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May 11, 2014 9:16 pm
Has Rossini’s final opera, William Tell, at last achieved the recognition it deserves from the world’s opera houses? So it would appear from the spate of recent and forthcoming productions. This epochal tale of the Swiss people’s struggle against Austrian oppression, forthrightly told, was among the first of the blockbuster French grand operas of the 19th century and, with the possible exception of Verdi’s Don Carlos, there never was a better one.
Unfortunately, Graham Vick’s new production (first seen at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro last summer) has an ersatz quality and not just because of the 13 life-size dummy horses in Act 2 (decor and costumes by Paul Brown). Throughout the opera a film (an old newsreel?) is being made, thereby distancing the drama from the audience. The action, which plays out in an austere white-walled hall, is updated, but to what? With a clenched fist symbolising the Swiss and a two-headed eagle the Austrians, I even thought of the Russian Revolution, but surely that wasn’t intended. In a blunder, Vick has Arnoldo witness his father Melchtal’s (onstage) lynching; accordingly, the moment he is told about it – which triggers the powerful emotions of the opera’s famous trio – is rendered meaningless. Ron Howell’s choreography goes to extremes to present the Swiss as downtrodden.
Still, this is a major achievement for the Teatro Regio Torino, an oasis of artistic and financial wellbeing in an Italian landscape of troubled opera houses. The high choral and orchestra standards are a tribute to Gianandrea Noseda’s achievements as music director. The opera is sung in the standard Italian translation, as emended by Paolo Cattelan; purists may object, but Muti chose it for La Scala’s 1988 revival.
Dalibor Jenis’s Tell, sung with a voice that thins out down below, is defiant but needs greater authority. Angela Meade’s big-voiced Matilde has authority aplenty, and while the voice can sound impure, she sings beautifully in the haunting “Selva opaca”. As Arnoldo, John Osborn balances trumpeted high notes with passages sung in an arresting voix mixte. Noseda conducts an unusually full account of the long score with energy and sweep but makes structurally damaging cuts within vocal numbers.
The ambitious company will present concert performances of Tell in Edinburgh in August and in four North American cities in December. Audiences can attend secure in the knowledge that they will miss little of importance visually.
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