Friday, October 21, 2016

Guillaume Tell

Superb singing hits the target in Met’s stolid “Guillaume Tell”

Wed Oct 19, 2016 at 1:33 pm
Gerald Finley (left) and Bryan Hymel in Rossini's "Guillaume Tell" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl
Gerald Finley (left) and Bryan Hymel in Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl
Constructing a canon is a peculiar process. In the operatic repertoire especially, history has been fond of plucking out and exalting excerpts while leaving their sources to languish in semi-obscurity.
One prime example has been Rossini’s final opera, Guillaume Tell, which has been especially absent from American stages. Tuesday’s season premiere at the Metropolitan Opera was the first performance by the company in eighty-five years, and the first in its original French libretto.
Alas, the new production by Pierre Audi is no great argument for the piece. For the first two acts, Rossini’ s swan song feels impossibly static, presenting a series of mystifying tableaux and failing to string them together into any kind of forward-moving drama. In Audi’s defense, a major challenge has been built into the piece: the chorus is ever present, playing a major part in the score and remaining always on the periphery of the action and forcing the director to find a place to put its singers. His solutions are unimaginative, offering up scenes of half-hearted clashes between Tell’s Swiss rebels and their Austrian oppressors, in which one mob and then the other pushes forward ever so slightly in what feels like a very low-stakes tug-o-war.
Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s costumes, drawn from very historical eras, at least help the audience understand what’s going on through their elementary-school visual shorthand: with all the good guys in white and all the bad guys in black, Audi’s production gives us a battle between the wholesome peasants and their evil steampunk overlords.
Guillaume Tell is a little convoluted to begin with, a romance-cum-revenge-epic lashed to a patriotic founding myth. As Austrian oppression moves William Tell to unite the Swiss cantons under one banner, the lovers Arnold and Mathilde find themselves on opposite sides of the ensuing conflict. The murder of Arnold’s father, Melcthal, provides the impetus for the revenge saga while the twisted cruelty of the Austrian governor Gesler sets up the famous trick crossbow shot that serves as the opera’s climax.
The director makes matters more difficult for himself by trying to outsmart the libretto. In macho displays of his rule-breaking prowess, Audi has the Austrian soldiers rough up the Swiss peasants while they continue to sing happy wedding hymns, or dims the stage lights the moment anyone starts singing about what a beautiful sunny day it is. Only the third act, in which Gesler’s dominion reads as a personality cult, shows any kind of robust internal logic. The extended ballet in which the captive peasants are forced to participate becomes an erotic dance-off led by two glamorous women with riding crops; the idea of these poor people being forced to engage in a series of progressively manic dances is oddly compelling. Kim Brandstrup provides elegant, evocative choreography throughout.
In musical terms, Tuesday’s performance excelled, though the stolid staging put the entire onus of carrying the drama on the musicians. While high-lying, the romantic lead Arnold does not quite feel like a classic Rossini leggiero role, requiring a great deal of vocal weight. Bryan Hymel was more than up to the task, his bright, ringing tenor fitting the part beautifully and reaching up to its highest points with relative ease. He intermittently struggled to be heard, but his Act IV aria, “Asile héreditaire,” was a brilliant highlight, a keen expression of grief that showed off his lyrical qualities and his trumpeting top.
Appearing as his love interest Mathilde, Marina Rebeka was also superb. Her bright sound has a slightly hard edge to it, but cuts effortlessly through the orchestra and gives her vocal characterization a fierceness that served as a strong counterbalance to her reserved dramatic performance. A pair of belle-époque dresses, one in white, one in black, made her come across as rather matronly, but she managed to find moments of intense emotional depth nonetheless. Her gorgeous lament in Act III, “Pour notre amour, plus d’espérance,” was given with desperate passion.
Rossini’s opera calls for an enormous supporting cast, which the Met was able to fill with superb singers all the way down. Among several standouts was Janai Brugger, whose crystalline brightness gave Jemmy a lovely, youthful vigour. John Relyea, though lost in a few of his low notes, made an imposing Gesler, employing his gravelly voice with firm authority. Sean Panikkar’s Rodolphe sounded overly lean, but he made up for it with brazen, imperious swaggering. Marco Spotti made an excellent debut as Walter Furst, sporting an enormous, oaky bass. Michele Anghelini, also making his bow, impressed early on, flashing a clear, pealing tenor in Ruodi’s love song.
The vocal star, appropriately enough, was the man in the title role, Gerald Finley. His silk-smooth baritone, full in body and rich in color, was positively luxurious. The deep heartache of his character was constantly apparent, nowhere more than in his emotional embrace of his son Jemmy just before the fearful apple shot. Audi’s direction, which presented Tell in the robes of a Jedi Master, made Finley’s a rather gloomy representation of the hero of legend, but he carried himself nobly enough that his sober charisma could be understood as a kind of weary-eyed wisdom.
It was a banner night for Fabio Luisi and the Met Orchestra. The familiar overture, from its warm, cooing start to its thrilling gallop, was brilliantly read and received a long ovation of its own. The entire score came through with remarkable clarity, and Luisi’s deft management of the large ensemble numbers wove a tight mesh of their intricate layers, aided by the superb singing of the Met chorus.
In his time as the Met’s principal conductor, Luisi has been a boon to the company, leading all of his assignments with tremendous skill and providing much-needed ballast during the uncertain years of James Levine’s various ailments. His official tenure will come to a close at the end of this season, making this run of Guillaume Tell his last assignment in that post. One hopes that his close association with the company will continue in some form.
Guillaume Tell runs through November 12 at the Metropolitan Opera. John Osborn sings the role of Arnold on November 2.


John Relyea in “Guillaume Tell” at the Metropolitan Opera. It is being performed at the Met for the first time since 1931 and the first time ever here in the original French. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

It sounded like a good idea.
In a recent interview, the director Pierre Audi described his new production of Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” for the Metropolitan Opera as an “abstraction” rather than an updating. This monumental opera, Rossini’s final masterpiece, spins a tale of the legendary Swiss folk hero William Tell, a renowned archer who fought to liberate his homeland from Austrian rule. Though set in the Middle Ages, the opera explores timeless themes: How do people balance patriotic loyalty with personal freedom? What does it mean to foster a national culture? How does a rural community live in harmony with nature?
The challenge in opting for abstraction as a production concept is that atmospheric imagery can come across as vague, even blank. Add surreal touches to an abstract setting, and the staging can feel contrived. Mr. Audi’s production, which opened on Tuesday at the Met, falls into these traps.
But it’s a major statement for the Met to take on this long and challenging work, performed for the first time at the house since 1931 and the first time ever here in the original French. (How long is it? With two intermissions, the evening lasted nearly five hours, almost as long as “Tristan und Isolde,” which the Met had performed the previous evening.) And musically, there is much to celebrate, starting with a strong cast headed by the elegant bass-baritone Gerald Finley in the title role.


Pierre Audi on His ‘Guillaume Tell’

An excerpt from Rossini's opera — with commentary from Mr. Audi, who directed this new production for the Metropolitan Opera.
 By JOSHUA BARONE and THE METROPOLITAN OPERA on Publish DateOctober 18, 2016. . Watch in Times Video »

The conductor Fabio Luisi brought insight and adroit technique to Rossini’s ambitious score, drawing fleetness, breadth and refinement from the excellent Met orchestra. “Tell” is rich with big, stirring choral scenes for Swiss peasants, valiant volunteer fighters from three Swiss cantons, as well as hunters and guards of the occupying Austrian governor. As usual, the Met choristers (prepared by the chorus master Donald Palumbo) were faultless.
In the libretto, the opera opens in a village on the shores of Lake Lucerne, where Tell lives in a tight-knit community under Austrian occupation. Working with the set designer George Tsypin and the lighting designer Jean Kalman, Mr. Audi, who has recently begun his tenure as artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory, tried to create stage imagery that suggested the infinity of nature, the way that rural people might almost blend into their environment.
A mirror-like backdrop offers a hazy mingling of pale-blue, grayish swirls and streaks of clouds. The hulking frame of a ship hangs above, since crossing the lake is a daily and, during storms, treacherous activity. Big gray boulders and rocks slide on and offstage. In later scenes, Mr. Audi recalls Robert Wilson, suggesting forest trees with tall vertical tubes of light that pierce floating slabs of rock and sprout branches at the top. Rather than conjuring nature, these surreal elements distract you from the characters as you ponder what Mr. Audi’s point may be.
The murky costumes, by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, make matters worse. The Swiss villagers wear fairly similar robes, all of the same pale grayish coloring, making the performers seem to disappear into the background. When the threatening Austrians appear, it’s melodramatic and obvious to costume these villains in black.

