ROSSINI William Tell
Verdi-Wagner year fell in 2013. That was also the year in which two dauntless Rossini festivals decided to stage, complete and in French, new productions of Guillaume Tell, a work which, in differing degrees, both men admired.
The Rossini in Wildbad production is now on CD (Naxos, 6/15). Would that this Pesaro production were too. Its cast is on a par with that of the classic Gardelli studio recording (EMI, 11/73). Indeed, some might think it superior, given the presence of Juan Diego Flórez, the finest stage Arnold of modern times, here at the very peak of his powers. Sadly, this being DVD, there is also a production to digest.
The idée fixe of director Graham Vick is announced early by the clenched fist on a red ground which decorates the proscenium curtain. Later, as the Austrian overlords meet their fate, Swiss mercenaries are seen silhouetted against the waters of Lake Lucerne brandishing hammers and sickles, and flying the obligatory red flag. And there is more. Since Vick has no truck with the pastoral ideal that permeates Rossini’s richly imagined realisation of Schiller’s original play, he has no qualms about turning the opera’s many folk-dance sequences into bespoke horror shows in which white-coated Romanov-style courtiers mammock the country’s crippled peasantry.
Both Schiller and Rossini knew that these Swiss patriots were not revolutionaries but conservatives: men whose aim was to preserve ‘the old times and the old Switzerland’. The swearing of the Rütli oath in 1291, an event which Rossini places at the heart of his mighty Second Act, was Switzerland’s Magna Carta moment. The great trio is finely done here, which is more than can be said for Vick’s shambolic staging of the movingly drawn and (until the final call to arms) characteristically quiet massing of the cantons which ends the act.
Vick is at his best directing one-to-one encounters. His production also makes revelatory play of the theme of familial bonds which cuts to Rossini’s third and fourth acts (some dating from before the opera’s premiere) so cruelly disguise. These include Jemmy’s address to his father before the apple-shooting, and the great Act 4 trio, where Jemmy is reunited in hearth-and-home intimacy with his mother and the ‘good’ Austrian Princess Mathilde. I admire Vick’s boldness in allowing Jemmy, vividly played and sung by Amanda Forsythe, to be so powerful a presence in the opera’s closing scenes. I also liked the black-and-white home movie of the young Arnold being taught by his father how to plant and sow which plays during Flórez’s characteristically fine account of ‘Asil héréditaire’.
Nicola Alaimo’s burly Tell looks every inch Rossini’s Tell: patriot, father, man of peace. And Marina Rebeka is a persuasive Mathilde, despite some occasional blurring of Rossini’s crystalline setting of the French text. Pesaro’s vast indoor Adriatic Arena offers the kind of factory-style space directors such as Vick relish, though it has a noisy stage and, I suspect, a difficult acoustic. Everything is closely miked, including the rather coarse solo cello which threatens to overtop Alaimo’s none too subtle account of Tell’s ‘Sois immobile’. Michele Mariotti’s conducting of his Bologna forces is robust.