ROH William Tell

30 Jun

The nice thing about a blog is that I can write as many posts as I like and I’m going to try to divorce what I suspect will be the main feature of most reviews – the booing – from the performance of the Guillaume Tell that I saw at the ROH on 29th June, its first night.

Let’s start with the opera. I’m a fan of Rossini. I love his wit, his sense of drama and the way in which, particularly in his later Italian operas, he uses ensembles, duets and the music to move the drama forward. What struck me particularly about this performance was how different it is from the style of his Italian pieces and how thoroughly he’d absorbed the French style and taken advantage of the facilities at the Opéra. There is a breadth to it and a complete lack of those tunes that could almost be comic if what was going on onstage didn’t make you realise that it was tragic. The great parts of Tell are among the finest things he ever wrote – I think particularly of Act III, Arnold’s aria in Act IV and the final chorus. This is wonderful operatic music.

But, let’s face it, it’s very long and you can’t help feeling that the first couple of acts go on a bit. I think that, at this performance, some of the second Act finale was probably cut – I remember other performances of this being interminable as the different cantons came together, but is that huntsman’s chorus at the start really necessary? The chorus stuff in the first act is lengthy and you tend to think that perhaps his quip about the “mauvaises quarts d’heures” was a case of pots and kettles. It’s a long, thoughtful, intelligent opera but, for me, it suffers the same problems as Meyerbeer – an over-indulgence and a leisurely pace. I’m not sure anyone really found a way of making grand epic operas work until Don Carlos and Wagner.

Having said that, and despite the reviews that you’ll read, I thought that this performance made a very good case for the piece. It helped first that we had Pappano in the pit. He achieved some absolutely gorgeous playing from the orchestra, making you realise what a great piece of music the overture is. He catches the drama of the piece – propelling it forward, really making the music make sense and express the emotions and he accompanies the singers absolutely marvellously – you felt that nobody had to strain. Orchestra and chorus were fabulously good: the chorus in particular have some hugely difficult, precise music to sing and they mastered it outstandingly. The solo playing in the orchestra, particularly the ‘cellos, but also the horns, was as good as you could hope for.

Damiano Michieletto’s production was thoughtful and engaged with the piece even if not completely successfully. He set it in a 20th century totalitarian state with no sense that we might be in Switzerland. I felt that he took two ideas from the opera. The first is about fathers and sons, the second about maintaining idealism and the difficulty of rising up against a powerful dictator and about the burdens of legends. We see this mostly through the eyes of Jemmy – he Is playing with soldiers during the overture and reading a comic about this historic William Tell. We see parts of that comic during the storm scene – a contrast perhaps between the easy heroism of legend and the truth of people not really equipped to destroy a heavily armed enemy. The dance in Act I is about Tell teaching Jemmy to shoot. Michieletto also has a figure dressed in medieval clothes trying to persuade a reluctant, lethargic people to stir and rise up against their oppressors. You sense a real reluctance to take action but also the reasons for this: the Austrians are gun-toting thugs who humiliate the Swiss and try to rape a woman in Act III – the booing started here.

The natural world in the opera (possibly important with its references to shepherds and huntsmen) gets short shrift. An apple tree gets uprooted by the Austrians at the end of Act I. The remainder of the opera is set round a huge fallen tree – a place of hiding for the Swiss refugees, a place which excludes them from the Austrian rulers. It lifts up at the end and a child comes forward to plant a young sapling.  That’s it.  The floor is mostly mud, the remainder off-white: it’s not interesting or beautiful to look at.

There are problems with this. The medieval figure is on a bit too much and looks silly. A quite static opera becomes more so through the lethargic direction of the chorus. I wasn’t particularly troubled by the rape scene but I was more irritated by the picture of Hedwige setting a table while Tell sings “sois immobile” you were watching her rather than admiring Gerald Finley’s fine singing. The storm scene was invisible from the second row of the amphitheatre which, in my view, counts as pure amateurism. I’m not sure why we needed those strip lights, nor why people kept taking off shirts and digging in the mud.
The successful parts were the great finales – to Act I and Act III where the oppression really came across well – and the duets and trio where real emotion and debate took place. The Act III finale where the booing started – largely because the audience did not like the idea that totalitarians regimes might have soldiers that raped and abused the population. But I thought that Michieletto really got the personal tension around Tell and Gessler and Jemmy that held attention. It’s a difficult piece and I welcomed his attempts to engage with it as something more than a historical pageant.

The cast was good, on the whole. The star was undoubtedly Gerald Finley as Tell. He sang with perfect style and with just the right ease and intelligence.  This was clear, beautifully judged, entirely honest singing. He’s a great actor and this struck me as one of the finest things I’ve seen him do. It’s a glorious voice and, as I’ve suggested, the only irritation was the distraction during his great aria.

Initially I found John Osborn as Arnold disappointing. The “Ah Mathilde” duet was decently sung but without the sheer bravura that Gedda or Pavarotti bring to this. Perhaps he was saving himself because he was outstanding later on: his final aria and cabaletta justifiably brought the house down – this was fabulous heroic singing that never became harsh or unstylish. Acting isn’t his strong point.

Pappano obviously feels that Malin Bystrom is the Mathilde for him. She doesn’t really stand up to Caballé or Freni and I’d love a little more individuality and variation. She wasn’t bad, you just wished for something a bit more interesting.
Sonia Fomina made a splendid Jemmy – well acted and gorgeously sung. Enkelejda Shkoda was also very strong as Hedwige. Eric Halfvarson struck me as showing his age as Melcthal, Alexander Vinogradov was rather an anonymous Furst and Nicolas Courjal rather a good Gesler. Overall it was a good cast rather than a great one.

I doubt that you can get a perfect Tell. It’s too big and challenging a piece and our sensibilities have changed.  The reviews will tell it was a disaster visually: I don’t think so and this was a serious attempt at the opera – imperfect but that’s inevitable. And for Pappano, the orchestra, chorus and Finley it was very special.  I don’t suppose it’ll be back and there are still seats available.

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