William Tell, Welsh National Opera at Bristol Hippodrome and touring

william-tell-8FOR many of us, the name William Tell takes us straight back to childhood. I have vivid memories both of Conrad Phillips (complete with crossbow and apple of course) on TV in the late fifties as well as of the American western series The Lone Ranger where Rossini’s familiar and exuberant music was used as the signature tune.

But enough of the cosy nostalgia. Written when the composer was still a relatively young man of 37, William Tell was Rossini’s final opera – he was never again to write for the stage. The opera remains his biggest and most ambitious work, and the music itself is, for the most part, absolutely terrific – grand opera at its very grandest in fact. First performed in Paris in 1829, the present production is a co-production with Welsh National, Grand Theatre de Geneve, Houston Grand Opera and Teatr Wielki, Warsaw.

In the title role, David Kempster gave a thoughtful, dignified and commanding performance even if, in the lower registers, his voice was sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra. Not so Gesler, Clive Bayley, the Austrian governor, whose voice, both thrilling and chilling, filled the auditorium with ease. Barry Banks as Arnold also possesses a voice that carries and his numerous high C’s gave him no trouble whatsoever. However, the timbre was not one that I particularly liked and, sadly, he did not look altogether convincing. On the other hand, Gisella Stille (Mathilde, the Austrian noblewoman with whom Arnold is in love) had a voice of the utmost beauty and the looks to match. As Hedwige, Tell’s Wife, Leah-Marian Jones sang with tenderness and warmth, while Jemmy, their son, was sung by FFlur Wyn – another lovely voice but again one which we tended to lose in the lower registers.

However, in terms of voices, it was the glorious choral singing that was the undoubted strength of the show. So often, in opera, the chorus is relegated to the sidelines. Not so in William Tell, where an extremely large chorus of voices were centre stage, figuratively if not always literally, and really had something to get their teeth into. Between them, composer and chorus master Alexander Martin had done a truly magnificent job.

Although not as famous as the overture, some of Rossini’s dance music for the opera is fairly well known and gave the excellent dance troupe some wonderful opportunities. The scene towards the beginning of Act III where Gesler commands the Swiss to sing, dance and then bow before a symbol of Austrian supremacy was remarkable for conveying a feeling of total humiliation and subjugation. The plaintive folk-like singing contrasted brilliantly with the perfectly synchronised and violent robotic movement of the dancers. Although, by the end of the opera, I had had just a bit too much of this style of choreography, I couldn’t help but admire the dazzling expertise and discipline of the actual dancers.

With the addition of some beautiful, rich orchestral playing under the baton of Carlo Rizzi, this could / should have been a real five-star production. Unfortunately it was not, and responsibility for this must lie with director David Pountney. Quite early on I was reminded of one of the scenes in Willy Russell’s play Educating Rita, when Rita, answering a question on how she would overcome the difficulties inherent in staging a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, replies that she would do it on the radio. I’m afraid I would have found most of Pountney’s production more satisfactory had I simply shut my eyes.

Rossini’s opera may well be difficult to stage but it certainly does not need daftness to make it effective. In the opening scene, for example, while the chorus are singing about it being a lovely day and how exciting the forthcoming village celebrations are going to be, we are faced with a backcloth of cruel shards of rock, dreary grey costumes and an almost complete lack of movement. The effect is totally joyless and completely at odds with both the words and the music. A toy boat is then pulled along the top of the backcloth and, moments later, a cello is brought in as though it were a coffin. It would have been comical if it were not meant to be serious. On another occasion, we witness Mathilde and Arnold sliding and rolling on top of a giant table that just happens to be in the forest. “In my love for him I can see a lifetime of happiness” she sings. The effect was ridiculous and, unluckily, actually drew attention to Bank’s diminutive stature. But then, Mathilde’s aria that preceded this disastrous scene, the trio that followed it and the call to arms that brought the second act to its close were all so thrilling that they had us on the edge of our seats. What a pity the whole thing couldn’t have been so gripping! And as for putting Gesler in a wheelchair with Star Wars style body armour and, at least until he took them off, a set of enormous antlers … well, this was, I’m afraid, just par for the course. Why not give him a giant scar and an eye patch to go with his shaved head just in case we hadn’t spotted that he was a baddy?

You can catch William Tell in Birmingham on Saturday 22nd November or, closer to home, at the Mayflower, Southampton on Saturday 29th.




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