Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome – Rossini’s Guillaume Tell – David Kempster, Barry Banks & Camilla Roberts; directed by David Pountney; conducted by Carlo Rizzi

Guillaume Tell – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by Etienne de Jouy & Hippolyte Louis-Florent Bis, with additions by Armand Marrast & Adolphe Crémieux, based on the play by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Ruodi – Luciano Botelho
Guillaume Tell – David Kempster
Jemmy – Fflur Wyn
Hedwige – Leah-Marian Jones
Arnold – Barry Banks
Melcthal – Richard Wiegold
Walther – Richard Wiegold
Leuthold – Aidan Smith
Rodolphe – Nicky Spence
Huntsman – Julian Boyce
Mathilde – Camilla Roberts
Gesler – Clive Bayley

Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Carlo Rizzi

David Pountney – Director
Raimund Bauer – Set Design
Marie-Jeanne Lecca – Costume Design
Fabrice Kebour – Lighting DesignAmir Hosseinpour – Choreography
Ian Jones – Tour Lighting

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 22 November, 2014
Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome, England

Welsh National Opera's production of Rossini's Guillaume TellWith more or less the same production team as Mosè in Egitto the previous evening, Welsh National Opera completed its week in Birmingham with William Tell. Rossini’s final stage-work is rarely produced and it is a brave company that takes it on given the demands on both singers and orchestral resources. WNO emerged triumphant, for this is a staging with considerable merits and musical qualities of the highest order.

The opera itself is a fascinating piece, overlong perhaps, and for any production some cuts inevitably have to be made. Dramatically it also takes a little while to get into its stride, but once the ‘trio’ is reached – in which Arnold hears of his father Melcthal’s murder – then things hot up. The scene with Tell being forced to shoot an apple off his son Jemmy’s head occurs late in the action but then the drama moves to its conclusion almost too rapidly. It needs a sure-handed director. Then, as this opera was composed for Paris, there is the matter of the ballet sections. How can one make these picturesque scenes relevant today?

Welsh National Opera's production of Rossini's Guillaume TellFor WNO, the general designs are simple yet effective, with versatile use of ‘flats’ on mobile scaffolding towers. Costuming is modern-dress with a nod back at traditional garb at times – though the presence of the Austrian military with oversized stag helmets and breastplates verged on the comical. The sadistic Gesler, admirably characterised by Clive Bayley with his pitch-black bass was wheelchair bound, bald-headed and bore an uncanny resemblance to Davros, leader of the Daleks. Bayley could have managed the same effect without the feeling of send-up.

Amir Hosseinpour’s choreography was lively, alert and to the dramatic point; only the initial dances of the pre-wedding scene generated the ‘wrong’ sort of laughter. The six dancers were excellent. One of the best dramatic moments was the visible presence a cello during the opening of the Overture. The military removed the player and the instrument, giving a strong visual metaphor for the suppression of culture that is the backbone of the story. The re-emergence of the musician at the moment of the Swiss uprising made the point brilliantly.

Musically, matters were in the expert hands of Carlo Rizzi. The WNO horns and lower strings made their presence felt once more, but all the instrumentalists with their moments in the spotlight were exemplary. Rizzi’s tempos were sprightly but rarely felt driven. Just occasionally one felt the singers needing a little more support.

Welsh National Opera's production of Rossini's Guillaume TellThe role of Arnold is often considered the major deterrent for performances of William Tell, for it requires a tenor with enormous stamina, technical mastery over an extensive range and stage presence. Many have come a cropper. Barry Banks’s singing had a heroism and abandon that was exhilarating, and he dazzled in his final scene. David Kempster’s Tell was also notable, his warm baritone at its best in lyrical moments. Dramatically, he was a relatively restrained Tell, though his intense focus on the liberation of his compatriots militating against his love for family was visually apparent.

Camilla Roberts was an impressive Mathilde, especially as she was a stand-in, for Gisela Stille. Occasionally the odd phrase found her slightly breathless, but she coped admirably with the demands of the coloratura. She was also a powerful presence, making much of the resolve of this aristocratic woman. Other imposing renditions came from Fflur Wyn’s likeable and boyish Jemmy, Leah-Marian Jones’s maternal and anxiously sympathetic Hedwige and Luciano Botelho’s mellifluous Ruodi. Nicky Spence’s likeable tenor made its mark as Rodolphe; a shame then that the director chose to have the part portrayed, like that of Gesler, in a way verging on pantomime.

Finally, the committed WNO Chorus, very much a set of living characters, and flooding the auditorium with generous tone. Despite the occasional quibble this is a production of real quality. The Royal Opera, due to stage William Tell next summer, has been set a high benchmark!

  • Performed at Mayflower Theatre, Southampton on November 29
  • www.wno.org.uk

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