Rossini’s visionary Guillaume Tell, about the Swiss nationalist hero, laid the groundwork for a new era of opera, says Pierre Audi, director of the Met’s new production.
Guillaume Tell is a paradox. It is probably Rossini’s most influential, most critically praised, and even in certain ways most famous opera—and yet it is all but unknown. The opera has been performed at the Met—11 times in German between 1884 and 1889 and 20 times in Italian between 1894 and 1931—but the new production by director Pierre Audi that opens October 18, with the original French libretto restored, might well be considered a long-overdue Met premiere.
The opera is meta-legendary—that is, it is a legend about a legend. The title character, a quasi-historical figure who may or may not have existed, is a Swiss freedom fighter forced by a tyrannical Austrian governor to use a crossbow to shoot an apple off his own son’s head. Audi describes this world-famous myth as “a kind of symbol of nationalism, a search for liberty, the independence of a nation—how the local people, through the courage of a man like Guillaume Tell, manage to transcend a dictator and look forward to liberty.”
Rossini’s interpretation holds a pivotal place in the history of opera and a curious role in the composer’s biography. First performed in 1829 when Rossini was 38 years old, the opera was a critical and popular success and guaranteed him a cushy position at the summit of the lucrative Parisian opera world. It was also—quite inexplicably—the last opera he wrote, even though he lived, widely celebrated, for nearly 40 more years. Audi, for his part, is interested in the opera’s role as a masterpiece in itself as well as a point of departure for future opera development. “Rossini was visionary in the way he elevated the story into something timeless, theatrical, and mysterious, something that remains today still very surprising,” he says. “I think it’s one of those key moments in opera history where a composer says, ‘I have something new to tell,’ and he lays that card on the table and future generations pick it up.”
This season at the Met, Rossini’s influential score will be in the hands of Maestro Fabio Luisi, leading the formidable baritone Gerald Finley in the title role. When he sang Tell in London last year, The Guardian raved, “Finley was majestic.” The Telegraph called his performance “heart-wrenching.” Soprano Marina Rebeka, an acclaimed recent Violetta at the Met, and the fast-rising tenor Bryan Hymel complete the principal cast.
The Paris Opéra in 1829 was similarly capable of assembling artists of the highest caliber, not to mention unparalleled in the scale of its productions, the ingenuity of its scenic effects, and the quality of its chorus and orchestra. All these assets would play roles in shaping Guillaume Tell, the success of which would in turn shape the style of the Paris Opéra for generations. Rossini worked within the grand-opera requirements of the institution but with an original point of view, as if he looked at the situation and said, in Audi’s words, “Well, fine, but I’ll do it my way.”
The structure of the opera was innovative for 1829, and the subject itself remains radical today. Guillaume Tell is based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, an author tremendously influential in the German literary Romantic movement and an inspiration to countless musicians, including Beethoven, Donizetti, Tchaikovsky, and Verdi. The radicalism of the play is deeper than a tale of oppressed peoples fighting off the yoke of tyranny, although it certainly includes that idea. The most pervasively revolutionary theme of the play is the deft association of benevolent nature with the ideal of liberty, suggesting that freedom is in fact mankind’s natural state and, conversely, declaring those who advocate totalitarianism to control humanity to be “unnatural.” It’s a debate that rages on in today’s headlines. It is also the issue that elicited Rossini’s best music in the opera, and indeed some of the best music in all of opera. “The famous chorus at the end, ‘Liberté,’” says Audi by way of example, “is one of the most moving episodes of any opera.” Part of its emotional appeal is the broader picture of liberty that Rossini has created throughout the previous several hours.
For starters (literally) there is that famous overture, whose galloping melody secured pop-culture immortality as the Lone Ranger theme. Rossini also met the Parisian audiences’ expectations for ballet and chorus, but, again, in an astounding new fashion. There is a long ballet in the middle of the opera in which the dictator Gesler humiliates the Swiss people by forcing them to dance to death in the village square. Both the ballet and chorus are a part of the complex drama unfolding, rather than being mere decoration. Audi’s production respects Rossini’s innovation, giving the audience “the feeling that the chorus is dancing, that that marathon is really taking place. I didn’t want to replace it with another thought. And that’s what we tried with Kim Brandstrup, the choreographer, to realize.”
The production, with sets by George Tsypin, costumes by Andrea Schmidt- Futterer, and lighting by Jean Kalman, reflects this connection to reality while also embracing the work’s Romanticism. “The important thing about nature is a sense of infinity,” Audi says. “The sky, the water, the reflection of the mountains in the water—and that was the starting point for George. So he made a very simple mirror box, which is the basic framework of the set,” giving “a feeling of infinity and reflection.” An enormous ship deck designed to mimic the shape of Tell’s crossbow is another imaginative staging touch. For the costumes, Audi says, “we worked with natural materials, like linen and leather, which are authentic, ancient, timeless materials, and went for very simple lines and shapes.”
Guillaume Tell, as both French Grand Opéra and Rossinian bel canto, must be produced around charismatic soloists in the lead roles, and Audi feels fortunate to have a marvelous roster of singers steeped in the specific requirements of this score. Of Finley, who inhabits the complex and nuanced title role, he says, “Gerry is one of the opera singers I admire most on the international scene. He invests himself in all his roles—he is the role.”
This is an essential quality for a character like Tell, who, Audi continues, “has a secret inner life. He has pent-up anger, and a deep fatherly feeling. He’s struggling with those feelings, and he feels somehow chosen as a human being that needs to speak for others. And not only speak for others, but also act for others, and risk his life, risk the life of his child, for a much higher and much deeper purpose.” And, he adds, “I think that is a very interesting concept, at the moment, when there’s a lot of talk about sacrificing yourself in the name of a cause. Guillaume Tell is such a figure.” —William Berger