Review: WNO - William Tell @ WMC
Prior to my trip to Germany for Wagner's Ring Cycle, I received in the post a CD from Wales National Opera (WNO). It previewed the coming themed season: Liberty Or Death!. This was a great little introduction, since I do always enjoy the new opera season in the fall with WNO. It always fills me with much delight and hope.
William Tell (or Guillaume Tell) by Rossini has not been staged in the UK for a considerable time. Now three opera companies are billing it as if it was always being staged. It is sung in French (premiered in Paris) but most of his opera are in his native Italian. Rossini's last opera (he lived for nearly 40 more years after writing it) is certainly grand (in need of two intervals!) and is a telling masterpiece of the first half of the 19th century.
You will all recognise the famous March In The Overture (immortalised in The Lone Ranger TV show). As jolly and rambunctious this is (the march is not heard again directly in the opera), it is actually taking the mick out of the Austro-Hungarian marches of the time. The pretty Alpine music in the opening should also not be mistaken for Grieg's Morning from his Peer Gynt. Cellist Rosie Bliss is treated to a stage role, playing the sublime solo at the very start of the score in traditional Swiss dress. Her instrument is taken by stag-helmeted Austrians and the instrument is later treated as a martyr by the Swiss.
Like his Lohengrin of last year, David Pountney has again done the safe bet of new opera productions and set this William Tell in Victorian times (the recent Otello by ENO also proves the popularity of this). But this assurance is not without good backing. Set in Switzerland, the fight here is with the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the time. In the original setting of the 14th Century, the Swiss stand up against their Habsburg overlords. William Tell itself may be a work of folklore, but the history of Switzerland is presented on a platter here. They may have been neutral in both World Wars and have never joined the European Union, but this understanding of their foundations makes all this totally understandable.
Sophie Rashbrook's pre-show talks always help in understanding the evening's music, story and history. It should also be said that the free tickets to her talks are in high demand and anyone who has booked and can't make it should ring the WMC or try and return them. It took me three attempts to obtain tickets. Good reason to book for the next few seasons talks now, as well!
"An inspired moment of physical theatre"
With grey, silver and black settings and costumes, this wasn't exactly like last year's disappointing Tudor season. The oppressed Swiss wear miserable workers' clothes, only getting out exciting Swiss costumes when the day was over. A negative print of a painting of massive slabs of broken ice by Casper David Friedrich looms over and is split in three to utilise scaffolding behind it. When Tell has to shoot the famous apple off his son's head to save both their lives, the chorus gently carry the arrow, hand in hand, in the direction of the apple in an inspired moment of physical theatre.
The story is best explained by the WNO programme:
"Switzerland is under the tyrannical rule of Austria. The fiercely independent stance of William Tell, a Swiss patriot, has enraged Gesler, the Austrain governor, and the lives of both Tell and his young son Jemmy are put at risk. Hearing of Tell's arrest and impending execution, Arnold, a Swiss in love with the Austrian Mathilde, puts his country first and, on Tell, joins him in leading a rebellion against Austrian oppression."
Rossini creates certain moods in his music of bliss, passion and vigour. Most famous for his comedies, here it's serious business as the story remains fiercely political. For this, you require impassioned singing. We sure got this, with a cast of exciting singers: David Kempster an engaging Tell, his son Jemmy (the trouser role) for Welsh singer Fflur Wyn a little understated role but convincing as a youthful tomboy.
"Looking like Darth Vader with his helmet off"
Barry Banks as Arnold is a curious tenor with a jolting voice, typical of the singer's range. I feel his singing goes into pastiche just too gingerly. Clive Bayley was the villain in his Gesler. Looking like Darth Vader with his helmet off and Dr Evil, he lined the stage in a suit of armour whilst in a wheel chair. His baritone is perfect for nasty roles, but his in-demand voice proves his metal (haha) with acute delivery and a great stage presence. The six dancers featured here also proved a brilliant vitality in their humour, compassion and brutality.
Gisela Stille as Mathilde was unable to sing for this first night (doctor's orders). So, she acted on stage but the voice of the role came from Camilla Roberts in the wings. This may sound silly but this happens a fair bit in opera (see the opening of the film, Fitzcaraldo). Stille gave faces and movements that fit the role, yet without her voice, remained futile. However, Roberts was striking in her singing and since she has also been ill, we can applaud both ladies very highly.
I'll resist the temptation to say this production missed the apple. Instead. I would certainly recommend seeing it for the music and the interesting take on the sets/costumes, even if they be a little too nocturnal.
Welsh National Opera's Liberty or Death! season continues at the Wales Millennium Centre with further performances of William Tell on Saturday 20th September and Saturday 4th October 2014. You can buy tickets here. Also in the season is Rossini's Moses in Egypt on Friday 3rd October and Sunday 5th October. Bizet's Carmen is also on Friday 19th, Sunday 21st, Saturday 27th, Sunday 28th September and Thursday 2nd October 2014.
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Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith