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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Opera Review: This Swiss Doesn't Miss

The Metropolitan Opera (finally) brings back Guillaume Tell.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Lone warrior: Gerald Finley as William Tell in the Met's Guillaume Tell.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
It can be argued that Giacchino Rossini's Guillaume Tell is his finest score. It is a sprawling four-act portrait of the Swiss people rising up in rebellion and throwing off the yokes of their Austrian masters, full of musical invention and emotional moments that move the soul. Rigorous vocal demands and the problems of staging an opera set mostly in the Swiss Alps and featuring two boat trips and two huge storm scenes, have combined to keep Tell from the stage of the Met. The company last produced this show in 1931.

That all changed on Tuesday night.

William Tell and his rebels returned to the Met stage last night. in a new production by the controversial but always innovative Pierre Audi. The show was loaded with a starry cast and thankfully, sung in the original French text. (The Met's past productions of this opera were performed in either German or Italian.) Led by principal conductor Fabio Luisi, the Met orchestra played this five-hour score with excitement, verve and yes, affection, accompanying the superb chorus. These artists simply sang their hearts out, transforming from pastoral farmers to an angry and armed people fighting for their independence.

They were led by William Tell himself. The Swiss folk hero was played by Gerald Finley, with a rich, warm baritone that turned sweet when pressured into the upper reaches of this long and demanding part. He was an anchor for the drama of Act I, as a long pastorale was interrupted by the violence of Austrian soldiers. He excelled in the Act II trio, where the Swiss make plans to fight back. The Canadian baritone was at his most moving in Act III, when forced to shoot an apple from his son's head using a crossbow, the act that made Tell a folk hero. The aria "Sois immobile" produced a kind of stillness stopping the great momentum of this work in an awe-inspiring moment. In the last act, Tell's transformation from troubled outsider to heroic freedom fighter became complete.

Tenor Bryan Hymel faced a difficult assignment, the long and demanding role of Arnold. He played a Swiss whose loyalty is torn by his affair with Mathilde, an Austrian aristocrat, a circumstance that forced him to sing two difficult duets with the leading soprano that demanded great accuracy and control through a series of vocal gymnastics. Mr. Hymel proved a good fit for this role's high tessitura and yet his voice showed signs of wear and even roughness as the opera progressed. However, he enough resources for the Act IV "Asile héreditaire ", a climb up into the heights of the voice's range without a safety line. It was an imperfect performance but still a considerable achievement.

Mathilde, played by soprano Marina Rebeka, does not enter until Act II, but her entrance and performance of the aria  "Sombre föret" set the night on fire. In the chapel scene that opens Act III, she transits from conventional leading lady to compassionate savior, as she rescues Tell's son Jemmy from the Austrian soldiers and chooses the cause of the Swiss over her love for Arnold. She even cut through the enormous chorus at the opera's end, still producing radiant tone at the end of a long night.

The three leads were surrounded by a strong supporting cast. In the first act, Kwangchal Youn sang the martyred Melchthal with firm tone. Mezzo Maria Zifchak and soprano Janai Brugger were empathetic and more importantly, believable as Tell's wife and son. John Relyea only appears in the third and fourth act, but he made the towering Gessler a villain on scale with Darth Vader. His costume, an essay in ring mail, flowing leather kilt and steel helmet, helps that analogy, as did the dark tone of his full, round bass. Sean Pannikar was impressive as his flunky Rodolphe. Villainy has rarely sounded so good.

Mr. Audi set this epic rebellion against abstract, mostly effective visuals, using literal smoke and mirrors to evoke the opera's Alpine landscape. The Swiss were all in flowing off-white linen tunics, evoking rusticity and a national character addicted to fifty shades of beige. The Austrians looked like they did their shopping at New York fetish boutiques, with full leather outfits for men and women that were part dungeon, part steampunk and part evening wear. The Act Three ballet sequence, where the lowly Swiss were forced to dance for Gessler's amusement, was led by a pair of high-heeled dominatrices, who whirled, capered, and danced the can-can. They did their domination thing too, thwacking the stage with riding crops to force the Swiss to hop and clop.

In the each act, the huge Met stage was er...dominated by a central prop, a wooden "flying bridge" that doubled as Tell's sturdy boat. Its shape also evoked the curve of Tell's crossbow, hovering over the Swiss people like the sword of Damocles. The sets were otherwise minimal, with rocky outcrops and mushroom-shaped boulders for the woodsy scenes and the odd idea of rickety wooden towers for the Austrian rulers. These towers, particularly Mr. Relyea's Act III perch, looked like sets designed by IKEA. The final tableau, with sodium and lemon lights evoking a vivid sunrise, found an effective solution to this opera's numerous staging problems. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.