Guillaume Tell, Bavarian State Opera, Munich – review

As in a good Harrison Ford movie, the protagonists get grubbier and bloodier as the evening progresses. Unlike a Harrison Ford movie, the action is slow.

Rossini’s final opera is a massive undertaking for any opera house, even if you cut the score as savagely as Munich has. The Lone Ranger did his bit to immortalise the overture. The rest is more difficult to popularise, not least because it is almost impossible to sing.

This much, at least, Munich gets dead right. Guillaume Tell, in a new production by 30-year-old Wunderkind stage director Antú Romero Nunes, opens this year’s Munich Opera Festival with an orgy of fabulous singing.

In the title role, Michael Volle (inexplicably made up to resemble outgoing Salzburg Easter Festival director Peter Alward) is rock-solid and imposing. Bryan Hymel tackles the murderously high part of Arnold with bravura and brilliance; it is thrilling to hear him. The diminutive Evgeniya Sotnikova is utterly plausible as Jemmy, looking and acting the passionate, precocious boy but sounding very much the young adult.

Having leapt into the breach at the eleventh hour to replace an ailing colleague last Sunday, Eika Grimaldi did not have time to learn the role of Mathilde in French. Instead, she sang in Italian, lending an authentically Swiss touch of multilingualism to the evening, and performing with assurance and flair.

Nunes has a formidable reputation in the world of spoken theatre, but to offer him Tell as his operatic debut was a decision that transcends risk-taking and enters the world of irresponsibility. Like any opera beginner, he battles to move the chorus convincingly, and often leaves his singers in a static line at the front of the stage. To put the evil Habsburgs in Nazi jackboots and jodhpurs is to lapse into cliché; to move the overture to the middle of the opera is lame.

Nunes tells the story straight enough, in Florian Lösche’s stark set of steel tubes, with clear characterisation and plenty of gore and grime. But the evening is devoid of surprises, and never really flies.

Dan Ettinger’s pedestrian conducting is partly to blame. He can keep things together and drives a crashing climax, but he cannot give Rossini’s music the fleet lilt it needs to take wing. His four-square tempi and leaden beat keep the evening earthbound where it should be transcendent. It is a shame.

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