A new production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at the Metropolitan Opera balances the classic and the contemporary, and will surely make a valuable addition to their repertory. The opera is based on Friedrich Schiller’s play Wilhelm Tell, and recounts the legend of the 14th-century Swiss national hero who is forced by a Habsburg overlord to shoot an apple off his son’s head, a marvelous feat he accomplishes before assassinating the despot and leading the Swiss to freedom. This is the Met’s first staging of Rossini’s last opera in over 80 years, and it has recently been in the news for a rather unpleasant reason; the matinee on October 29 was stopped during the second intermission when a patron sprinkled his friend’s ashes into the orchestra pit, prompting a police investigation. We saw an earlier performance, one uninterrupted by any dramatic displays of bereavement.
Musically, the production is a triumph. During the overture, conductor Fabio Luisi turned melodies best known to most from Bugs Bunny cartoons into a profound musical experience, to which the audience responded with great enthusiasm; the orchestra’s use of dynamic contrast and subtle phrasing freshened up these familiar tunes. The astonishing soprano Marina Rebeka (Mathilde) received several minutes of applause and ovation at the curtain call. Rebeka is perfectly matched by tenor Bryan Hymel (Arnold); their duets are heartbreaking. Bass-baritone Gerald Finley sings the title role with impressive mettle, and the clear, deep tone of bass Kwangchul Youn (Melcthal) is a treat to hear.
Among the greatest strengths of the production is Jean Kalman’s sublime lighting design, which evokes the ethereal installations of James Turrell. The way the light plays on a cloud of vapor that mysteriously hangs in mid-air looks magical. The majority of Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s costumes are gray, but with an effective palette of lighting cues, the result is nonetheless a very colorful production. George Tyspin’s subtle set design, unlike the work he did for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, helps to showcase the music and the performers, not distract from them. One of the most memorable elements of the set is the enormous frame of a ship suspended above the stage. A terrific piece of stagecraft, it is shaped so as to suggest Tell’s crossbow and is used to dazzling effect when he pilots it to safety during a storm.
There is a scene in Act III in which the tyrant, Gesler (played with delightful villainy by bass-baritone John Relyea), forces the peasants to dance until they collapse. In this production, they are goaded on by two women in tight black dresses wielding horsewhips. The dance itself was pretty tame, but despite the mildly salacious nature of this bit of staging, several of the Met’s patrons booed. Of course, opera houses are no strangers to audiences voicing their disapproval. There is a long tradition of booing at the opera, particularly in Europe, and most infamously at La Scala in Milan. There, the ranks of loggionisti (buyers of the cheapest tickets) are known to boo and hiss at singers they don’t like. (At a 2006 performance of Aida, tenor Roberto Alagna walked off the stage after getting booed in the first aria; he still refuses to return.) In recent years, Met audiences have generally reserved their booing for directors and set designers whose choices are a little too experimental for the legions of long-time attendees.
At the performance we saw, however, boos were hurled at the dancers themselves during the slightly racy dance number. From what we could tell, the opprobrium came not from the Met’s equivalent of the loggionisti, but from a few premium-paying elites. It seemed unfair for the dancers to have to bear the brunt of these pearl-clutchers’ disdain for what was really the director’s choice. While it is unlikely that opera audiences will change their practices any time soon, it would be nice to see a little more open-mindedness from the old guard, lest newer audiences be put off.
Performances of Guillaume Tell continue at the Metropolitan Opera (West 65th Street and Broadway, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through November 12.