Composer: Gioachino Rossini
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Director: Pierre Audi
Guillaume Tell: Gerald Finley
Arnold: Bryan Hymel
Mathilde: Marina Rebeka
Jemmy: Janai Brugger
Gesler: John Telyra
Melcthal: Kwangchul Youn
As if spending over four hours in the Metropolitan Opera for the second time in a single week were not enough excitement, I had to pick the Saturday matinee where some unexpected real-life drama would unquestionably surpass the onstage performance when a certified dimwit decided to throw some powder, which later turned out to be cremated ashes, in the orchestra pit during the second intermission of Guillaume Tell. This prompted the management to cancel the rest of the performance as well as the evening performance of L'Italiana in Algeri, the police to launch an investigation, the media to report the incident, and me to renounce forever my long-held and deeply cherished belief that music is good for the brain.
My weekend had started rather innocuously though, an ordinary Saturday with a not so ordinary – but not unheard of either – starting time of 12 PM for the Met's new production of Rossini's Guillaume Tell, which the company is offering for the first time in 85 years, and for the first time ever in the original French version. Curiosity toward this infrequently performed opera, the opportunity to hear the famous overture in context, and Gerald Finley – Need I say more? – had enticed me and many others to go buy a ticket already.
Guillaume Tell is mostly known for its ambitious scope and for being Rossini's last opera, although the rich and famous composer lived la dolce vita to the fullest for another 39 years, leaving behind him 39 operas for the world to enjoy.
With bucolic yet occupied Switzerland as background, the rough Middle Ages as time period, the virtuous fight for the homeland, revenge for one's father murder, a problematic love story and, of course, the most memorable archery feat in opera history, Guillaume Tell had all the ingredients to be a ground-breaking epic, and sure enough became one.
As the battered but unbroken hero of the story, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley was as noble and warm-hearted as they come. His voice may not be huge, but it is superbly expressive and he had total control over it as he was flawlessly navigating his extensive range. With a scruffy beard and a high-priest dress, he was an unwavering anchor against the occupants, his presence never less than quietly powerful even when he was just discreetly standing by the side of the stage.
American tenor Bryan Hymel was an endearing Arnold, the impetuous young Swiss who falls in love with the enemy and spends quite a bit of highly melodic time agonizingly torn between homeland and love. With a robust voice and high notes effortlessly reaching unsuspecting altitudes, he had the spontaneity of youth, but still enough emotional maturity to be genuinely distraught by his dire political and sentimental situation.
His paramour, Mathilde, was certainly worth of attention as Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka sang the part with plenty of inner strength and vocal power, occasionally throwing in some impressive acrobatics without batting an eyelid. But she also knew when to turn down the heat for a heart-breaking "Pour notre amour, plus d’espérance" as she was realizing that their budding love was doomed.
Smaller parts were well provided for too. Although I don't think I'll ever get used to trouser roles, I found that young American soprano Janai Brugger was a very convincing Jemmy, Tell's mature-beyond-his-years son. Canadian bass-baritone John Telyra was a mercilessly menacing Gesler, in strong contrast with South Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, who was a wonderfully wise Melcthal.
Needless to say, the other star of the opera was the Met's unstoppable chorus, who just kept on brilliantly singing the technically challenging choral numbers with their customary commitment and excellence. If there are any composers that the ever-versatile ensemble cannot handle, the Met has not found them yet.
The same praise can be directed at the indefatigable orchestra, who first delighted the audience with a fleet-footed overture that received an enthusiastic ovation before throwing themselves whole-heartedly into Rossini's beautifully crafted score, which expertly blends Italian bel canto and French grand style through attractive melodies, high-flying fireworks, emotionally charged arias, appealing dance numbers and plenty of good old drama to go around. Fabio Luisi, who by now has a downright seamless and highly productive relationship with the musicians, proved one more time what a priceless asset he is to the Met.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have to state that here too, if the music and singing were of the highest caliber, the staging left quite a bit to be desired. Granted, the sheer magnitude of Guillaume Tell, its convoluted story, numerous crowd scenes, not to mention a boat and a lake to come up with somehow, do not help. So going the abstract way does not necessarily sound like a bad idea as long as the director knows where he is going.
In this case, I thought that less was definitely more, and while I generally enjoyed the minimalist tableaux, bathed as they were in elegiac blue shades, their subtle charm was immediately and permanently broken as soon as unsightly and perplexing elements such as high wooden structures with large slabs of rock at the top or three poles brightly lit up with more slabs of rock across their tops made their appearance and kept coming back, their raison d'être far from being obvious.
There were some peculiar directing choices too, like when in Act III a couple of black gown-clad dominatrix suddenly showed up out of the blue with a group of equally black-clad aristocrats straight out of the Habsburg empire, and started dancing and whipping the medieval peasants around during one of the dance numbers in a silly time-warp moment. As a symbol of Austrian oppression over Swiss villagers (I guess), this felt heavy-handed and awkward.
So we did not get to see the fourth act, which is especially infuriating because we had made it that far, it is short and it has some of the best stuff in it. But there is no rest even for the weary opera buffs, and I will be back in the Metropolitan Opera house for another – hopefully complete – performance of Guillaume Tell on Saturday evening. To be continued...