Gioachino Rossini - Guillaume Tell
Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2014
Dan Ettinger, Antú Romero Nunes, Michael Volle, Bryan Hymel, Marina Rebeka, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Günther Groissböck, Jennifer Johnston, Goran Jurić, Christoph Stephinger, Kevin Conners, Enea Scala, Christian Rieger
Staatsoper.tv Live Web streaming - 28 June 2014
The qualities of Rossini's musical composition and the measure of how advanced his dramatic writing is in comparison to his earlier works, is clearly evident in his prematurely final work for the Paris Opera, Guillaume Tell. In part, that's much to do with the quality of the orchestra that Rossini had at his disposal, but there's clearly ambition on the part of the composer to move away from the standard number opera towards a more dramatic musical expression. In many ways, even though it is largely through-composed, Guillaume Tell points the way towards the grand opéra tradition, even as it looks back and retains a sense of the opera seria.
In both respects, whether it adheres towards one style or other, Rossini's final opera is a virtuoso work that requires performers of an extremely high calibre. It's a long work, almost four hours without cuts, with challenging vocal lines that push one tenor role to deliver fifteen high-Cs, many of them late in the second Act. The challenges extend to the staging of the dramatic action. Other than providing a sense of location for the Swiss Lake Lucerne setting, there aren't any conventionally difficult scenes to stage (other than an archer shooting an apple off a boy's head evidently!), but the real challenge lies rather in finding a way to make the staging visually and dramatically interesting. Without proper direction there can be a lot of opera seria-like standing around singing out one's emotional conflict to the audience.
Consequently, Guillaume Tell is not a work that is performed very often, but if the considerable musical and dramatic challenges can be overcome, there are great rewards to be found in this remarkable opera. Set during the Swiss revolt against the Austrian Hapsburg occupation in the thirteenth century and even managing to tie a doomed love affair into the storyline, there is at least a strong dramatic situation in Guillaume Tell. It's the kind of scenario that Verdi would come to specialise in, and Rossini's writing here sets a high bar for his successor to aspire to and eventually surpass. An oppressed nation under a hated foreign rule, stirrings of revolution and expressions of patriotic fervour, there's even a romantic situation of lovers torn in a conflict of love and duty to one's country.
The sense of the kind of passions that underlie Guillaume Tell are exemplified by the action that opens the opera. Leuthold, angry at an assault committed by Austria troops in his village, brutally attacks and kills the soldier responsible for the abduction of his daughter. This scene is shown silently before the opera starts, but rather than choose to follow this with the traditional overture, Act I of this production launches straight into the action with the village wedding celebrations that are soon to be interrupted by news of the Austrian governor Gessler's reprisals. The dropping the overture (or moving it, as it transpires, since cutting it would be unforgivable), and even the tone of the wedding celebrations indicate that this is going to be a production that emphasises the darker side of Guillaume Tell. And, being Munich, it's an abstract and modernised staging as well, looking like it is set sometime in the 1970s.
Instead of anything like traditional backdrops or even a sense of the setting even being anywhere in Switzerland, the production relies mainly on a layered series of columns on a darkened stage, the long tubular shapes rising and falling, symbolising or at least effectively evoking a sense of crushing oppression. In other scenes, the pillars float, revolve and strike angular positions, always matching the tone of the scene, whether it's a love scene or one of conflict. Or both, as is the case with Arnold Melcthal and his love for Mathilde, a Hapsburg princess whose life he once saved from an avalanche. On hearing that his father has been executed by Gessler, Arnold however has no choice but to join the call to arms that the intrepid archer William Tell is advocating against the oppressors.
Advocating, that is, with a gun rather than a traditional bow and arrow. Following the absence of the overture, this could lead the audience to wonder whether the director hasn't gone too far in taking Guillaume Tell away from the crowd-pleasing elements that contribute to its musical and dramatic greatness. That proves not to actually be the case. The shooting of the apple from Jemmy's head it staged with a crossbow and has full dramatic impact at the end of Act I, while the overture is reinstated after the interval before the start of the second act, a place where - arguably of course - it fits in well. It's not so much delayed gratification as using the melancholy tone of the solo viola to reflect Jemmy's sense of impending death - one that is populated it seems by fantasy figures from 'Where The Wild Things Are' - exploding into the famous march as the success of Tell's shot is seen to be sure and his turning on Gessler provokes the people to rise up in rebellion.
The Bayerische Staatsoper are of course well-known for taking on challenging works as well as for the experimental stylisations they take in their approach to opera stagings. For a work that is rarely staged which and has as many challenges as Guillaume Tell, the obvious approach would be stick with a familiar traditional period production, but playing it safe is never an option for the Munich opera company. Not that they get any thanks for it. The mindless booing that greeted Antú Romero Nunes and his team at the curtain call was inevitable then, but Munich should continue to pursue this kind of approach undaunted. It might infuriate a small section of the audience, but Nunes' approach succeeded in projecting a suitable tone for Rossini's opera, the measure of its success being plainly that the force of the work and the sentiments it expresses were fully achieved. I'm not sure why anyone would think the wearing of lederhosen and a few painted backdrops of the Alps would have improved it greatly.
There could however be little anyone would find lacking in the musical performance or the singing. Dan Ettinger finds a lush romanticism in the score, quite different from the familiar Rossinian romp, that drives the sweep of the drama wonderfully. The structure of the work is likewise tied more to dramatic requirements than to providing tailor-made roles to either showcase the performers' talents or spare their energies. It's a good hour and a half for example before the arch-villain Gessler even makes an appearance. Günther Groissböck doesn't quite have the depth of bass for a commanding governor, but donning a bull's head mask he presents a fearsome enough figure for Tell to defy. It was Marina Rebeka however who won most of the applause at the end of Act I for her Mathilde, and deservedly so.
Michael Volle and Bryan Hymel's Act I contributions were also acknowledged, but they really came into their own in Act II. Volle was as solid and reliable as ever as Tell, but it was Hymel who really impressed here. You have to give credit to any tenor who can hit all Arnold's high-Cs, but Hymel took them all effortlessly through a smooth vocal line and timbre that now seems more natural for Rossini than the heavy dramatic requirements of Verdi and Grand Opera. Evgeniya Sotnikova made the role of Jemmy count with a clear and expressive delivery, as did Jennifer Johnston as Hedwige.
Links: Bayerische Staatsoper.tv