Sunday, 19 October 2014

Rossini William Tell, WNO, Oxford

Rossini William Tell  (Guillaume Tell) from the Welsh National Opera at the New Theatre Oxford, last night. Companies that tour, like WNO, have to strike a balance between excellence in-house and portability on the road. Even when a production is designed tto travel, it's not easy to make it fit every venue, every time, especially on one-night stops.  A lifetime ago, I used to sit up in the gods. Now I can afford posh tickets but I'm fussier. You can't win. Next time, I'm going to Cardiff.

The New Theatre wasn't built for opera, so the orchestra is so close to the audience that it overwhelms. Had this been a sublime musical experience it might not have mattered so much, but this performance, conducted by Andrew Greenwood (instead of Carlo Rizzi) was pretty ropey. The singing wasn't much, either. The orchestra and much the same cast had been singing for four nights in a row. It would be asking far too much of them, as human beings, not to sound tired. In any case, Arnold is one of the most difficult parts in the repertoire, such a killer role that it's hard to cast at the best of times. All respect to Barry Banks for a good enough performance. By putting 'Asile héréditaire' two and a half hours into the performance, Rossini was expecting superhuman effort. No audience should expect a singer to jeopardize his voice for one night.  I discreetly removed myself after the Third Act, leaving with good memories of Banks and Gisella Stille's moving duet, where they sing alone together, surrounded only by atmospheric, beautiful lighting. A lovely image, which reinforces the idea that Guillaume Tell might indeed be an opera better suited to the imagination than to staging.

Since the Royal Opera House is doing a new production of Guillaume Tell next spring (with Pappano, who is brilliant) , and we've recently heard the Munich production (with divine, unequalable Bryan Hymel)  this is a good time to be thinking about how Rossini's music can be recreated visually on stage. The instructions for the First Act militate against easy depiction. Many small groups of happy peasants mill about doing what happy peasants are supposed to do.  Rossini's music is much too beautiful to spoil with fussy kitsch. Short episodes are great for dancing, though they don't sustain theatrical cohesion. David Pountney uses a backdrop of glaciers. One newspaper critic sniffily dismissed this as depicting Antarctica, not the forests of Switzerland. But aren't there glaciers in Switzerland?  In any case, a friend identified the backdrop as the painting by Caspar David Friedrich The Sea of Ice which also references the boat in which William Tell sails  across the lake.

The Alps kept Switzerland independent. They're much more than decoration.  Many operas set in the Alps, like Catalani's La Wally, are hard to stage because the Alps are just hard to beat in terms of spectacle. Much wiser, I think, to focus on what the music suggests - wide open skies, endless vistas and the fresh, pure air of freedom. In Rossini's music, we can hear local colour, even the suggestion of yodel, carrying across vast distances, wild mountain winds and craggy "hiking" rhythms.  The ideas in William Tell are so noble that the opera shouldn't be reduced to tourist kitsch. Pierre Audi's staging for Amsterdam let the music tell the story! But that's assuming opera audiences actually like music, which isn't always the case.

photos : Robert Hubert Smith, courtesy WNO

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