Guillaume Tell, Welsh National Opera

The two Rossini operas shared the same scenic
environment (though each had a very different look), with set designs by
Raimund Bauer, costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, lighting by Fabrice Kebour and
choreography by Amir Hosseinpour. Carlo Rizzi conducted, with a cast including
Luciano Botelho as Ruodi, David Kempster as William Tell, Fflur Wyn as Jemmy,
Leah-Marian Jones as Jemmy, Barry Banks as Arnold, Richard Wiegold as Melcthal
and Walter, Nicky Spence as Rodolphe, Aidan Smith as Leuthold, Julian Boyce as
an Austrian Huntsman and Clive Bayley as Gessler.

WNO’s production of Guillaume Tell was the first staging of the
opera since the 1992 revival of John Cox’s production at Covent Garden.
Despite its high reputation, the work’s length, staging requirements with
ballets, large chorus and orchestra, and the difficulty of casting the lead
tenor role of Arnold, have all mitigated against performance. WNO’s has not
only solved these problems, but the company is taking Guillaume Tell
on tour, we caught the last performance at the Wales Millennium Centre prior to
Llandudo, Bristol, Birmingham, Oxford and Southampton.

Pountney and Bauer used the same moveable screens for Guillaume
as for Mose in Egitto, but in Guillaume Tell the
screens were covered in a translucent glass-like material sculpted into a low
relief of a mountain-scape.

The opera opened with something of a coup, lead cellist Rosie Biss sitting
centre stage playing to cello solo at the opening of the overture which
received a finely crafted performance from Biss and the other orchestra cellos.
At the end of this section, Rodolphe (Nicky Spence) strode on with a group of
hench-men and confiscated the cello and carried off Biss. Spence looked
particularly striking wearing a black great-coat, but with a metal helmet made
to resemble a stags head. A broken cello (thankfully not the one Biss was
playing) was lowered down and hung there for the rest of the overture and some
of the opening scenes. Thankfully there was no more staging of the overture,
and we could enjoy, in peace, the superbly evocative performance by Rizzi and
the orchestra.

During the overture, Bauer’s Swiss landscape backdrop gradually became
apparent and its grey and white colours were taken up by the costumes for the
chorus and principals in the opening of act one. These were all wearing vaguely
19th century costumes, but in muted tones; these people were all camouflaged.
Pountney’s staging avoided folksy local colour. There was dancing,
choreography Amir Hosseinpour, and there were indications of region and
nationality, but it was carefully muted until, ready for the celebrations, the
chorus unpacked their best and each put on a brightly coloured item (hat,
scarf, vest, pinafore). The result was to evoke a people operating carefully
under a yoke. When the Austrians appeared at the end, they were a fearsome lot,
with Spence’s Rodolphe still wearing his stags-head helmet. The ballet music
in this act was danced by the six dancers and was almost comic entertainment,
again with little folk influence.

Act two opened with the Austrian hunters all wearing stags head helmets,
salivating over the corpses of six young people. In a rather eerily ghoulish
touch, these came to life as ghosts and were still around when Gisela Stille
sang her glorious solo as Mathilde. This scene and the next were both performed
against the movable now split into three, with the superstructure supporting
the screens well visible, as were the stage hands moving the screens. The
famous final scene in act two, the oath taken by the three Swiss cantons, was
simply done as Pountney relied on Rossini’s glorious music and the
performance of the WNO chorus. But again there was a daring element here, I can
think of few companies who could (and would) perform this scene with fewer than
30 singers. There were around 26 chorus men, with 8 or 9 in each chorus, but
the results were glorious.

Act three was pure David Pountney, and had the look and feel of many
previous productions by him. The screens were all turned round, to provide a
scaffolding backdrop against which the dances and apple shooting took place.
The Austrians were all strongly characterised to the point of caricature, with
Clive Bayley’s Gessler wearing armour but in a wheel chair, and Spence’s
Rodolphe and the Austrian soldiers all marshalling the Swiss in a totalitarian
manner. But Rossini’s ballet music here, full of characteristic dances, does
not fit the dramaturgy and the results were, perhaps intentionally, rather
comic. The whole scene was, needless to say, vividly dramatic. You could
sympathise with Pountney’s caricaturing of the Austrians as Rossini does not
really give hum much to go on, and at least he avoided lazy shorthand like
having them in Nazi uniforms.

The final act started with Barry Bank’s Arnold amid the structures used in
act one, but this time reversed and turned round. Pountney solved the problem
of the orchestral description of Tell’s escape by using the dancers without
any attempt at naturalism and the opera concluded with in an admirably straight
and direct manner, with the sun coming up through the translucent backdrop of
the mountains.

Bauer’s flexible set and Kebour’s lighting proved an essential part of
the staging. Not only were the screen flexible in their placement, but their
backdrops could be opaque or translucent, making them turn from atmospheric and
evocative of the mountains, to threatening thanks to the shadows of the super

Within this, Pountney elicted some strong and sympathetic performances with
the Swiss characters all being admirably natural and understated in contrast to
the highly coloured Austrians. David Kempster made a bluff and personable Tell.
This is not a particularly showy role and requires someone who can bring
committment and purpose to it, to combine the idea of Tell as an ordinary
family man with that of a patriot. This Kempster did well, bringing an
understated sense of charisma to the character. I have heard finer sung
accounts of Tell’s great act three arioso, sung when he is about to shoot the
arrow at his son, but Kempster imbued it with real feeling.

