Is there a fundamental, insuperable problem with staging Rossini’s Guillaume Tell on a budget, without the resources to conjure up the sense of scale that was part of grand opéra’s appeal and raison d’être? Take away the special effects, whip away the phantasmagorical curtain, and, as with any Hollywood blockbuster, you are left with a modest little plot whirring away at its centre. In Tell, this involves the love between Arnold and Mathilde across a national divide. It’s the struggle of the Swiss — in a time before neutrality and cuckoo clocks — against their Austrian oppressors that, along with the Alps, forms the backdrop.
Rossini’s score can occasionally seem stuck in pastoral mode, but it contains many glorious moments and is characterised by a broadness and symphonic ambition that is worlds away from some of his better-known works. It is perhaps the music, rather than the drama, that makes it a piece worth catching: never mind the famous overture; the concluding triumphant sunburst is surely one of the most thrilling moments in all opera.
In Cardiff, where WNO’s Tell will be followed shortly by a staging of his Mosè in Egitto, it took less time to get to that conclusion than it might have done. The score was heavily (but understandably) cut, while circumstances on the first night meant that Gisela Stille, unable to sing, acted Mathilde, while her cover, Camilla Roberts, herself recovering from illness, sang from the side of the stage. Roberts brought a big, rich sound to her assignment, but the decision was made to cut the character’s big scene. These things happen, of course, but it seemed a shame that Stille hadn’t been encouraged at least to mouth her words, which might have helped salvage some dramatic realism from her scenes with Arnold.
Barry Banks negotiated the heights of that role expertly and reliably — no small feat — but the voice can lose focus and elegance when put under pressure. As Tell, David Kempster radiated a quiet nobility, which was matched by classy, smooth singing. Fflur Wynn was bright and sparky as his son Jemmy, Leah-Marian Jones heartfelt as his wife Hedwige. Richard Wiegold brought impressive gravitas to Melchtal and Walter.
David Pountney’s production walked a fine line between outright parody and gentle irony, threatening to cross it with storm-trooper Austrians in robo-stag helmets (costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca), led by a bald, wheelchair-bound Gesler (Clive Bayley), who seemed to be an amalgam of Dr Evil, Darth Vader and Father Jack. Bayley revelled in the characterisation, which was a chilling match for his dark, doleful bass. Carlo Rizzi’s conducting was more taut and efficient than revelatory, perhaps, but he drew fine work from the WNO orchestra and, in particular, the company’s wonderful chorus.
Raimund Bauer’s set was simple but effective, its main feature a semi-transparent panel on to which hints of scenery could be projected. Amir Hosseinpour provided inventive, tongue-in-cheek choreography, realised with verve by half a dozen dancers. Some of the scenic effects were a little am-dram (the famous apple shooting is a cop-out), but others, such as placing the overture’s solo cellist on an empty stage and having her carted off by the Austrians, were thought-provoking. Though short on splendour, then, this Tell lacked neither humour nor an essential seriousness. It will be interesting to see if Damiano Michieletto, who directs Covent Garden’s production in June (with, presumably, a bigger budget), will offer anything so satisfying.
Rossini was also among the trio of revivals starting the Royal Opera’s season. And though it might not have a starry cast, its dusted-off Barbiere di Siviglia was a joy. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s gaudy production (slickly revived by Thomas Guthrie) has a lively sense of commedia dell’arte absurdity, while Lucas Meachem — not entirely convincing in outings as the Figaro Count and Don Giovanni in London and Glyndebourne — showed what he can do when he drops a couple of social classes and loosens up. His Figaro here was a burly comic whirlwind, and his high, bright baritone is thrilling when let off the leash.
As Rosina, Serena Malfi was a little reticent at first, but grew in confidence, singing in a beautifully characterful mezzo. Michele Angelini (like Malfi, making a house debut) sang Lindoro with astonishing agility, but the voice was short on definition and focus. Maurizio Muraro was a brilliantly creepy, booming Don Basilio; the veteran Alessandro Corbelli masterful as Bartolo; and Janis Kelly a fabulously vivid Berta.
In the pit, Mark Elder occasionally tried to do a little too much with the score at the expense of Rossinian momentum, and the ROH orchestra had moments of messiness. But the cast and the comedy came together beautifully; it feels so effortless when it happens, so fatally effortful when it doesn’t.