Imagine the shock of someone you once knew well but had not seen for several years – and who has, in the interval, changed so much as to be barely recognisable.
This is how it feels to first encounter Guillaume Tell, Rossini’s last opera and first venture into the world of French grand opera. “Gioachino? Is that really you?” you feel like asking the composer. The work is such a radical departure from Rossini’s Italian operas that it feels like the work of a different author. It is almost Berlioz; it is partly Verdi; there is a touch of Meyerbeer; here are even echoes of the future Wagner. Thanks not least to The Lone Ranger, everybody knows the overture. But the rest of it?
It is a courageous move on the part of the Netherlands Opera to stage Tell more or less uncut, in the original French. The piece is vast, requires a superlative chorus, a cast of singers with freakish abilities, and a stage direction concept which somehow makes an 1829 version of a nationalistic tale constructed around a 12th-century Swiss freedom fighter palatable for today’s viewers.
Somehow, the Netherlands Opera has managed all these things. A big part of the evening’s success lies in the hands of conductor Paul Carignani, who manages to pack the four-and-a-half-hour monster so full of musical thrills that there is simply no time to get bored. Then there is a dream cast, of which John Osborn’s Arnold effortlessly becomes the central figure – heroic, untiring, able to belt out the piece’s extraordinary high notes as if they were within easy reach for anybody. Marina Rebeka’s Mathilde, princess of the wicked Austrians transformed by her love for Arnold, sings with radiance, technical precision and vitality.
It is one of the evening’s great strengths that the intense emotions of the work’s intimate scenes – between the young lovers, within the Tell family, and, perhaps most moving of all, between Tell himself (given with weight and poise by Nicola Alaimo) and his son Jemmy (sweet, pure and poised: Eugénie Warnier) before the famous arrow-shot are given all the space and time they need to pack a full emotional punch.
Pierre Audi’s production strives for a timeless elegance coupled with room for individual characters. George Tsypin’s sets and Jean Kalman’s lighting make a hallucinogenic otherworld from the vast Amsterdam stage, with an aerial boat skeleton, upside-down animals and the framework of houses suggesting a dream of the real locations. Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s voluminous costumes act as sea anchors for the singers; stately gestures work the best. There are moments of decorative stasis, and others where the action becomes too literal – common enough problems with grand opera. All in all the production works with the music to give a coherent, uncluttered view of a superlative piece of neglected music history.