Sunday, 16 August 2015

Rossini - Guillaume Tell (Rossini Opera Festival, 2013 - Blu-ray)

Gioachino Rossini - Guillaume Tell

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro - 2013

Michele Mariotti, Graham Vick, Nicola Alaimo, Juan Diego Flórez, Marina Rebeka, Simon Orfilia, Amanda Forsythe, Luca Tittolo, Simone Alberghini, Allesandro Luciano, Celso Albelo, Wojtek Gierlach, Veronica Simeoni

Decca - Blu-ray

Rossini's final opera Guillaume Tell is a work of tremendous scale and ambition that even today still requires huge musical, singing and stage resources to do real justice to it. The blending of the Italian opera form that the composer had done so much to define is taken here to a new level with introduction of French opera traditions that practically invent the style of Grand Opera. For its production at Pesaro in 2013 the Rossini Opera Festival invited Graham Vick to take on the challenge of directing the work in a way that would retain its immense power and status, but at the same time present it in a new light. Inevitably with Vick, it becomes almost an entirely new opera.

It take a while to get your bearings here in the specially constructed stage at the Arena Adriatica in Pesaro for the 2013 Guillaume Tell, if you ever even get your bearings at all. You're not exactly in 14th century Switzerland, that's for sure. The opening scene in fact looks like it takes place on a sleek cruise liner, one where the divisions between the rich and the poor voyagers are nonetheless dressed like their counterparts on the Titanic. It at least marks a clear contrast between the Austrian aggressors of the original story and the oppressed people of Guillaume Tell's canton in Switzerland. Soldiers dressed in Austrian uniforms keep an eye on the natives, who look like they are cleaning the decks, while the nobles in their finery brush them aside. It's hard to relate to any of the specifics of the original setting.

The lack of specific location or period is somewhat unsettling. It could just as easily be a large temple, or a posh hotel with exquisite views of the surrounding Alps. Vick doesn't believe however that you can put nature up on the stage, so makes no attempt with the crudely painted backdrops to suggest anything naturalistic. As the clear distinctions between the rich and the poor and the clenched fist on the drop curtain indicate, the director clearly wants to use the stage as a "blank canvas" to make a bold statement on power and oppression, freedom and revolution, one that is bigger than a mythological story of uncertain origin. It's also an approach that corresponds with Rossini's impressive, almost Wagnerian musical efforts to tie mythology to larger questions of nationalism and identity.

Vick's modern Bayreuth-like stylisations might seem out of place in Rossini, but conductor Michele Mariotti also seems to recognise the pre-Wagnerian force and dynamic that is there in the score as well. Act I plays out almost like Der fliegende Holländer, and heard this way, you can really get a sense of how far mature Rossini has come from the bel canto and opera seria constructions/constrictions of his earlier works. There's still a danger in this work of overplaying and being drawn into heavy-handed and obscure symbolism that is out of place with the real intent of the piece. Vick's approach here looks similar to his War and Peace for the Mariinsky, but as Act II of Guillaume Tell here becomes a "workers of the world unite" against slavery and oppression, you have doubts that it's enough to just reductively and abstractly treat the issues here are nothing more than a class struggle.

By Act III however, Vick's sinister imagery starts to really sink into your bones and show how it supports those bigger questions. Arnold and Mathilde's love for each other and the sacrifices they have to make must be more than just a romantic interlude added for variety and convention. Vick's production shows that it relates to wider social issues, to family, to national pride, and even to grander questions of what life means. Act III of course also brings up such matters in a way that - as seen by the recent controversial Covent Garden production - are difficult to handle effectively without overstating or diminishing the intent. There's no rape scene, but the rich Gessler's humiliation of the 'poor' in Vick's production still has an edge of sexual abuse and humiliation that seems to strike the balance somewhat better.

It's an important point to make because it's the key moment where the occupying forces overstep the mark. Tell's defiance and his feat of skill as a bowman further undermines Gessler's credibility and the people start to believe in themselves. Vick's production, as strange and abstract as it often is, never descends into absurdity but remains connected to those very real and significant human emotions, and that makes all the difference. Of equal importance to keeping the potentially overblown drama meaningful is Michele Mariotti's fantastic conducting and the outstanding performance of the orchestra that captures all the detail and sophistication of Rossini's score, driving it forward with tremendous energy.

No less challenging in Guillaume Tell is finding the right singers for a range of challenging roles. Arguably the role of Arnold Melchtal is the most difficult role to cast, and it's a challenge even for as consummate a Rossini tenor as Juan Diego Flórez. Flórez is traditionally better suited to light comedy Rossini, but there is a darkening in his voice occurring now that gives him the opportunity to approach the darker, more dramatic tenor roles. It's still a bit of a stretch, but Flórez does remarkably well. Next to that is Mathilde, and Marina Rebeka is nothing short of phenomenal here, her voice equally strong and projected out across the whole range, the high notes in particular ringing clear and firm. Rebeka pretty much carries the otherwise fairly static Act II, making it much more interesting that it might otherwise be.

There is however not a single weak link in the singing, which in this work is really something. Nicola Alaimo has good presence as Tell, not as strong in projection, but capable of navigating the switch between intimate sensitivity and pride spilling over into furious anger with real conviction. Amanda Forsythe shows how much a strong account of Jemmy can contribute to the work as a whole and Luca Tittolo gives us a fearsome Gessler who nonetheless has more personality than just being an evil villain. Personality is what this production really has going for it, Paul Brown's sets, Vick's direction, a uniformly strong cast and particularly Mariotti's conducting, really exploring the true worth of Guillaume Tell.

The 2013 Rossini Opera Festival production of Guillaume Tell is released on DVD and BD by Decca. The four-hour long work transfers well to the screen. It would seem that considerable work has been done to make the problematic acoustics of the basketball stadium of the Arena Adriatica more suitable for opera performance. The audio tracks here, in uncompressed PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are astonishingly good, and the bright stage production is filmed well. There is a short extra feature on the disc exploring Graham Vick's production and the challenges of putting it on stage. The Blu-ray is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.