Irish National Opera at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, on 11 November 2022
Even for people who know opera, Rossini’s ‘William Tell’ is more often read about than seen or heard. We all know the famous overture from ads and tv, but the other three-and-a-half hours not so much. There are plenty of anecdotes about it – the composer called it the “most martyred” of his works (it was often shortened at the time); apparently, when a director of the Paris Opera mentioned that he had recently seen the second act of the opera performed, Rossini could only reply “really? all of it?” It had its supporters: even Richard Wagner (not otherwise a fan of the French grand opera style) openly admired it. Also, as the very last of Rossini’s operas, ‘William Tell’ is among a late group of works that shows a shift in approach, and a new voice emerging, which is very tantalising. A chance to see it live, even now, is too good an opportunity to miss.
Ostensibly dramatising the medieval folk-tale of the Swiss uprising against their Austrian overlords, the revolutionary story of ‘William Tell’ spoke to a wide audience across 19th-century Europe. The simple account of a brave and charismatic outdoorsman helping lead his community from tyranny to freedom evoked (and still evokes) different struggles, places, and times. It’s not unreasonable to see this opera as a symbolic account of the story, and this stylised production, directed by Julien Chavaz and designed by Jamie Vartan, clearly takes that view. With the set’s clean lines, curving from floor to wall on each side like the interior of a new ship, the space is beautifully modern, even sculptural, lending a keen abstraction to everything that happens on stage. We are far from the romanticism of picture-postcard Switzerland.
In this production, we also hear a new level of cohesion in the sound of the nascent INO Orchestra, with conductor Fergus Sheil drawing out some fine and colourful playing from the pit. On stage, tenor Konu Kim (as the conflicted patriot – and love-interest – Arnold), in his INO debut, is a fabulous discovery. His voice is both electrifying and appealing, covering the range of this big role with apparent ease, and he is very exciting to hear and watch. His fourth-act aria Asile héréditaire (‘Ancestral home, where my eyes opened…’) alone is a masterclass in interpretation and sheer heroism.
As Mathilde, the leading female role, soprano Rachel Croash brings a sympathetic stage-presence, and sings well, achieving greater clarity and confidence as the evening progresses. There is much richness to enjoy across the singing cast, with baritone Gyula Nagy bringing ringing power to his singing of Leuthold, as well as fine intensity from both Amy Ní Fhearraigh (Jemmy) and Imelda Drumm (Hedwige). In the title role, baritone Brett Polegato is superb, his William Tell a darkly-heroic everyman.
The nature of this story, and this style of theatre, however, turns on collective experience, and for this the role of the chorus is central. Chavez’s approach to stage movement emphasises this, situating the chorus as a kind of human stage-machine, movements and gestures coming together in ways that recall expressionist theatre styles. With the story reflecting both the dehumanising effects of totalitarian rule-by-terror as well as the redemptive potential of communal energy, the music of this opera begins and ends with the singing of the chorus. That this singing is so fluent and expressive reflects depth of experience in the singing lines, as well as the artistic team behind it. There is much to enjoy in their work throughout the evening, especially in the powerful choruses that conclude the third and fourth acts.
With no corps de ballet, the chorus is at times also enlisted in simple dance-like formations, though the bulk of the dancing – a central element in this style of opera – falls to the four dancers (Laura Garcia Aguilera, Stephanie Dufresne, Jeanne Gumy, Sophia Preidel). Their playful presence adds an extra layer of symbolism, suggesting the ironic perspectives of the natural world, or the push-and pull of power, vulnerability, and loss, bringing different routes into the story.
Rossini’s ‘William Tell’ is a complex and questioning work of theatre, and not an opera to be taken for granted. In tonight’s production, we can see that its strange beauty still has the power to move and to puzzle, and you can’t ask for much more than that. The final chorus, looking to the future with a call to liberty (in music that might have sounded surprising in 1829), brings the audience to its feet at the close of a long and absorbing evening.
The final performance of Rossini’s William Tell is on 13 November. It will be filmed for broadcast, to be streamed on-demand on OperaVision. For more information, see irishnationalopera.ie.
Gioachino Rossini: Guillaume Tell
Sung in French (libretto by Etienne de Jouy and Hippolyte Louis-Florent Bis, after Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell), with English surtitles
Co-Produced by Irish National Opera and Nouvel Opéra Fribourg
Director: Julien Chavez; Set Designer: Jamie Vartan; Costume Designer: Severine Besson; Lighting Designer: Sinéad Wallace; Choreographer: Nicole Morel; Conductor: Fergus Sheil
Cast: Andrew Gavin (Ruodi); Brett Polegato (William Tell), Amy Ní Fhearraigh (Jemmy), Imelda Drumm (Hedwige), Konu Kim (Arnold), Lukas Jakobski (Melcthal/Walter Furst), Leuthold (Gyula Nagy), Patrick Hyland (Rodolphe), Matthew Mannion (Hunter), Rachel Croash (Mathilde), David Ireland (Gesler) (Mercédès), Laura Garcia Aguilera, Stephanie Dufresne, Jeanne Gumy, Sophia Preidel (dancers); INO Chorus; INO Orchestra
Photography by Pat Redmond