William Tell, Welsh National Opera, WNO, Cardiff, September 2014Posted on 13 September 2014
For the first Milan production of this opera, after its earlier première in Paris, there was predictable trouble with the Austrian authorities. The scene with the apple was cut, the oppressors became the English, and Tell was William Wallace. How appropriate then that the WNO have given the first performance of David Pountney’s new production less than a week before the Scottish Referendum!
But that exercise in democracy is a very different matter from Austrian oppression, as one sees right at the start of this production where a solo cellist on stage is dragged off by Austrian guards. A broken instrument is then seen hanging above the stage as Carlo Rizzi and the orchestra bound into that well-known part of the overture, a paean to justice and liberty, played with terrific flair. By contrast, the Scottish flapdoodle is a tame affair that cannot boast a single bagpiper dragged away by English forces, but this is the real thing, and the staging is wonderful.
Rossini’s music, arguably the finest he wrote, is full of dramatic tension complemented by moments of pure lightness, expressed here with the help of some delightful choreography. I loved the use of six professional dancers in multiple roles as both Austrians and Swiss, including a dumb play behind an embroidered sheet to celebrate the triple wedding early in Act I. The juxtaposition of freedom’s struggle with the rural delights of the peasantry was beautifully realised, and David Kempster made an earthily noble William Tell whose engaging vocal command and stage presence portrayed a rebel leader full of honesty and determination.
As his beautiful wife Hedwige, Leah-Marian Jones sang with great strength and fine diction, and Fflur Wyn’s voice as his son Jemmy rose effortlessly above the grand choruses. The demon of this opera, the Austrian governor Gesler was brilliantly played by Clive Bayley, who showed huge vocal command as an armoured Dr. Strangelove in a wheel chair, his sneering nastiness earning him pantomime boos at the end. Excellent vocal support from the imposing Nicky Spence as the Austrian officer Rodolphe, and strong singing from Barry Banks as Arnold, the young Swiss man who becomes a fiery leader of the rebels despite his love for the Austrian noblewoman Mathilde. Well portrayed in her elegant green dress by Gisele Stille, the role was beautifully sung from the side of the stage by her replacement, Camilla Roberts.
This strong cast plus the ever powerful WNO chorus, all under superb musical direction by Carlo Rizzi, gave a wonderful musical rendering of Rossini’s final opera, written when he was a mere 37 years old. Based on a play by Schiller, who would not allow historical facts to spoil a great story, this is excellent theatre, well-supported by Raimund Bauer’s sets, Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes and Fabrice Kebour’s lighting. The actions of the professional dancers merged well with those of the chorus to the extent that in Act IV it was hard to tell which was which as they whirled around like veritable dervishes.
Productions of William Tell are regrettably few, though the ROH comes up with a new one next summer, but the glorious music and staging by the WNO should not be missed.
Performances continue at Cardiff (Sept 20, Oct 4), New Theatre Oxford (Oct 18), Venue Cymru Llandudno (Oct 25), Bristol Hippodrome (Nov 15), Birmingham Hippodrome (Nov 22), Mayflower Southampton (Nov 29) — for details click here.