William Tell

Gioachino Rossini, libretto by Hippolyte Bis and Étienne de Jouy, after Friedrich Schiller's play
Irish National Opera
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

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The Cast of William Tell Credit: Pat Redmond
The Cast of William Tell Credit: Pat Redmond
The Cast of William Tell Credit: Pat Redmond

Rossini’s William Tell, which premièred in 1829, was his 38th and final opera. It deserves to be performed more often. (Nowadays the overture is played more often than the opera.) The libretto is based on a play by Schiller and set in the 13th century when the Swiss rebelled against the Austrian oppressors and fought for their liberty. The war in Ukraine gives the revival an added pertinence.

I suspect that the only thing most people know about Switzerland’s history is the legend that William Tell, an expert marksman with a crossbow, shot an apple perched on his young son’s head. He was ordered to do this by the Austrian tyrant Albrecht Gessler to save his son’s life

The surprise is that the legendary feat is not the opera’s climax. It’s a pity that the apple looks like a pumpkin and the sort of thing a child would put on his head during Halloween.

It could be argued that the leading role is not Guillaume Tell (Brett Polegato) but the heroic Arnold (Konu Kim), who loves Mathilde (Máire Flavin), an Austrian princess, sister to Gessler (David Ireland). Actually, the lead role is the chorus of Swiss men and women who have some great ensembles, notably at the end of acts one, two and four, the last a sublime hymn to nature and liberty.

Julien Chavaz’s production, conducted by Fergus Sheil and designed by Jamie Vartan, is a co-production between Irish National Opera and Switzerland's Nouvel Opéra Fribourg, which premièred in Dublin.

The music is gorgeous and I much enjoyed the singing of soloists and chorus. The production, surreal and minimalist, is set in no particular period. The Swiss are dressed all in white and look pastoral. The Austrians are dressed all in red and look like cartoon thugs.

The chorus has been vigorously choreographed. The stage is bare and is they who provide the drive and energy, not only vocally but also physically by their movement and constant regrouping.

Rossini’s William Tell can be viewed free online on the OperaVision channel.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch