire. At the Oct. 21 performance, this caused a backlash of lusty booing, presumably because it was so exploitative.
Audi presumably wanted to get away from any suggestion of a cheesy Swiss village with chalets, and he certainly managed that. There were occasionally suggestions of the natural scenery of the area, often mentioned in the libretto. But for most of the evening, the production seemed generic. It’s the sort of design you might come up with if you were going to use it for, say, The Flying Dutchman one night and Peter Grimes the next. That might make more sense if the work in question were more abstract, like Andriessen’s Die Materie, which Robert Wilson directed with stunning effect earlier this year at The Park Avenue Armory, now run by Audi.
Audi’s greatest work as a stage director has probably occurred on those occasions when his sets and costumes served as abstract backgrounds, the very thing he attempted here. I’m thinking, for example, of his extraordinary 1999 Amsterdam production of Wagner’s Ring cycle. (It is available on DVD.) But that was also just about the most gorgeous Ring ever mounted, and Audi’s Guillaume Tell vacillates between “handsome” and “functional.”
More to the point, the Ring is an extraordinarily “open” work, a metaphor for life itself. Tell isn’t necessarily confined to the narrow historical reference points of traditional productions, but if it is to make a universal statement – perhaps emphasizing the horrors of war and occupation that echo in the score – it needs an engaged director who can translate that on the stage.
Still, this was a performance to savor: a first-rate cast, the Met chorus at its best, and a standout performance by the orchestra. And if the production was a missed opportunity, it never got in the way of the music. For tickets to Guillaume Tell, click here.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.