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

October 20, 2016
By Eric C. Simpson
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.

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