Don’t Ash, Don’t Tell

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You will only see select parts of this from the Family Circle.

All I wanted was to see a production of Guillaume Tell which didn’t become a major news event. But I went yesterday, and the performance ended without Act IV but with me giving interviews to both the Times and the AP.

The interruption and eventual cancellation was caused by, it turns out, an audience member scattering a late friend’s ashes into the orchestra pit. It was, obviously, utterly bizarre and ill-advised. You have to be a complete idiot not to realize that this was going to end with a counter-terrorism unit surrounding the besmirched timpani and an awful lot of your fellow opera fans justifiably angered by your idiocy. But opera fans often pride themselves for their distance from the modern world, and this is such a typical opera fan gesture: ridiculous, morbid, sincere, and anachronistic. So much of opera is about something that is lost, and grief is not reasonable.

So I have only three acts of Guillaume Tell to write about. This is disappointing. I didn’t get to hear the big tenor number or the final chorus, two of the best parts of the opera, and it’s highly unlikely that I will be able to return to the Met for another go at it. So let’s do this now. (Also, I missed Tristan und Isolde due to my Amtrak train running over two hours late. This season has been terrific so far!) But this production has a really great cast!

Credit for this post title goes to Amber Treadway.

Rossini, Guillaume Tell. Met Opera, 10/29, 2016 (Acts 1-3 only). Production by Pierre Audi, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Gerald Finley (Guillaume Tell), Bryan Hymel (Arnold), Marina Rebeka (Mathilde), Kwangchul Youn (Mechthal), Marco Spotti (Walter), John Relya (Gessler), Maria Zifchak (Hedwige), Janai Brugger (Jemmy), Michele Angelini (Ruodi), more

Pierre Audi is a director who tends to create striking, static, somewhat elliptical stage images, of the kind that is usually termed stylish. The actual staging of the action doesn’t have much to do with, say, the upside down deer on a surfboard hanging from the flies, and the blocking of the singers is fairly straightforward and often lacks a personal touch. But this production was created for the wide stage and short, shallow auditorium of the Dutch National Opera, and is not well suited to the deeper and taller Met. In Act 1, all the Swiss wear absolutely identical light gray robes, which makes it impossible to tell who is who when you are sitting in the Family Circle, and makes following the action very challenging. The Act 2 set might create some cool reflection effects if you are sitting in the center, but if you are in the side orchestra (as I was for Act 2 and 3, shhhhh) and can’t see the mirrors from the right angle it just looks like a lot of things hanging upside down. Additionally, most of the upper set elements were only partially visible from the front of the Family Circle; from the back I imagine you would lose much more.

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The setting involves cult-like robes, water images, and a not very subtle color symbolism between the white-clad Swiss and black and silver Austrians. The direction of the chorus is not bad, and creates a pretty good variety for this opera’s many ensemble scenes. It isn’t all graceful, and one Mathilde-Arnolde scene takes place in front of the curtain so the set can be changed in between—an old theatrical technique and OK for what it is, but if you are going to do this you probably should get a better curtain or do it more than once, because here it just looked like a shortcut. The principals, however, don’t get much of a chance to create individual characters and remain broad types.

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Obvious villain is obvious

The ballet, so controversial in last year’s Covent Garden staging, is given a reading closer to the letter of the libretto, in which the Austrians force the Swiss to dance, but here the forcing is done by dominatrix-looking Austrian ladies to the gentle and white-clad Swiss ladies and gentlemen, a gender dynamic that is about as nuanced as most of what’s in this production. It is very campy and reminded me of that recent cinematic classic Jupiter Ascending. (The first ballet, however, is a confusing wedding-centric affair that was impossible to read from the Family Circle.) It isn’t a great production and I preferred the Michieletto in London. Flawed and overstuffed as it was, it was intense, and this one doesn’t have the same determination.

The cast and musical performance, however, is outstanding. Fabio Luisi’s Tell is lighter and sprightlier than Antonio Pappano’s very dark and heavy reading, but Luisi has a kind of nervous energy and power. Luisi is always classy, and this is very classy. The chorus was in rare form, and overall everything sounded much more polished and focused than the previous night’s Jenůfa. Gerald Finley is the only cast member I also saw in London, and while I didn’t think he had quite the same power here (it’s also a much larger opera house), he still has immense intensity and dramatic determination, and can convey a kind of seriousness that makes Tell seem like something more important than a rah-rah patriot.

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I haven’t been a huge fan of soprano Marina Rebeka in the past but Mathilde seems to be a great role for her (I had more or less the same reaction to Malin Byström in London). She can sing the ornate slower music with disarming ease and simplicity in a generic but pleasantly warm lyric soprano, and rarely seems to be out solely for virtuosic effect. Her coloratura, however, is distractingly aspirated, making the exciting ending to “Pour notre amour plus d’espérance” somewhat anticlimactic. Of Bryan Hymel’s Arnold I can’t say a lot, since his major aria was one of the greatest loses of the Act IV cancellation. I don’t find his nasal tone particularly attractive, but he has the necessary heroic force for this role.

The smaller roles (=not that small in an opera this big) were also remarkably well cast. As Jemmy, Janai Brugger’s silvery soprano was light, floaty, and beautiful, and tenor Michele Angelini made a promising debut as Ruodi. Sean Panikkar as Rodolphe sounds like belongs in bigger roles (he was also impressive at the Bard Music Festival last summer). Kwangchul Youn sounded magisterial as Mechthal, but his bass is developing a bit of a wobble.

I recommend seeing this for the chance to hear this wonderful and rare score being performed very well, and I envy those who get all four acts.

Photos by Marty Sohl/Met

Gerald Finley Video:

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3 Comments

  1. In case you hadn’t noticed, Guillaume Tell is scheduled as the Met Saturday afternoon broadcast on March 18. Worth hearing again.

  2. Saw you quoted in the NYT, so I was looking forward to your review. I am so bummed this is not in the MetinHD series this year.
    (also thanks Susan B for the reminder about the March radio broadcast. I missed the Met’s stream last week.)

  3. Back in 1992, the San Francisco Opera mounted a very good production of Tell with Timothy Noble in the title roll, Chris Merritt when it was all still working really well, and Carol Vanness, all in top form. Donald Runnicles was the conductor. It was sung in French as it should be. The production was designed to move well (the stage a group of concentric rings that moved independently of each other and got items on and off quickly with no problem for the singers) set against superb reproductions of Caspar David Friedrich Alpscapes. I found out from the lighting designer (a classmate of mine in theater design school) that San Francisco had offered the production to the MET but was turned down as being of no interest.

    This was all in the spring following the fall of ’91 earthquake: a nylon mesh net was stretched under the plaster ceiling of the auditorium in the event of loosened plaster falling, and the walls of the apses at either end of the opera house lobby had cracks running up them an inch or so wide. The dramatic tension was not just on stage.

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