OPERA NEWS - Guillaume Tell
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Guillaume Tell

Bayerische Staatsoper

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Michael Volle as Guillaume Tell and Christoph Stephinger as Melcthal (floor) with the Bavarian State Opera Chorus in Antú Romero Nunes's production of Rossini's final opera at the Munich Opera Festival
© Wilfried Hösl
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Bryan Hymel as Arnold and Christoph Stephinger (Melcthal)
© Wilfried Hösl
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Günther Groissböck as Gesler and Kevin Conners as Rodolphe with the Bavarian State Opera Chorus
© Wilfried Hösl

New productions of Guillaume Tell, the final masterpiece of Rossini's opera career, are few and far between in today's opera houses. First heard at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris in 1829, Guillaume Tell was significantly ahead of its time in terms of musical invention: Rossini's thirty-ninth opera anticipated the innovations that Verdi would bring to the opera world a generation later. Although Rossini's sheer variety of expression is more than adequate compensation for the prodigious length of Guillaume Tell — in its original form, the opera has more than four hours of music — the punishing tenor role of Arnold Melchtal, written for Adolphe Nourrit, remains immensely difficult to cast.

This year's Munich Festival opened with a new production of Guillaume Tell at the Nationaltheater (seen July 6, the third performance of the run). Thirty-year-old stage director Antú Romero Nunes, who has a considerable reputation in the legitimate theater but whose opera experience is limited at best, has turned the Swiss legend of William Tell — and the Guillaume Tell libretto by Etienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Bis — upside down. In place of thirteenth-century Switzerland occupied by Austrian forces, Romero Nunes presents us with twentieth–century Swiss folk who are plump, stodgy and very much satisfied with their lot of living in semi-prosperity in a country under the rule of foreign forces — which in this staging look very much like those of Nazi Germany. Pistols and machine guns replace bows and arrows except, incongruously, when Tell aims at the apple and when he actually kills Gesler, the governor, who with his blond, plastered-down hair resembles a prototypical Aryan. 

Tell himself is here portrayed as a man of only average intelligence, an outsider not really taken seriously by his countrymen, a man who has to put on his glasses in order to see, a man who is an agitator rather than a visionary. It is even subtly suggested that the death of the elder Melchtal may be the work of the obsessed Tell. The gestures of all onstage were often banal and helped to diminish the power of this opera. Instead of pointing out the dangers inherent in any uprising and the courage it requires to overthrow the representatives of tyranny, Romero Nunes's staging underscores the weak-minded nature of people in general and how a population can be manipulated. This might be a viable reading of Friedrich Schiller's original play for the non-musical stage — Romero Nunes's theatrical resume includes stagings of Schiller's unfinished novel Der Geisterseher and his play Die Räuber — but as an opera production this Guillaume Tell makes a mockery of Rossini's inspired score, contradicting sincerity of musical feeling at every opportunity. 

Designer Florian Lüsche's didn't help at all. A plethora of round pillars descended and ascended in varying configurations — at times even undulating — to create visual clutter that was uninspired, ugly and meaningless, although as a unit set it had the virtue of allowing seamless transitions from scene to scene. Much of the stage was lit from behind by designer Michael Bauer, creating either darkness or blinding light.

Instead of giving the audience the unique pleasure of hearing Rossini's complete score, the Munich Festival's current version is truncated, eliminating (understandably) the ballet but also eliminating, with far less justification, many other sections of the score, including the entire first scene. The only interval in the four acts occurred just after Tell shot his crossbow. The action resumed again after the intermission, which is where the overture was now placed, accompanied onstage by a pantomime of thoughts going through young Jemmy's head — a directorial decision that was received with displeasure by the audience. One would have thought that conductor Dan Ettinger would have fought to keep the musical side of the evening in Rossini's chronological order: a displaced overture never works and the conclusion of the "apple" scene belongs with the scene itself. Otherwise, Ettinger, despite some communication and tempo problems during a number of complicated choral scenes, conducted clearly and crisply, drawing keen playing from his orchestral forces.

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Hymel with the Bavarian State Opera Chorus
© Wilfried Hösl

American tenor Bryan Hymel was outstanding in the nearly impossible role of Arnold Melchtal. His voice is not large — Rossini never expected a "modern" full-voiced tenor sound in this role, with its incredibly high-lying tessitura and its numerous high Cs — but Hymel exhibited an envious sense of lyrical phrasing and no audible strain in the extended upper register. In the title role, Michael Volle once again showed that he is capable of giving 150% to any assignment, however offbeat the production might be. Volle embraced the character of Tell as conceived by his director and was entirely convincing, singing with abandon, with fullness of tone and with great accuracy.

A last minute cancellation by Marina Rebeka, the production's Mathilde, at the July 6 performance caused a potential casting nightmare. Soprano Erika Grimaldi was flown in from Italy as Rebeka's replacement and — although Grimaldi sang the role in Italian while everyone else sang in French — made an essential contribution to the evening's musical success. Grimaldi's coloratura was immaculate, her voice effulgent, her sensitivity indisputable — and all of this was accomplished under high-pressure circumstances. As Gesler, Günther Groissböck was his usual dominating self. Soprano Evgeniya Sotnikova was an enchanting Jemmy, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston a most solid Hedwige, tenor Enea Scala a mellifluous Ruodi and tenor Kevin Conners a menacing Rodolphe. spacer 


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