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A 1782 depiction of Tell in the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, Zürich [Source: Wikipedia]
06 Oct 2014

Guillaume Tell, Welsh National Opera

Part of their Liberty or Death season along with Rossini’s Mose in Egitto and Bizet’s Carmen, Welsh National Opera performed David Pountney’s new production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (seen 4 October 2014).

Guillaume Tell, Welsh National Opera

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: A 1782 depiction of Tell in the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, Zürich [Source: Wikipedia]


The two Rossini operas shared the same scenic environment (though each had a very different look), with set designs by Raimund Bauer, costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, lighting by Fabrice Kebour and choreography by Amir Hosseinpour. Carlo Rizzi conducted, with a cast including Luciano Botelho as Ruodi, David Kempster as William Tell, Fflur Wyn as Jemmy, Leah-Marian Jones as Jemmy, Barry Banks as Arnold, Richard Wiegold as Melcthal and Walter, Nicky Spence as Rodolphe, Aidan Smith as Leuthold, Julian Boyce as an Austrian Huntsman and Clive Bayley as Gessler.

WNO’s production of Guillaume Tell was the first staging of the opera since the 1992 revival of John Cox’s production at Covent Garden. Despite its high reputation, the work’s length, staging requirements with ballets, large chorus and orchestra, and the difficulty of casting the lead tenor role of Arnold, have all mitigated against performance. WNO’s has not only solved these problems, but the company is taking Guillaume Tell on tour, we caught the last performance at the Wales Millennium Centre prior to Llandudo, Bristol, Birmingham, Oxford and Southampton.

Pountney and Bauer used the same moveable screens for Guillaume Tell as for Mose in Egitto, but in Guillaume Tell the screens were covered in a translucent glass-like material sculpted into a low relief of a mountain-scape.

The opera opened with something of a coup, lead cellist Rosie Biss sitting centre stage playing to cello solo at the opening of the overture which received a finely crafted performance from Biss and the other orchestra cellos. At the end of this section, Rodolphe (Nicky Spence) strode on with a group of hench-men and confiscated the cello and carried off Biss. Spence looked particularly striking wearing a black great-coat, but with a metal helmet made to resemble a stags head. A broken cello (thankfully not the one Biss was playing) was lowered down and hung there for the rest of the overture and some of the opening scenes. Thankfully there was no more staging of the overture, and we could enjoy, in peace, the superbly evocative performance by Rizzi and the orchestra.

During the overture, Bauer’s Swiss landscape backdrop gradually became apparent and its grey and white colours were taken up by the costumes for the chorus and principals in the opening of act one. These were all wearing vaguely 19th century costumes, but in muted tones; these people were all camouflaged. Pountney’s staging avoided folksy local colour. There was dancing, choreography Amir Hosseinpour, and there were indications of region and nationality, but it was carefully muted until, ready for the celebrations, the chorus unpacked their best and each put on a brightly coloured item (hat, scarf, vest, pinafore). The result was to evoke a people operating carefully under a yoke. When the Austrians appeared at the end, they were a fearsome lot, with Spence’s Rodolphe still wearing his stags-head helmet. The ballet music in this act was danced by the six dancers and was almost comic entertainment, again with little folk influence.

Act two opened with the Austrian hunters all wearing stags head helmets, salivating over the corpses of six young people. In a rather eerily ghoulish touch, these came to life as ghosts and were still around when Gisela Stille sang her glorious solo as Mathilde. This scene and the next were both performed against the movable now split into three, with the superstructure supporting the screens well visible, as were the stage hands moving the screens. The famous final scene in act two, the oath taken by the three Swiss cantons, was simply done as Pountney relied on Rossini’s glorious music and the performance of the WNO chorus. But again there was a daring element here, I can think of few companies who could (and would) perform this scene with fewer than 30 singers. There were around 26 chorus men, with 8 or 9 in each chorus, but the results were glorious.

Act three was pure David Pountney, and had the look and feel of many previous productions by him. The screens were all turned round, to provide a scaffolding backdrop against which the dances and apple shooting took place. The Austrians were all strongly characterised to the point of caricature, with Clive Bayley’s Gessler wearing armour but in a wheel chair, and Spence’s Rodolphe and the Austrian soldiers all marshalling the Swiss in a totalitarian manner. But Rossini’s ballet music here, full of characteristic dances, does not fit the dramaturgy and the results were, perhaps intentionally, rather comic. The whole scene was, needless to say, vividly dramatic. You could sympathise with Pountney’s caricaturing of the Austrians as Rossini does not really give hum much to go on, and at least he avoided lazy shorthand like having them in Nazi uniforms.

The final act started with Barry Bank’s Arnold amid the structures used in act one, but this time reversed and turned round. Pountney solved the problem of the orchestral description of Tell’s escape by using the dancers without any attempt at naturalism and the opera concluded with in an admirably straight and direct manner, with the sun coming up through the translucent backdrop of the mountains.

