tell-1Having remained absent from the Metropolitan Opera since 1931, Rossini’s Guillaume Tell made a tepid return to the company last night (the first time in the original French!), with a new production by Pierre Audi. While it was wonderful to hear the brilliant score, performed by an impressive cast and orchestra, thoughtless direction stifled the epic drama. 

Derived from the folk legend dramatized by Schiller in Wilhelm Tell, the opera tells a story of civil unrest within the Canton of Uri in Switzerland. The narrative’s structure is largely twofold: in one plot, a local hunter named Guillaume Tell consistently resists his community’s occupation and oppression by a Habsburg governor; in a secondary plot, the political and emotional entanglements of Arnold, the son of a local Swiss elder, and Mathilde, an Austrian, dramatically conflict.

While these storylines provide wonderful set pieces, such as the famous apple scene, the evening’s success depends heavily upon Rossini’s score, which the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, under the direction of Fabio Luisi, performed last night with joyful gusto. As unhip as it may be, the famous overture still managed to engage me emotionally, with its manic-depressive swells of stormy chaos and pastoral tranquility.

Additionally, the evening’s singing met the score’s considerable demands. This was most evident in the straightforward and majestic performance of Gerald Finley, as Guillaume Tell. His “Sois immobile” especially was a deeply poignant interrogation of paternal love.

As Arnold and Mathilde, Marina Rebeka and Bryan Hymel brought a refreshing urgency to their roles. Hymel was remarkable for his stamina, tackling aggressively, in Act IV, the formidable “Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance…” And while his tone was a tad strident, he still managed to evoke his character’s romantic and existential angst.

Rebeka was equally noteworthy for her endurance, though she had a slight vocal defect, similar to that of her romantic counterpart. Most noticeably in the lower register, her soprano had an occasional tendency to turn brittle and dull. Her coloratura could have been a touch cleaner as well.

As Jemmy, Tell’s brave son, Janai Brugger lacked a youthful boyishness. Despite the clarity of her soprano, her character seemed awkward and out of place. As Jemmy’s mother, Hedwig, Maria Zifchak was lovely and warm, displaying a deep well of musical and emotional strength.

Marco Spotti, Kwanchul Youn, and John Relyea also provided robust and reliable support as Walter Furst, Gesler, and the stately Melcthal. Relyea in particular was an imposing villain, avoiding stock gestures and tics. And Spotti contributed effectively to the famous trio in Act II.

Of special note, as well, was the chorus, which functioned beautifully in an opera about the struggles of a particular community. Rossini’s score offers the chorus several moments to shine, and much of that success lay with Chorus Master Donald Palumbo.

However, while last night’s singing was deeply meaningful, it failed to amend the cheap, broad strokes of Audi’s direction, whose dramatic approach registered mostly as surreal. Indeed, the visual texture Audi composed felt otherworldly, hovering in some realm outside time and space, with straight lines of industrial light, images of livestock narcissistically gazing into lake water, and a palette of blue, earth-tone gray, and black leather.

The costume designs, by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, were especially detached from history and meaning, suggesting a vast range of temporal indulgences—from a muted Victorian silhouette to the campy cheekiness of early ’90s Madonna.

This bizarre visual lexicon laced a dissatisfying thread of arbitrariness through the proceedings; rather than adding to the mounting combustive pressure and momentum of the opera’s plot, the staging caused the drama to lurch slowly forward, sluggish and hollow. In this sense, the evening felt interminable.

And so it seemed that, once again, the expert musicians that graced the company’s pit and stage partially redeemed yet another feckless production at the Met.

Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.