Victorian Opera: William Tell

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Published: 16th July, 2018

Design or coincidence? Whatever the reason, Victorian Opera’s fine production of Willliam Tell could not have found a more appropriate night to open than July 14: Bastille Day. Rossini’s final opera has not been mounted in Australia since 1876 and it is a great pity that the repeated cries of “Liberté!”, which bring the opera to a triumphant close, have not been heard more often. It is somewhat ironic that Rossini’s (and perhaps opera’s) most recognizable tune should be in this opera; at least no would-be wit tried to set off their mobile with the Lone Ranger ringtone during the performance.

Composed for the Paris Opera, William Tell was given its premiere in 1829. The scarcity of performances stemmed from a number of factors including its five-hour length, political concerns raised by glorifying a revolutionary figure and the difficulty of finding suitable singers. Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director and Conductor, Richard Mills, prepared a shortened version of around three hours, cutting the ballet music and focusing on strong narrative direction. And it worked. Rossini’s score contains a wealth of attractive melodies and the dramatic action has moments of true pathos.

It is exciting to hear Carlos E Bárcenas go from strength to strength both vocally and dramatically. In the demandingly high tenor role of Arnold Melcthal, the romantic hero torn between love of Mathilde, a Princess of the occupying Austrian forces, and love of his homeland, he negotiated the treacherous tessitura confidently. The French language suits his voice and he maintained elegant beauty of tone throughout, even when placed further upstage for his Act 4 aria than might have been comfortable for full projection. It was a pity that his love duet with Gisela Stille was marred by some awkward stage direction as it entailed a degree of groping that was cringe-worthy for many members of the audience. It was very much a case of less is more when the music should be allowed to speak for itself. Vocally, it was a highlight. Stille’s warm, sumptuous voice filled the cavernous space of the Palais Theatre with ease and her high notes possessed a rounded sheen.

There were many other vocal highlights too. As the eponymous hero Argentinian baritone Armando Noguera was superb. This production is worth hearing just on the basis of his rock solid contribution. Vocal power and a compelling dramatic presence created a gripping focus for the action. Liane Kegan made a worthy partner as his wife, Hedwige, her gorgeous rich contralto always a pleasure to hear and her acting skills convincing. As their son, Jemmy, Alexandra Flood’s light soprano and lithe physicality conveyed the youthful passion of a boy willing to put his trust in his father’s marksmanship in joint defiance of a callous enemy. Simon Corder’s lighting design with its strategic spots was an inspired way of solving a tricky problem at this climactic point.

Audience members who tend to view Rossini as a composer of comic operas may have been surprised at the degree of pathos created by his portrayal of the loving relationships within the opera. The beautiful cello solo at the beginning of the opera heralded this dimension. The opera is essentially about love in its various manifestations; love of family, country and the reverence given to those who stand against tyranny are seen alongside the sensual yearning of romantic love. Among the most dramatic and poignant moments in the opera is when Arnold Melcthal’s father, the village elder, is murdered by Rodolphe, henchman to the Austrian Governor Gesler. In this production it was an absolutely chilling scene of sadistic bloodlust. Teddy Tahu Rhodes made a singularly imposing Melcthal with a grandeur of physique and voice that immediately established his authority and made his murder all the more shocking. As Rodolphe, Paul Biencourt was an effectively nasty companion to Paolo Pecchioli’s unhinged Caligula-like Gesler. When taking their bows, both singers provoked hearty boos from the audience, not because of their singing, which was admirable, but because of their persuasive portrayal of evil.

Rodula Gaitanou’s direction and Esther Marie Hayes’ costume designs certainly accentuated the menace. According to the program synopsis the setting was “Occupied Switzerland in a dystopian future”. This dislocation felt a little odd at times, but the black uniforms of the jackbooted Austrian soldiers provided strong dramatic impact. As well as an intended referencing of the world of The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale their simple headgear also suggested the ancient aggressors. In contrast, the villagers’ costumes were attuned to nature and a sunnier way of life. Gaitanou used the simple, functional sets of grassy hills effectively, giving life to the action and deploying a substantial chorus efficiently. Avoiding a chocolate box rendering of Alpine scenery, Corder’s background mountain shape cleverly transformed into a threatening fortification for the enemy.

The chorus plays an important role in this opera and the disciplined, full sound made by the male members in particular was an outstanding feature of this production along with splendid ensemble work on the part of the principal singers. Jeremy Kleeman, Jerzy Kozlowski and Timothy Reynolds also impressed in less central roles. Underpinning everything, a responsive Orchestra Victoria brought Rossini’s wonderfully melodious score to life. Don’t miss it.

Heather Leviston attended opening night of  Victorian Opera’s William Tell at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda, on July 14, 2018.

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