A Tell That Doesn't Tell the Tale

Tell's final tableau, photo @Marty Sohl

So last night I went to the Met's new production of Guillaume Tell and it was glorious, fantastic, everything I'd ever want in a staging of Rossini's masterpiece ... eh, who am I kidding? It sucked. Rossini's opera has some of the greatest (if vocally demanding) music ever written, but it needs a production that respects and advocates for the opera as a viable stage vehicle. Pierre Audi's production is terrible in every way. It's a total disaster.

Audi apparently decided that this opera about how We're Starting a Revolution (!!!) needed the black and white minimalist treatment. Costumes by Andrea-Schmidt-Futterer are mixed and matched across a variety of eras but the long skirts on the women mean "in the distant past." White for the peasants, black for the conquerers. Mathilde is wearing a black Victorian bustle gown in the beginning because she's a Hapsburg! When she joins the revolution she changes to a white gown! Surprise surprise! Set designer George Tsypsin populated the stage with some styrofoamy fake rocks, an upside down cow, a big suspended ship/crossbow (???), and several tubes that light up during the finale (see above picture). Current fashion dictates that it's absolutely unacceptable to have painted backdrops so we had a mirror that reflected an ice blue. I guess it's Lake Lucerne?

The suspended boat and mirror lake, photo @ Marty Sohl
There wasn't any aesthetic sense in the sets and costumes, but all of this might have worked had their been any direction of the large cast and chorus. Alas, there was none. The large cast and chorus shuffled on and offstage with no discernible reason -- onstage bars and bars before they had to actually sing, and often they lingered onstage with absolutely nothing to do. The first scene is supposed to be a village festival. The chorus shuffled to center stage and stood mirthlessly. There was a complete disconnect between the rousing music and the unrelenting dullness onstage. The opera is long but it's not exactly action-packed, and somehow Audi didn't even make those "big moments" register. For instance blink and you might have missed when Tell has to shoot an arrow through an apple instead of his son Jemmy. Oh by the way there's no attempt to make Jemmy look like a boy here. Not sure whether that was a choice or it was because the Jemmy (Janai Brugger) simply was too curvaceous to attempt the in travesti look.

Okay, so the production wants to be boring and inoffensive. I don't have a problem with that. Alas, Audi wants to be "edgy" as well. In the third act choreographer Kim Brandstrup's ballet is some Hapsburg women in black leather S&M'ish tutus forcing the poor peasants to dance. The Hapsburgs have whips, y'all. It was more ridiculous and repetitive than anything else but it triggered a few audience members to boo. They might have been letting off steam about the awfulness of the production. I would have too had I cared more.

Finley as Tell, photo @ Marty Sohl
This is a shame because the cast of Tell mostly did justice to this demanding work. Gerald Finley was magnificent in the title role. His baritone is warm, smooth, and he sang his music with a real sense of legato. "Sois immobile" was a vocal highlight. He was also the only singer to attempt any kind of "characterization" -- his Tell is the quietly charismatic type of leader. They start a revolution by reassuring that it's going to be okay. Think Obama, not Trump.

In the demanding role of Arnold Bryan Hymel certainly had the stamina and the upper register to get through the opera. He's of a very strong constitution and is specializing in these heroic French grand opera parts. He sailed through the big double aria "Asile héréditaire" and "Amis, amis" without any obvious strain. Unfortunately Hymel's actual voice is ... ugly. No other way to put it. Yes it has an extremely secure upper register with a lot of ping on those high C's, but the rest of the voice is pinched, bleaty, and without any beauty or warmth. It's as if the Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music and the goats started to sing.

You could say "Well who else can sing this better?" Except the cover for this run (who sings November 2) is John Osborn,  who in my opinion sings with way more beauty, if not security in the upper register.

Compare and contrast Hymel with Osborn:

Rebeka and Hymel, photo @ Marty Sohl
Marina Rebeka is an old hat at the role of Mathilde. She's sung this role in Pesaro, Amsterdam, and Munich. Her bright, shimmery soprano can float over the large choruses and has enough flexibility for the role. "Sombre forêt" sounded more hard-pressed than lyrical and some of her coloratura has a mechanical, machine-gun feel. But this is a quality lyric soprano, and compared to Hymel her voice is pleasing to the ear. Janai Brugger as Jemmy also had a bright, shimmery kind of voice. I wish she'd made more of an attempt to actually portray a boy but that might have been the director's choice.