Arnold is a killer of a role and it is one where, like Berlioz’s Aeneas,
we need to re-discover performances using the pitch and instruments of the
period. Arnold was written for a powerful high lying tenor, pushing the voice
to the limits of the technique, witness the fact that one of the early
protagonists was the first to sing the role’s top C using a full chest voice.
However you sing the top C, the role requires a powerful, narrow-focused voice
capable of great strength, great flexibility and a fine and even sense of line.
And Barry Banks certainly fitted the bill, and in Arnold seems to have found
the role of a lifetime. To say a singer’s tone was steely is generally
regarded not as a compliment, but I can think of no other way to describe Banks
performance and in this case it was just what was wanted. Firm, even gleaming
tone with a superb sense of line a nice bravura feel to the showier moments.
Banks’s Arnold was an intense, troubled young man, but his two scenes with
Gisela Stille’s Mathilde were full of virile passion and their duet in act
two was not a little stylish too.

Gisela Stille was a modern style Mathilde. She didn’t bring a laser-like
clarity to the role, as typified by Montserrat Caballe in her recording.
Instead Stille sang with a fine-grained warm vibrato which lent the character a
soft edge and warmed her aristocratic demeanour. Mathilde is something of an
under-written role, deprived of a second solo owing to the work’s length.
Despite the cuts used by WNO, space was thankfully found for the important
short scene between Mathilde and Arnold at the start of act three. Stille’s
act one solo was finely done, combining aristocratic poise with an underlying
sense of passion. Stille made Mathilde someone intriguing, about whom you would
like to know more.

Fflur Wyn made a vibrant Jemmy, she cut a lively boyish figure, and sang
with bright, focused tone. Leah-Marian Jones made warmly supportive Hedwige,
and her account of Hedwige’s impassioned outburst in act four, when Tell is
in prison, made you wish Rossini had given more to the role.

Richard Wiegold made a dignified Melcthal, returning in act two to report
his own death as Walter. Aidan Smith was a committed Leuthold in act one.
Luciano Botelho sang Ruodi’s act one solo with an admirably free and
high-lying lyric tenor.

The Austrians were all vividly etched caricatures with some brilliantly
intense performances. Nicky Spence sang Rodolphe with firm, bright and a lovely
evenness of tone, sounding completely different to his account of Mambre in
Mose in Egitto the previous evening. Visually and vocally he conveyed
the character’s real glee at the mayhem he was able to create. Clive Bayley
made much of the relatively small role of Gessler, making the caricature fully
alive vocally and physically. Julian Boyce was strong in the cameo role of the
Austrian huntsman.

The WNO Chorus were on terrific form. Rossini gives the chorus a clear
dramatic role in the opera, obviously relishing the opportunities provided by
the Paris Opera chorus’s facility and size. The Swiss and the Austrians are
clearly differentiated in their music and in the oath scene in act two, Rossini
gives each canton its own distinctive tint. The WNO grasped all these
opportunities, and sang with an admirably firm, flexible and, when needed,
heroic tone the the dramatic opportunities fully exploited.

From the large scale overture, to the many intermezzos evolving the natural
beauty of Switzerland. Guillaume Tell is as much a showpiece for the
orchestra. Carlo Rizzi and the WNO orchestra clearly relished the meaty and
expansive score. In addition to the very visible cello solo, there were myriad
other smaller ones, all well taken. It wasn’t all bombast, though Carlo Rizzi
brought out the piece’s large scale grandeur but also its humanness.

Any performance of Guillaume Tell is an achievement. But Pountney,
Rizzi and their WNO forces managed to get so much right, and create a strongly
dramatic and musical whole. Yes it was cut, yes some performances veered into
caricature, yes the sung French somewhat a little fuzzy. But in a work the size
of Guillaume Tell, it is impossible to get everything right. WNO and
the cast are to be congratulated for their achievement in creating such a
musically and dramatically satisfying performance of an opera, which though a
masterpiece, is enormously difficult to bring off.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Luciano Botelho:Ruodi, David Kempster: Guillaume Tell, Fflur Wyn:
Jemmy, Leah-Marian Jones: Jemmy, Barry Banks: Arnold, Richard Wiegold:
Melcthal/Walter, Nicky Spence: Rodolphe, Aidan Smith: Leuthold, Julian Boyce:
an Austrian Huntsman, Clive Bayley: Gessler. Director: David Pountney, Set
Design: Raimund Bauer, Costume Design: Marie-Jeanne Lecca, Conductor: Carlo
Rizzi. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 4 October 2014.

image_description=A 1782 depiction of Tell in the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, Z¸rich [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Guillaume Tell, Welsh National Opera
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: A 1782 depiction of Tell in the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, Z¸rich [Source: Wikipedia]