Rossini’s Operatic Swan Song, Guillaume Tell, At The Met

Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, N.Y. October 25, 2016—It has been 80 years since the Metropolitan Opera staged Rossini’s final opera, Guillaume Tell. A gigantic work lasting four-plus hours, here it is presented almost complete, with only a piece of ballet and a few recitatives omitted—about 15 minutes’ worth. The issue with it is not its epic length, really, but with its not-very-engaging story: It attempts to be both a tale of oppression and independence and a conflicted-love story, but it doesn’t have the libretto of, say, Don Carlos, to make it work.

Switzerland is under the yoke of Austria and the sadistic Governor Gesler; William Tell, a local activist and superb archer, along with the village elder, Melchtal, and an ally, Walter, rile up the locals to revolt. Arnold, Melchtal’s son, is torn—he is in love with Mathilde, part of evil Gesler’s entourage. Love or duty? What to do? Well, once the Austrians murder his father, he’s in with Tell, et al. Eventually, Tell is made to show his steady hand by shooting an apple off his son Jemmy’s head, the peasants revolt, and Tell shoots Gesler with his trusty crossbow. The sun comes out in a gorgeous blast of C major.

Pierre Audi directs with emphasis on how unhappy the oppressed Swiss are: Act 1 starts with a triple wedding and merry decorating and singing; here the sour-looking locals stand still and gloomily stare at each other and the audience. The wicked Gesler’s headquarters in Act 3 are, at least, blood red, and when the Austrians make the Swiss dance, two women, in black and brandishing whips, urge them on. It’s ugly, but it makes some sense. The chorus, on stage a great deal, moves awkwardly.

The sets (by George Tsypin) and costumes (Andrea Schmidt-Futterer) make matters worse.  I guess one might call the former abstract or symbolic: Act 1 features a rickety-looking bridge—or the front of a ruined ship?—across the entire width of the stage; huge stones hang from it. Stones also litter the otherwise bare stage, though there is the occasional hint of a mountain. A blue/gray mist reflects from above—is this Lake Lucerne? Cows and sheep float in the sky; some are upside down. The entire chorus of Swiss people wears off-white/dirty beige, unappealing outfits and the women wear conical hats that we associate with coolies; the wicked Austrians are in shiny, black, Darth Vader-like suits. Clearly not the Middle Ages, hardly Switzerland, and although nicely rustic, there are no houses, no pastures, no greenery. What precisely is the national identity the Swiss are fighting for? Everything about the production is non-specific, but rather than making it all-purpose and universal, it becomes a big “huh?”.

Luckily, musical matters are as good as one finds nowadays. Fabio Luisi brought the right excitement to the famous Overture, lingering wonderfully on the dark, opening cello solo and the following lovely wind solos before launching into the “Lone Ranger” theme that practically had the Met audience dancing. Practically. His leadership throughout was ideal, with brisk tempos and attention to both orchestral detail and his singer’s needs. The Met orchestra seemed to be having fun, and Donald Palumbo’s superb Met Chorus dazzled over and over again. Luisi supplied the vigor this work requires, and it paid off.

Gerald Finley, the marvelous Canadian baritone, presented a thoughtful William Tell with charisma. Clearly a man who never really wished to be a leader but has found himself in the position, he was thoroughly convincing. His reading was warm and his attention to dynamics splendid. His big aria, “Sois immobile”, which he sings to his son when he’s ordered to shoot the apple off his head, was stunning in its solemnity. Tell’s fellow revolutionaries, Melchtal and Walter, were sung by Kwangchul Youn and Marco Spotti, respectively. Youn brought great gravity to the role and Spotti proved a stalwart ally to Tell.

Arnold was sung by Bryan Hymel. The role is incredibly difficult and high-lying and there is a great deal of exclamatory singing: this is not a delicate bel canto role. His voice rose above the orchestra when needed and he was remarkable in his duet with Mathilde and in the following trio with Walter and Tell, but he amazed in his final-act aria and cabaletta. This is a precursor of Manrico’s “Di quella pira” from Il trovatore and it brought down the house. Hymel’s vocal production can sound somewhat nasal, but he’s a great singer nonetheless.

Mathilde was sung by Marina Rebeka. There’s not much to characterize in this part, and indeed, Rebeka rarely varied her approach. But she nailed the lyrical as well as the wildly florid parts of the role with ease. Janai Brugger, singing Jemmy, was beaming in the part, despite being costumed as a girl—Jemmy is supposed to be a boy and the role is a trouser part. Maria Zifchak got inside the sympathetic part of Hedwige, Tell’s wife, and John Relyea, as Gesler, was genuinely scary and nasty.

An evening of great singing and playing. Just don’t expect much from what you’re looking at.