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Nicola Alaimo as Guillaume Tell, Eugénie Warnier as Jemmy and Koor van De Nederlandse Opera [Photo by Ruth Walz courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera]
06 Feb 2013

Amsterdam: Tell Hits a Bulls Eye

With a visually beautiful and dramatically honest staging, Netherlands Opera has made as compelling a case as I would imagine possible for Rossini’s grand opera Guillaume Tell.

Amsterdam: Tell Hits a Bulls Eye

A review by James Sohre

Above: Nicola Alaimo as Guillaume Tell, Eugénie Warnier as Jemmy and Koor van De Nederlandse Opera

Photos by Ruth Walz courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera


For starters they have gifted us with a cast that could hardly be bettered (and vocal excellence is always a great place to start). Nicola Alaimo is appropriately larger-than-life in the title role. His warm, sympathetic baritone regales the ear with outpourings of luscious tone one minute, and forceful dramatic outbursts the next. Mr. Alaimo has a suave delivery married to a solid technique and his mellifluous, even vocal production dominated the performance as any great Tell must.

As Arnold, tenor John Osborn was a revelation. Mr. Osborn could not only effortlessly nail the extreme, exposed high notes of the role, but could also spin out vibrant, meaty phrases in the middle and upper middle voice. Every moment of his performance was informed with an assured musicality, and John boasts an absolute command of Rossinian style. What his instrument may lack in the heft of a Gedda or a Pavarotti, he more than makes up for with the sheen and utter lack of effort in his distinguished vocalizing. An impressive achievement.

Marina Rebeka was a thrilling Mathilde who beautifully complemented her tenor in Rossini’s memorable duets. Her supple, limpid soprano was capable of a wide range of expressive effects. Floated high notes, soaring phrases, throbbing fortes, and considerable ‘weight’ when needed were all part of Ms. Rebeka’s superlative vocal arsenal. Singly, Mr. Osborn and Ms. Rebeka were remarkably fine; together they were nigh unto perfection.

Christian Van Horn was overpowering as the scene-stealing ‘baddie’ Gesler, thanks to his snarling, sneering, super-sized bass. Roberto Acccurso makes an equally solid impression as Leuthold with mellow, refined singing. The ill-fated Melchtal was well served by Patrick Bolleire, who made the most of his stage time offering a powerful, controlled, characterful performance.

Eugénie Warnier not only made a solid contribution in her solo moments as Jemmy, but also contributed mightily to the many ensembles, her cleanly-produced, cutting soprano lilting out over the massed forces. Vincent Ordonneau was a solid Rodolphe, Mikeldi Atxalandabaso impressed with his brief turn as Ruodi, and Helena Rasker deployed her soft-grained mezzo to maximum effect as Hedwige.

It should be mentioned that the outstanding cast performed the French version with overall good diction and idiomatic delivery. The feel of the piece certainly changes from the more straight forward Italian version, owing to the more covered French vowels and the muted elisions.

The splendid Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra was ably conducted by Paolo Carignani, who commanded his forces with a sure hand. The fail-safe, world-famous overture scored every musical point, and Maestro Carignani was in masterful control of every musical moment. So why was I feeling that his reading was occasionally, well, perfunctory? I am sure that Paolo’s scholarship and understanding of the score are thorough and commendable, however, there were ‘buttons’ of arias that didn’t quite land, and tempi of ensembles that didn’t quite ‘breathe.’ It must be said he partnered the soloists well, and maintained awesome control of Eberhard Friedrich’s meticulously prepared, huge chorus.

Tell_DNO_01.gifMarina Rebeka as Mathilde and John Osborn as Arnold Melcthal

It is hard to find anything much to quibble about with the haunting, luminous physical production with its stylized evocation of Swiss locales and heritage. Set designer George Tsypin, never a slave to representational realism, has devised a highly effective playing environment of considerable imagination. A huge frame of a ship, more an interior schematic if you will, hangs above the stage, filling it, and serving as a practical bridge that at one point accommodates a large chorus. On the stage floor two reddish rocky out- croppings flank the stage right and left, and are tracked to move center, or depart offstage.

The backdrop begins as a blue textured drop evoking the lake, pulled downstage at the bottom to suggest a sort of ramp to the heavens. This morphs throughout the show, often re-appearing with huge slits of “light” that suggest arrows, or turbulence, or even contributing to the production team’s concept that the four seasons are suggested by the successive acts. To that end the finale is bathed in a lustrous golden glow suggesting the sunrise and perfectly complementing the repatriation of Switzerland. The excellent, moody lighting was the work of designer Jean Kalman.

Mr. Tsypin created the village with the addition of three, two-story cottages that were de-constructed down to the natural wood frame. An advocate of natural materials, his depiction of a pasture has three sets of clouds, seemingly composed of pairs of cloud-shaped rock. Livestock are grazing, but they are floated upstage left, upside down on an oval slab of “grass,” ditto a stag in the mountainous ‘escape’ scene. George’s eye-pleasing and heartfelt artistry also manages to provide plenty of playing levels, and boy, does director Pierre Audi know how to use them!

Mr. Audi is one of my favorites because, first and foremost, he works to internalize the characters, and he develops meaningful, plot-driven relationships. He blocks with the goal of making the piece and its emotions accessible, and places the singers in the most advantageous positions to communicate to the audience. And even when moving large forces around the stage, he knows how to focus the attention on the principals. Do you know just how rare a gift this is on European opera stages?

The huge, complicated choral scene in which Gesler debases the Swiss villagers was a model of careful organization. The dance corps was not just the usual diversion, as Kim Brandstrup choreographed a highly dramatic scenario that had two haughty ruling class women terrorize the town folk into submission with riding crops. The simple folk dance the chorus performed earlier in the piece now becomes a tool for their humiliation as the invaders forced them to dance and ‘celebrate,’ clearly against their will.

Also significantly responsible for the night’s success, Andrea Schmid-Futterer created handsome costumes that visually defined the various factions, imposing yet more dramatic clarity and increasing visual appeal. Her attractive attire for Mathilde was especially accomplished.

Guillaume Tell is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, whose public generally likes their scenery Alpine-kitschy and cuckoo clock ‘realistic.’ At this Dutch premiere at least, the audience embraced and cheered this striking and original imagery, totally winning stagecraft, and top tier musical execution. Performances of this daunting piece come along so seldom that it nice to report the creative team at Netherlands Opera more than met every Rossinian challenge.

James Sohre

Cast and Production Information

Guillaume Tell: Nicola Alaimo; Arnold Melchtal: John Osborn; Walther Furst: Marco Spotti; Melchtal: Patrick Bolleire; Jemmy: Eugénie Warnier; Gesler: Christian Van Horn; Rodolphe: Vincent Ordonneau; Ruodi: Mikeldi Atxalandabaso; Leuthold: Roberto Accurso; Mathilde: Marina Rebeka; Hedwige: Helena Rasker; Chasseur: Julian Hartman; Conductor: Paolo Carignani; Director: Pierre Audi; Set Design George Tsypin; Costume Design: Andrea Schmid-Futterer; Lighting Design: Jean Kalman; Choreographer: Kim Brandstrup; Chorus Master: Eberhard Friedrich

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