Steph Power is at the Wales Millennium Centre to review a Welsh National Opera performance of Gioachino Rossini’s political opera William Tell, directed by David Pountney.
Gioachino Rossini might seem the unlikeliest of composers to have produced an overtly political opera, let alone one which championed a nationalist cause. After all, he was famous for his comedies – of which The Barber of Seville is the most celebrated – and his musical raison d’etre was melody; something more often (though not always helpfully or fairly) associated with sensual and aesthetic pleasure than with narrative seriousness. Indeed, Rossini delighted in highly ornamental, quasi-classical vocal display set amidst opulent surroundings; a combination which neatly captured the prevailing Restoration nostalgia for pre-French Revolution aristocratic taste alongside a hunger for exotic colour and spectacle. But as well as looking backwards to the 18th century, Rossini came to embrace a new and more fundamentally Romantic sensibility.
As it happens, William Tell (Guillaume Tell as it is called in the original French, the language of this production) was premiered in Paris just a year before the next wave of revolutionary fervour surfaced in France in 1830. It would prove to be Rossini’s final opera before he retreated into near-total silence, devoting himself to culinary rather than vocal or dramatic excess for his remaining 39 years. During that time, it would fall to others, from Meyerbeer to Halévy and Verdi – even Wagner – to further explore the extraordinary, grand opéra vistas he revealed in this pivotal piece.
The pictorial analogy is key. Tell’s libretto does look back in a sense, but to the heady, idealistic early days of the French Revolution, and to Beethoven, in its adaptation of Schiller’s heroic drama about the legendary Swiss marksman William Tell; a 13th-century mythical figure who was said to have led his people in uprising against the tyrannical, conquering Austrians in order to reclaim their homeland. The mountains, forests and moody Lake Lucerne of the play’s location are not just picturesque backdrops, but important indicators of the burgeoning Romantic yearning for simple rustic bliss amidst increasingly savage political and social tumult. For writers and artists of the age, nature had come to symbolise poetic ideals of inner and outer freedom, encouraging new depths of psychological expression reflected in the changing seasons and oft-volatile weather; ideas which Rossini’s opera vividly embraces with its dramatic layering of literal, musical and emotional storms.
To modern theatre audiences, any unvarnished rustic setting courts the danger of kitsch. But director David Pountney’s striking new production for Welsh National Opera banishes Heidi-esque sentimentality from the start – and without dipping into cynicism or misplaced irony. WNO’s season theme is ‘Liberty or Death!’; a paraphrase of the clamour for ‘independence or death’ so pertinently raised by the oppressed populace in William Tell. It is as much a humanist as a political cry. In Raimund Bauer’s robust, grey and darkly-lit design, harsh injustice is writ large in a backdrop etched with jagged ice. Here we have the frozen lake – but also mountains, which split asunder in the course of the piece to reveal the scaffolding of an alien stronghold, before ‘reforming’ as mountains once again as the people gather their courage and eventually win the day. This simple but highly suggestive staging follows the contours of the narrative, as it were, framing and supporting Rossini’s eloquent music to locate the real strength of the story where it lies in his score; that is, within the Swiss people as a collective, albeit under the leadership of a brave but essentially ordinary individual in Tell (performed here with dignified strength and presence by the excellent David Kempster).
Thus the many rousing choruses and fine ensembles quite naturally form the heart of the opera on stage as they do its musical structure (even with cuts; it’s a lengthy piece and benefits here from some customary, judicious shaving). This of course plays to the strengths of the marvellous WNO Chorus and orchestra, conducted this evening with admirable flair and nuance by Carlo Rizzi. Right from the start, conductor and director jointly emphasise the dramatic subtlety of the score; by placing the overture’s exquisite opening cello solo on the stage (fervently played by Principal Rosie Biss), Pountney highlights Rossini’s powerful, intended juxtaposition with the bombast of the ensuing so-called ‘Lone Ranger’ theme; a theme that everybody ‘knows’, but ripped out of context and missing its dramatic point (just as Elgar can be treated with misplaced jingoistic glee).
There is surprisingly little action per se in William Tell, and the plot unfolds at a measured pace, but this production is gripping throughout. The shattered cello left suspended above the stage when soldiers march the soloist away tells us at once the people’s restorative task at hand, and this evening’s cast responded beautifully – vocally and in character – to weave a story of triumph over triumphalism. The pivot is a taut, slow-motion apple-shooting scene in which Tell’s arrow ‘flies’ hand-to-hand down a line of people to hit its target, balanced on the head of his son Jemmy (Fflur Wyn in sweet-voiced trouser role). By this point in the opera, we care intensely about both – indeed all – the Swiss characters as we see personal dilemma intimately bound with wider, political struggle.
Rossini – and WNO – covers all the emotional bases, with glorious melody to boot. The inevitable conflicts of love and duty are embodied by the lovers: Mathilde – an Austrian noblewoman – and Arnold – the son of a murdered Swiss patriarch Melcthal (Richard Wiegold in clear, sonorous voice). It is a tribute to the strength of the production and cast that the jointly indisposed Gisela Stille and Camilla Roberts were able between them to convey Mathilde with such grace, respectively miming on stage and singing (beautifully all the same) from the side. Two more conventional stand-out performances were a deliciously evil Gesler and a superb, high-altitude Arnold; Clive Bayley, dressed in armour but sat in a wheelchair, honoured Rossini’s genuine wittiness as well as his darkly malevolent Austrian governor, whilst Barry Banks delivered the composer’s most ardent candour from the tenor stratosphere as the conflicted patriot who gets his country back and wins his girl.
Traditionally, grand opéra contains an important ballet element as part of its sumptuous entertainment ‘package’. In David Pountney’s production, six dancers bring light relief with a bawdy puppet show in a defiantly Swiss rural festival. However, thanks to some wonderfully physical – almost Stravinskian (especially à la Les Noces) – choreography by Amir Hosseinpour, they also join with the chorus in powerfully conveying the desperation of a populace hunted and ruthlessly cut down by an antlered military machine. Here, the grey, red-flecked visuals and costumes (the latter designed by Marie-Jeanne Lecca) are at their most evocative in complementing Rossini’s hunting horns and passages of sharply-accented rhythmic drive.
Word-painting is not something generally associated with Rossini. Indeed, his extravagant vocal lines are customarily meant to be beautiful rather than point to meaning beyond themselves, and he was known to cheerfully utilise the exact same music for comic as for serious purposes. But William Tell explores new and highly Beethovenian territory in its soaring visual and emotional landscapes. Whatever Rossini’s conscious reasons for giving up composing thereafter, it is surely likely that he was well aware of the cultural threshold he had just crossed. Perhaps it was all too much, and he himself froze at the freeze-frame potential of Tell’s iconic shot. Or maybe he simply got bored, or overwhelmed with nostalgia, or just gave in to his desire for a life of physical indulgence. Whatever it was, something stopped Gioachino Rossini dead in his operatic tracks. Thankfully, it did not stop others taking his lead and plunging forward into new eras of music drama creation.
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, September 12 2014
William Tell composed by Gioachino Rossini
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi
Director: David Pountney
Set Designer: Raimund Bauer
Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer: Fabice Kebour
Choreographer: Amir Hosseinpour
Chorus Master: Alexander Martin
Cast includes: David Kempster / Flur Wyn / Barry Banks / Richard Wiegold / Camilla Roberts (sung from stage left) – Gisela Stille – (mime) / Clive Bayley