Bauer’s flexible set and Kebour’s lighting proved an essential part of the staging. Not only were the screen flexible in their placement, but their backdrops could be opaque or translucent, making them turn from atmospheric and evocative of the mountains, to threatening thanks to the shadows of the super structure.

Within this, Pountney elicted some strong and sympathetic performances with the Swiss characters all being admirably natural and understated in contrast to the highly coloured Austrians. David Kempster made a bluff and personable Tell. This is not a particularly showy role and requires someone who can bring committment and purpose to it, to combine the idea of Tell as an ordinary family man with that of a patriot. This Kempster did well, bringing an understated sense of charisma to the character. I have heard finer sung accounts of Tell’s great act three arioso, sung when he is about to shoot the arrow at his son, but Kempster imbued it with real feeling.

Arnold is a killer of a role and it is one where, like Berlioz’s Aeneas, we need to re-discover performances using the pitch and instruments of the period. Arnold was written for a powerful high lying tenor, pushing the voice to the limits of the technique, witness the fact that one of the early protagonists was the first to sing the role’s top C using a full chest voice. However you sing the top C, the role requires a powerful, narrow-focused voice capable of great strength, great flexibility and a fine and even sense of line. And Barry Banks certainly fitted the bill, and in Arnold seems to have found the role of a lifetime. To say a singer’s tone was steely is generally regarded not as a compliment, but I can think of no other way to describe Banks performance and in this case it was just what was wanted. Firm, even gleaming tone with a superb sense of line a nice bravura feel to the showier moments. Banks’s Arnold was an intense, troubled young man, but his two scenes with Gisela Stille’s Mathilde were full of virile passion and their duet in act two was not a little stylish too.

Gisela Stille was a modern style Mathilde. She didn’t bring a laser-like clarity to the role, as typified by Montserrat Caballe in her recording. Instead Stille sang with a fine-grained warm vibrato which lent the character a soft edge and warmed her aristocratic demeanour. Mathilde is something of an under-written role, deprived of a second solo owing to the work’s length. Despite the cuts used by WNO, space was thankfully found for the important short scene between Mathilde and Arnold at the start of act three. Stille’s act one solo was finely done, combining aristocratic poise with an underlying sense of passion. Stille made Mathilde someone intriguing, about whom you would like to know more.

Fflur Wyn made a vibrant Jemmy, she cut a lively boyish figure, and sang with bright, focused tone. Leah-Marian Jones made warmly supportive Hedwige, and her account of Hedwige’s impassioned outburst in act four, when Tell is in prison, made you wish Rossini had given more to the role.

Richard Wiegold made a dignified Melcthal, returning in act two to report his own death as Walter. Aidan Smith was a committed Leuthold in act one. Luciano Botelho sang Ruodi’s act one solo with an admirably free and high-lying lyric tenor.

The Austrians were all vividly etched caricatures with some brilliantly intense performances. Nicky Spence sang Rodolphe with firm, bright and a lovely evenness of tone, sounding completely different to his account of Mambre in Mose in Egitto the previous evening. Visually and vocally he conveyed the character’s real glee at the mayhem he was able to create. Clive Bayley made much of the relatively small role of Gessler, making the caricature fully alive vocally and physically. Julian Boyce was strong in the cameo role of the Austrian huntsman.

The WNO Chorus were on terrific form. Rossini gives the chorus a clear dramatic role in the opera, obviously relishing the opportunities provided by the Paris Opera chorus’s facility and size. The Swiss and the Austrians are clearly differentiated in their music and in the oath scene in act two, Rossini gives each canton its own distinctive tint. The WNO grasped all these opportunities, and sang with an admirably firm, flexible and, when needed, heroic tone the the dramatic opportunities fully exploited.

From the large scale overture, to the many intermezzos evolving the natural beauty of Switzerland. Guillaume Tell is as much a showpiece for the orchestra. Carlo Rizzi and the WNO orchestra clearly relished the meaty and expansive score. In addition to the very visible cello solo, there were myriad other smaller ones, all well taken. It wasn’t all bombast, though Carlo Rizzi brought out the piece’s large scale grandeur but also its humanness.

Any performance of Guillaume Tell is an achievement. But Pountney, Rizzi and their WNO forces managed to get so much right, and create a strongly dramatic and musical whole. Yes it was cut, yes some performances veered into caricature, yes the sung French somewhat a little fuzzy. But in a work the size of Guillaume Tell, it is impossible to get everything right. WNO and the cast are to be congratulated for their achievement in creating such a musically and dramatically satisfying performance of an opera, which though a masterpiece, is enormously difficult to bring off.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Luciano Botelho:Ruodi, David Kempster: Guillaume Tell, Fflur Wyn: Jemmy, Leah-Marian Jones: Jemmy, Barry Banks: Arnold, Richard Wiegold: Melcthal/Walter, Nicky Spence: Rodolphe, Aidan Smith: Leuthold, Julian Boyce: an Austrian Huntsman, Clive Bayley: Gessler. Director: David Pountney, Set Design: Raimund Bauer, Costume Design: Marie-Jeanne Lecca, Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 4 October 2014.

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