NEW YORK—Gioachino Rossini’s epic opera “Guillaume Tell” (“William Tell”) is back at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time since 1931. While it had previously been performed here in German and Italian, this is the first time it is being sung in the original French.
This is an opera and a production where an audience gets its money’s worth. Clocking in at almost five hours, there are storms, battles, choruses, duets, famous arias, and ballets.
While it’s rare to bring the house down with an overture, this opera features one of the most recognizable tunes: the “March of the Swiss Soldiers,” best known as the theme of “The Lone Ranger” (on radio, television, and in movies). Fortunately, the audience showed restraint by not yelling out “Hi-Yo, Silver!”
Conductor Fabio Luisi did an admirable job with the overture and continued on that high level throughout the performance.
The opera takes place during the Middle Ages when Switzerland was occupied by the Austrians. At the beginning, there are festivities for the wedding of three couples, with the elder Melcthal presiding. His son, Arnold, is in love with the Austrian princess Mathilde. The title character is a Swiss patriot, William Tell, who tries to win over Arnold for the rebel side.
The festivities are interrupted when Leuthold arrives. He has killed an Austrian soldier. Tell, a skilled oarsman in addition to being the leading archer in the area, offers to help him escape by boat during a storm. The villain Gesler turns up in pursuit of Leuthold, but when no villagers reveal the name of their countryman’s rescuer, Melcthal is arrested.
Act II takes place in the countryside, where Arnold and Mathilde pledge their mutual love. Arnold thinks about rejoining the Austrian army, but when he finds out that his father has been executed, he swears to avenge the murder.
In the Swiss town of Altdorf, Gesler orders the villagers to celebrate the 100-year occupation of their country. Tell refuses to bow down and Gesler orders him to shoot an apple off the head of Tell’s son, Jemmy, with his crossbow. Tell succeeds but is still taken into custody. Mathilde intercedes to save Jemmy’s life. She later arranges for the boy to be reunited with his mother, Hedwige.
Tell manages to escape from the Austrians during a storm at sea. In the ensuing rebellion, Tell kills Gesler, the Swiss achieve their independence, and the lovers have a happy ending.
The cast is outstanding. Bass-baritone Gerald Finley brings his usual flawless singing and acting to the sympathetic title character. His aria “Sois immobile,” in which he urges his son to remain still when Tell is about to shoot the apple, is quite moving.
The soprano Marina Rebeka is perfect for the role of Mathilde, delivering an exquisite rendition of “Sombre forêt,” which you can see her perform on her website (MarinaRebeka.com).
As Jemmy, soprano Janai Brugger doesn’t look especially boyish, but her singing and acting were superb.
Probably the most technically demanding role is that of Arnold, and tenor Bryan Hymel was terrific, especially in the last act, where he nailed all the high C’s.
Bass-baritone John Relyea was convincing as the evil Gesler, while bass Kwangchul Youn conveyed nobility as Melcthal, Arnold’s father. Mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak delivered a lovely performance as Hedwige, Tell’s devoted wife and Jemmy’s mother.
Director Pierre Audi’s abstract production is fairly effective, though the costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer could be improved upon. The villagers are dressed in drab beige, while the Austrians (the bad guys) wear black. Kim Brandstrup’s choreography is imaginative, and the set by George Tsypin is evocative.
The main reason opera lovers should rush to this is the high-quality singing and the opportunity to catch a rarely performed work. We may have to wait another 80 years for the Met to bring the opera back.
30 Lincoln Center Plaza
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org
Running Time: 4 hours, 34 minutes
Closes: Nov. 12
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.