United Kingdom Rossini, William Tell: (Premiere) Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Carlo Rizzi (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 19.09.2014 (GPu)
William Tell: David Kempster
Arnold: Barry Banks
Hedwige: Leah-Marian Jones
Jemmy: Fflur Wyn
Mechtal / Walter: Richard Wiegold
Mathilde: Gisella Stille / Camilla Roberts
Gesler: Clive Bayley
Leuthold: Aidan Smith
Rodolphe: Nicky Spence
Ruodi: Luciano Botelho
An Austrian Huntsman: Julian Boyce
Dancers: Megan Griffiths, Sophia Preidel, Sophy Ribrault, Kit Brown, Nicholas Keegan, Pim Veulings
Director: David Pountney
Set Designer: Raimund Bauer
Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer: Fabrice Kebour
Chorus Master: Alexander Martin
Choreographer: Amir Housseinpour
Conducted with a complete understanding of Rossini by Carlo Rizzi, superbly played by the orchestra under his direction and (with only the most minor qualifications) very well sung, this William Tell was an almost unqualified triumph musically speaking. Add to that the fact David Pountney, as director, solved most of the difficulties inherent in any attempt to ‘translate’ French grand opéra (which is what Guillaume Tell essentially is, for all that Rossini’s musical ‘accent’ remains decidedly Italian) into an idiom acceptable to modern audiences (and possible within the budgets of modern opera companies) and you have a piece of work of which Welsh National opera can be very proud.
Guillaume Tell was Rossini’s last opera, first staged at the Théâtre de l’Academie Royale de Musique in Paris on August 3rd 1829. As well as being a ‘last’ opera it was also, if not quite the first such work (that position is often given to Auber’s La Muette de Partici, produced in the February of the previous year), then certainly “a foundational example of French grand opera” (in the words of Cormac Newark in the Cambridge Companion to Rossini, 2004). To make sense of the problems such works now present, it is perhaps helpful to view grand opera as one of Europe’s last attempts to continue the tradition of the epic.
For several centuries, the epic was seen as little less than the ne plus ultra of human creative endeavour. A neo-classicist such as John Dryden, writing in 1672, could confidently declare that, “A heroic Poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest work which the human soul is capable to perform”. But even by Dryden’s own time the “human soul” seemed to have largely lost (Milton is an exception, just as Paradise Lost is an ‘odd’ epic) the power of ‘performing’ such a work. Dryden and his successor Alexander Pope proved incapable of writing ‘heroic poems’ (though they could produce fine translations of Virgil and Homer). The best they could do was to exploit the epic’s cultural status in mock-heroic poems such as ‘Mac Flecknoe’ (Dryden), The Rape of the Lock (Pope) and the Dunciad (Pope). Such epics as were attempted in the Eighteenth Century fell dead from the press. Few then (and virtually no one since) bothered to read, for example, Sir Richard Blackmore’s Prince Arthur: an Heroick Poem in X Books (1695) or Eliza: An Epic Poem in Ten Books (1705). Interestingly, Dryden himself saw one genre in which the epic might survive or be renewed – on the stage. In his Essay of Heroic Plays (1672) he argued that “an heroic play ought to be an imitation, in little, of an heroic poem; and consequently … Love and Valour ought to be the subject of it”. The epic of action became displaced, as it were, to the stage (and later to the novel), while poets increasingly produced ‘epics’ of inner life, the archetypal example being Wordsworth’s The Prelude (conceived c.1799, published 1850) which is subtitled ‘The Growth of a Poet’s Mind’. The poet has become author and subject of the epic. The epic as the narrative of external action, as the story of the founder or defender of a nation, has become the subject matter of, on the one hand, the stage and, on the other, the novel ― the influence of Sir Walter Scott’s historical narratives of Scottish nationality and history was Europe wide – and nowhere more strongly felt than in France.
The libretto of Guillaume Tell (initially the work of Etienne de Jouy and later revised by Hippolyte-Louis-Florent Bis and others) was based, of course, on Friedrich Schiller’s play Wilhelm Tell. In the light of the historical pattern traced in outline above, it is interesting (and symptomatic) that Schiller “undertook to dramatise the revolt of the Swiss cantons at Goethe’s suggestion when the latter abandoned his plan to write an epic on the subject” (E.L. Stahl, Friedrich Schiller’s Drama, 1954). What Schiller produced, and what Rossini’s librettists largely ‘echoed’ – was a historical spectacular built on a ‘heroic’ substructure.
In our days the epic survives primarily in debased forms in fantasy novels, films and computer games, but at least we still (or at least some of us do) have an appetite for stage spectacle (think of innumerable musicals or the recent return of Kate Bush!). Still, the kind of spectacle the original Parisian audience of Guillaume Tell expected ― featuring spectacular stage effects, processions and ballet ― is not quite what modern operatic audiences want nor what a director like David Pountney is likely to want to provide. What does the modern director of Rossini’s opera need to do?
First, find a conductor who can fuse Rossinian zest with the kind of gravitas this opera requires.
Second find yourself a chorus capable of doing justice to the immensely demanding central role that the chorus plays in this opera. Welsh National Opera has a head start in these two regards. Carlo Rizzi, one of the finest Rossini conductors of our age, may no longer be WNO’s musical director, but he retains links with the company and, I believe, still has a home in Cardiff. The chorus of WNO has long been regarded as one of the best choruses in British opera (if not the best).. To prepare the chorus for Guillaume Tell and, in doing so, to maintain the high standards of recent years must have been a tall order for the company’s new Chorus Master Alexander Martin. It was a test that he and his chorus passed with flying colours. The director seeking to ‘translate’ the work for the modern stage and audience is also going to have to make some judicious cuts – the cuts made here (collaboratively by Pountney and Rizzi, I suspect) were just that. Even so the running time (with one interval) was something over four hours – though I didn’t see or hear any sign that the audience was at restive.