Marina Rebeka and Bryan Hymel in the opera “Guillaume Tell” at the Metropolitan Opera.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

Mr. Audi stages several choral scenes with strangely stylized formality. At the opening of Act I, the libretto describes villagers decorating chalets with boughs to celebrate a triple wedding, singing a wistfully beautiful homage to God. Here the villagers stood motionless, faces forward, as they sang. Mr. Audi wants to hit home the fact that oppression never ceases for these people, even during joyous occasions. We get it.
The production is lucky to have lead singers with standout vocal charisma. Productions of “Tell,” once rarities, are starting to crop up internationally, and Mr. Finley has made the title part a signature. He may not have abundant vocal power, but he has something better: penetrating vocal presence. His voice is rich, warm and beautiful through its range. This score shows Rossini balancing the florid Italianate bel canto style with pioneering dramatic grandeur, setting the stage for the French grand opera era.
Mr. Finley sings filigreed lines with finesse, smoothly folding in embellishments. He vividly conveys the declamatory thrust and poignancy of the music, bringing affecting dignity to his portrayal. Ordered by the maniacal Austrian governor Gesler to shoot an apple off the head of his beloved son, Tell sings the wrenching, sublimely eloquent aria “Sois immobile,” which Mr. Finley performed with magnificent gravity and burnished colorings.
The tenor role of Arnold, a young Swiss conspirator who has fallen in love with the Austrian princess Mathilde, is an arduous workout combining soaring lyrical effusions and heroic fervor. Bryan Hymel brings youthful impetuosity and impressive vocal stamina to the part. His sound is slightly nasal, but in an expressive way: more a vocal characteristic than a flaw.

The opera includes the soprano Janai Brugger, center, and the baritone Gerald Finley, right.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

Still, his top notes have ping. And Mr. Hymel dispatched with exciting fervor the brilliant cabaletta in Act IV when Arnold vows to avenge his father, killed by the Austrians, and rally the Swiss resistance, nailing all the high C’s.
The soprano Marina Rebeka’s plush, ardent sound is ideal for Mathilde. She makes every note count in the dizzying vocal roulades, giving dramatic point to the passagework and suggesting the vulnerability and confusion of a young woman who has fallen for an enemy and come to realize the inhuman oppressiveness of her own people.
The bass-baritone John Relyea makes a stentorian, menacing Gesler; the bass Kwangchul Youn wins your heart as old, patriotic Melcthal, Arnold’s father. As Hedwige, Tell’s devoted wife, the mellow-voiced mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak sings with tender earnestness. In his Met debut, Marco Spotti, a sturdy Italian bass, was forthright as Walter, Tell’s loyal ally.
The radiant young soprano Janai Brugger was wonderful as Jemmy, Tell’s brave and obedient son. In this instance, the overall sameness of the costuming actually had a benefit: No extra tinkering was involved to make Ms. Brugger look boyish; she just sang beautifully and really seemed to become the character.
At times I thought Mr. Luisi, who is also conducting the Met’s revival of “Don Giovanni,” went too far in striving to highlight the refinement of Rossini’s score, allowing undulant passages to lose lift and urgency. Still, the greatness of the opera came through. Why Rossini, just in his late 30s, quit the opera business after its 1829 premiere remains a much-debatedquestion. But it’s rewarding to have “Tell” finally back at the Met, whatever the frustrations of the staging.
Guillaume Tell [William Tell] {32} Metropolitan Opera House: 10/21/2016., Metropolitan Opera Radio Sirius XM channel 74 Broadcast live
Streamed at

(Debuts: Klaus Bertisch, Michele Angelini, Ross Benoliel, Marco Spotti

Metropolitan Opera House
October 21, 2016

New production

Gioachino Rossini/Etienne de Jouy, Hippolyte-Louis-Florent Bis,
Armand Marrast, Adolphe Crémieux, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller

Guillaume Tell ...............Gerald Finley
Mathilde...........................Marina Rebeka
Arnold.............................Bryan Hymel
Walter Furst.......................Marco Spotti [Debut]
Gesler.............................John Relyea
Melcthal...........................Kwangchul Youn
Hedwige............................Maria Zifchak
Jemmy..............................Janai Brugger
Ruodi [Fisherman]..................Michele Angelini [Debut]
Leuthold...........................Michael Todd Simpson
Rodolphe...........................Sean Panikkar
Huntsman...........................Ross Benoliel [Debut]

Conductor..........................Fabio Luisi

Production.........................Pierre Audi
Set Designer.......................George Tsypin
Costume Designer...................Andrea Schmidt-Futterer
Lighting Designer..................Jean Kalman
Choreographer......................Kim Brandstrup
Dramaturg..........................Klaus Bertisch [Debut]

Performed in the original French

The production a gift of The Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, Inc.
Additional funding gift of The Walter and Leonore Annenberg Endowment Fund

Co-production of the Metropolitan Opera and Dutch National Opera

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