The rest of the cast was a mixed bag. Maria Zifchak is a veteran mezzo and performed the part of Hedwige admirably if without a hint of engagement in her role. Kwangchul Youn has a big beefy bass and a nice patrician air. John Relyea also did some fine work as the villain Gesler. Michele Angelini's Ruodi started off the evening with an aria that was long on high notes but (like Bryan Hymel) short on vocal beauty.

The stars of the evening were the chorus, who despite being given almost no stage direction were musically always alert, sensitive, and really carried this opera through from the opening festivities to the radiant finale. "Go sing in the chorus" is often used as a put-down to aspiring singers but in this case, the chorus deserved as many flowers and bravos as anyone else onstage. The other star was the Met orchestra, led by the soon-to-be-departed Fabio Luisi. They were fantastic, and Luisi's conducting is always classy. Some of the newer "hot" conductors at the Met have conducted this sort of music without a hint of elegance. It's push push push towards the cabaletta. Not Luisi. It's New York's loss.

Energy and enthusiasm was low the entire evening. There were a depressing number of empty seats in all sections of the house, polite golf-clap applause after numbers, and, as I mentioned, even some booing during the ballet. This goes back to my original point about this opera needing a strong advocate. It hasn't been presented at the Met since 1931, and even though the music is great it's not an easy opera. It's long, it's demanding on the audience's stamina. Pierre Audi's production makes the worst case for this opera. Productions like these need the Lone Ranger to run them out of town.


  1. Well, that's dispiriting (but TOTALLY as expected these days). Maybe I'll just leave my glasses at home. Ken

    1. Hmm this is making me nostalgic for the Tristan.

    2. And when one thinks that a concert performance ( even if it IS in Italian) with uneven singers could trill as much as the one at Carnegie a few years ago - where we saw you Ivy, it is REALLY sad. Ballet gets NO respect in opera ( didn't in Pesaro either). A problem with "sharing" a production ( the boos started in Europe) is that a conductor cannot restore cuts should he wish to. So, we lost the trio for women's voices. GRRR.

    3. that bad? An ears open, eyes wide shut production....

    4. I forgot the trio was cut. Damn,

  2. I'm listening to these tenors and the music is putting me to sleep.

    OTOH, I could listen to the overture all night. The Lone Ranger rides again!

    A Different Anonymous

    1. The opera has a lot of great choruses. It's not easy or accessible but I think it's a great piece of music.

  3. Another terrific review. Loved the line about the goats in the Sound of Music! I feel the same as you re: Hymel's voice. Not a pretty timbre.

    1. Another pretty awesome Tell is Michael Spyres:


    2. Thanks for the kind comments by the way.

    3. Seeing the production from Pesaro (Graham Vick) or from Royal Opera (Michieletto) would make one pine to see the Pierre Audi production all over again, but No, this is not a good production. Hymel's voice is ugly, but Osborn can hardly sing this music at all. Rekeba's intonation is between hit-and-miss all over the place in Pesaro (on dvd) and Pesaro is not quite the barn that the Met is, but Luisi (much) better choice of who to support a cast for Tell than either Carignani, Mariotti, or even Pappano. The much at first maligned Ronconi production from La Scala (1988) now seems like a clear benchmark - it is actually quite good, though odd - against any of the three mentioned here.

  4. Totally agree with your assessment of Bryan Hymel’s voice. Hearing live him for the 1st time in Tell I was shocked how smallish, badly projected and, yes, there is no other word, ugly, his voice is. I remember with how much enthusiasm he was hailed when he had appeared at the Met in Les Troyens and can’t justify it now at all. On a screen he also looked like a charismatic actor, but in the house he failed to create any sort of character for me. It was a complete mystery why gorgeous in every way Mathilde of Marina Rebeca would fall for such a man. I also think that Osborn of even Spyres might do better as Arnold. And I know that JDF is a sort of persona non grata on Parterre.com , but IMHO none of the above comes even close to his gorgeous phrasing, expressiveness and total mastery of the style: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuYn88lbF5Y


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