Then, of course, get yourself some soloists who can handle the often demanding music. This, too, Pountney had very largely succeeded in doing. Nowhere more so, than in the casting of Barry Banks in the high tenor role of Arnold. (One of the problems about the opera is that Tell, though nominally the ‘hero’ of the work, is provided with rather less fine (or at any rate spectacular) music than Arnold is, although Arnold’s role and character are much less interesting dramatically. The numerous top C’s demanded of Arnold were negotiated with thoroughly convincing ease and elegance by Banks and he has all the experience needed to be able to present Rossini’s melodic lines with real beauty.
As Tell, David Kempster sang with powerful dignity and looked the part of what is (in both Schiller’s play and the operatic libretto) a rather modest hero, not prone either to bombast or to the announcement of his own heroism. Arnold’s beloved, Mathilde, was to have been sung by Gisella Stille, but she was under doctor’s orders not so sing. She was well enough to walk through the part on stage, however, while Camilla Roberts sang the role from the wings, though visible to the audience (as a Yorkshireman, on the very day that Yorkshire won the county cricket championship for the first time in many years, perhaps I may be allowed to say that the situation reminded me of a batsman facing the bowling with a runner – the possibilities for confusion (amongst players/performers and spectators/audience alike) are almost infinite). Such possibilities were almost wholly avoided but it was hard not to find something absurd about a duet between an Arnold who was ten or twelve yards away from the singer of Mathilde (Camilla Roberts) and looking into the eyes of a different woman (Gisella Stille). The young Welsh soprano Roberts had herself been feeling unwell for some days and there were moments of vocal difficulty when this was evident, but for the most part she sang powerfully and often rather beautifully, not least in a fine reading of “Sombre forêt”, Mathilde’s Second Act aria-by-way-of soliloquy. Kempster and Roberts were not the only significant Welsh contributions to this outstanding evening of Franco-Italian opera: as Hedwige Leah-Marian Jones gave as good a performance as I have seen and heard from her recently, assured and affecting, while Fflur Wyn’s Jemmy was both boyish and properly ‘heroic’ in terms both of manner and voice.
The set design by Raimund Bauer was visually striking and also effectively functional. Its most memorable feature, present in the opening scenes, was a vision of icy wastes (more polar than Swiss) etched (?) on a huge glass (or perhaps it was perspex) screen and redolent (especially in an opera whose libretto is packed with weather imagery, of movement towards the light) of the ‘frozen’ condition of the Swiss under Austrian oppression. Some of costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s decisions were less completely successful. The production was set in the early nineteenth century (perhaps round about the time of the opera’s premiere), but Gesler (well sung and played as a kind of protoytpical Bond-villain by Clive Bayley) spent much of his time onstage in a suit of armour (and in a decidedly modern wheelchair!). Arnold’s plus-fours did nothing to help Barry Banks and seemed to add another dimension of Wooster-like foolishness to the character’s indecisiveness (Arnold is one of the many nineteenth descendants of Hamlet). More uniformly successful was the work of Iranian-born choreographer Amir Housseinpour – whose work was by terms menacing, humorous and beautiful, laced both with the imagery of sexual and colonial exploitation and echoes of the whirling dervishes of Konya. The rural wedding feast of Act I was graced by some lovely dancing and a witty puppet show of sorts.
Most aspects of David Pountney’s staging worked well; it was pa particularly nice touch to have cellist Rosie Biss on stage to play the cello part in the overture and then to hang a fractured cello above the stage as a symbol of a discordant society (the opposite of our own politicians’ beloved ‘social harmony’). I particularly liked the way Pountney solved the problem of Tell’s arrow shot to remove the apple from Jemmy’s head – the arrow was lifted from Tell’s crossbow and passed though many pairs of hands across the stage in slow motion. The resulting stillness and slowness, a kind of frozen moment in time, was more evocative and thought-provoking than any imaginable coup-de-théatre produced by clever trickery. Stylisation of this kind was far more effective than any dubious attempt at ‘realism’ could have been. A later moment, however, was distracting in its refusal to attempt any kind of plausible naturalism. When Tell eventually shot and killed Gesler the complete inactivity and failure to react on the part of any of his Swiss soldiers seemed to ‘mean’ little and to make little sense in terms of human behaviour.
But such reservations as I had were relatively minor quibbles. I confess that I had not arrived expecting such a powerful evening of theatre. By the end it would have been a very hard heart that was not stirred by the beauty and power of much of Rossini’s music, not least in the wonderful final chorus “Liberté, redescends des cieux”. As I left the theatre I half remembered some words of Peter Conrad’s about the opera, and when I got home looked them up to be able to quote them here (they are from A Song of Love and Death, 1987) when he describes Guillaume Tell as “the work whose portrayal of Swiss patriotism defying Austrian rule started opera’s alliance with national campaigns for liberty, and prompted Verdi to dramatise Italy’s cause against Austria … By the end, as the sun transfigures a Switzerland freed by Tell, the orchestra pit has lifted into that radiant sky. Tell begins a choral prayer which begs liberty to redescend from heaven, and it does so in an inundation of music”.
A production, then, of real distinction and one which clearly moved its largely Welsh audience. Perhaps Scottish Opera should have put on the work in the run-up to the recent referendum! In a way not ‘forced’ by the production, the continuing relevance of William Tell was powerfully demonstrated.
Footnote: I am pleased to report that Gisella Stille’s voice had recovered by the performance on 20th September and she gave a truly memorable and convincing performance as Mathilde. This was surely WNO’s finest hour – or three and a half hours! (Roger Jones, Editor)