A Hymn to Nature and Freedom

Brett Polegato and Amy Ní Fhearraigh with cast and chorus in Irish National Opera’s ‘William Tell’ (Photo: Pat Redmond).

A Hymn to Nature and Freedom

Irish National Opera's 'William Tell' – the first production of the Rossini opera in Ireland for 145 years – opened at the Gaiety Theatre on 8 November and runs until Sunday. Adrian Smith reviews.

While the finale of the overture to Rossini’s William Tell may be among the most recognised pieces of music in the world, relatively few can say that they’ve sat through the remaining four hours of the composer’s last opera. Managing to actually see it live is a challenge in itself, with this Irish National Opera production being the first to be staged in Ireland since 1877. Due to a combination of its length, the large cast required and some very tricky vocal writing, the opera is quite far down the list of Rossini’s most often performed operas.

Dramatically, it’s also problematic, something not entirely surprising considering its grand opéra origins that privilege excess and spectacle more than anything else. By the end, no single character really emerges as a convincing hero capable of captivating an audience. The problem is that neither the perennially worried character of Tell himself; nor the ponderous, conflicted Swiss patriot Arnold, nor his Austrian princess lover Mathilde or even Tell’s plucky son Jemmy are complex enough to become the main receptacle of the audience’s sympathy. All are cut-out characters whose actions are foreseeable and governed by grand opéra’s predilection for melodramatic excess. 

This would have been fine if Rossini’s famed timing was at work, but over such a drawn-out scale, the dramatic pacing is uneven. Shades of classic Rossini appear in places such as the rip-roaring act one finale but elsewhere the pacing is glacial. For example, the protracted reflections of Arnold in his decision to ditch the Austrians for his native Swiss in act two seem to take an eternity while the famous scene where Tell shoots the apple off his son’s head is shorn of climactic potential by extended (if sublime) handwringing arias by Tell as he anguishes over the fate of his son. 

Imaginative direction
Despite the attractiveness of the music, all of this means that in order for a production to sustain a modern audience’s attention, imaginative direction is critical. Acknowledging the scenario’s simple premise as a straightforward tale of good versus evil, director Julien Chavaz decided to bring this element to the fore, casting the rustic Swiss in striking white attire that included some animal motifs such as antlers, foliage and a few Teletubby onesies. The dastardly Austrians on the other hand took on a more comically villainous appearance, dressed uniformly in red and in puffed-up costumes that made them resemble some mutant baddies from a superhero cartoon. While William Tell may ostensibly be about the fight of the Swiss people for their freedom, Chavaz’s interpretation seemed to acknowledge the fact that, from today’s viewpoint, Rossini’s music is far too full of stylistic tropes and the artificial brilliance of opera for us to relate to this struggle quite so earnestly. During the famed apple-shooting scene for instance, an oversized hollow fruit was brought out that covered Jemmy’s head entirely in a witty flirtation with the ridiculous, subverting the expectations of those hankering after the cliché of exploding apples.   

In terms of movement, the production was a masterclass in how to fill out lengthy spaces of musical time with clever choreography. This was evident right from the overture where four dancers (Laura Garcìa Aguilera, Stephanie Dufresne, Jeanne Gumy and Sophia Preidel) interpreted each of the four main sections of Rossini’s overture with playful routines that matched the corresponding moods from the pastoral to the martial. Their appearances throughout the production, particularly in the second act as innocent, fawning deer, added a great deal of wit and charm. While one expects dancers to move with a high level of dexterity, this is not generally expected of the chorus, especially one as large as this one. However, the INO chorus excelled themselves in the synchrony of their movements and credit must go to choreographer Nicole Morel. A particular highlight for me was the extended instrumental interlude (‘Jeu de l’arc’) in the first act which was a tour de force of ensemble cohesion performed with a joyous conviction. However, even in those scenes dominated by lengthy solo arias and duets, the singers moved with a sense of purpose, utilising the open space of Jamie Vartan’s minimalist set.

Strong cast
Amongst a uniformly strong cast, certain performers nevertheless stood out. Lyric baritone Brett Polegato anchored the opera with a convincing performance as Tell while tenor Jesús León as Arnold deftly negotiated the difficulties of Rossini’s most fearsome tenor role even if his French was perhaps not the most idiomatic. Amy Ní Fhearraigh’s sparkling soprano voice was perfectly suited to the youthful Jemmy while Máire Flavin’s fuller, more rounded tone captured the dignified Mathilde. While the singing was generally excellent, some singers were better than others at bringing out the subtleties of the French language; in this respect the aristocratic Austrians, David Ireland as Gessler and Patrick Hyland as his accomplice Rodolphe, were both excellent.  

The orchestra conducted by INO artistic director Fergus Sheil delivered a tight, punchy performance with the difficult intricacies of Rossini’s virtuosic writing for the woodwind and brass well executed. The famed overture was given a rousing rendition and Sheil’s pacing of the music and coordination of the big ensemble numbers was exemplary.    

However, the real star of the show was undoubtedly the chorus which was about as good as I’ve ever heard in an INO production, combining a big balanced sound with a corresponding volume calibrated to the dramatic importance of the scene in question. In many ways, perhaps the greatest strength of Chavaz’s production was that it seemed to reveal the real secret of William Tell, which is that if there is a hero in this opera it is not Tell himself but his legion of Swiss peasants. By granting the chorus pride of place, Chavaz and his creative team delivered an original, uplifting and positively charming interpretation of Rossini’s operatic hymn to nature and collective freedom.

William Tell runs at the Gaiety Theatre until Sunday 13 November. For further details and tickets, visit www.irishnationalopera.ie.

Irish National Opera’s next production will be a national tour of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, which begins in Letterkenny on 26 November. Visit www.irishnationalopera.ie/whats-on/current-upcoming-productions/don-pasquale.

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Published on 10 November 2022

Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.

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