Rossini: Guillaume Tell
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This is the very first complete performance of Rossini's masterpiece. Since its premiere, Guillaume Tell has been subject to more or less brutal cuts, but for the jubilee production of the 25th Festival 'Rossini in Wildbad 2013' the restored score has been used in its entirety for the first time ever. With subtitles in French, Italian, English and German.
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It is the production's great achievement that it deserves to be remembered for very fine musicianship which extends to the orchestra, the work of a well rehearsed chorus and the contributions of the four leads, who if not household names, continue to enjoy respectable reputations. The absolute stand-out is the American tenor Michael Spyres in the role of Arnold who, as both singer and actor, is most impressive. Fine performances are also given by Andrew Foster-Williams as Tell and Nahuel Di Peerro singing the two roles of Walter and Melcthal. The trios, involving these three soloists, at the end of act two, are of a very high standard. A seasoned professional Judith Howarth tackles the demanding role of Mathilde with aplomb but her characterisation is hampered by a long blonde wig, provocative clothing and an excess of bling. Her appearance typifies the problem for this is a curate's egg of a production
Absolute minimalism might well represent the last gasps of a shoestring budget but during a marathon of four hours one might hope for something visually more stimulating that cast-off clothing fit only for a free distribution, a clutch of white utility plastic chairs and contemporary dancing of questionable merit. The production team also appear to want to express something meaningful about an imperfect world. Such includes groupie style hero worship, a photo play sequence lifted from a famous silent film and too extreme levels of violence. Such attempts at social relevance plus vulgarities which include an inverted toilet bowl and soiled wedding sheets simply do not serve the best interests of the production.
As a CD audio the musical delivery would make a worthy addition to a Rossini library. In DVD format the production does not make an ideal introduction to this great work. In 1989 La Scala staged a far more traditional version under the baton of Riccardo Muti. Praised for the musicianship the scenography and stage direction, which includes a continuous photo play of Alpine scenery and an abundance of church pews, has not received universal approval. The considerable achievements of Michael Spyres are again on display in Pesaro's 2014 version of Aureliano in Palmira.
I decided to buy this after hearing the new Pesaro production on Decca, which I found unsatisfying despite some attractive features. More about that later.
The Wildbad production is from a smaller festival with a smaller budget and stage, but the opera is set in a small, poor Swiss village several hundred years ago and the scale here works well. Rossini wrote this as a Grand Opera for Paris, but it focuses on a small group of people and their relationships, plus some wonderful music.
The opening section of the overture is played as a private concert for Gesler and Mathilde on stage, followed by some silent pantomime to the rest if the overture, which fills in some gaps in the libretto. The orchestra is well recorded as set in the space of the theatre, which is not as detailed as the Decca multi-miked blu-ray sound but matches the sound of the scale of this production, an excellent clear stereo sound that contains within it plenty of ambient information. If you have a 5.1 sound system, your amplifier already has a good 5.1 decoder that can process this stereo signal and often provides a more realistic result than a 5.1 soundtrack. The basic stereo signal is excellent on its own.
Hearing the voices singing together in the space adds significantly to the experience. While I might not hear every last detail as clearly, after a few minutes I get the feeling of being at the opera and am able to relax and engage more fully.
Because body mics are not used as far as I can tell, we get to hear the voices in the space, and we actually get to hear them singing together! The Decca video relies on body mics (partly because Florez' voice is rather lean) which leaves the impression that the singers are in different spaces. Body mics pick up the voice from inches away, a big voice needs a resonant space to blossom and combine with others.
And Michael Spyres has a great voice, a lyric heroic tenor that is better suited to this role than is Florez', and he can ACT!
There's also the matter of acting - these singers are fully involved in their roles and interact with each other, which really involves the audience (us) and that's vital especially in a long opera. They were able to hold my attention for much longer than did the Decca - and since we're at home we have the luxury of breaks at will.
The ballet sections seemed shorter because they were done so well, supporting the plot and including some folk dances, plus schuhplattler and a Iittle interpretive dancing. It is Rossini's music and adds to the show when well done.
I hated the "ballets" on the Pesaro disc. Inappropriate, immature and brutal.
The level of singing on this production was surprisingly high, but Wildbad is in the center of the Stuttgart/Strasbourg/Zurich/Freiburg area, and tucked away in the Black Forest.
I watched and thought about this for several weeks after buying it - because I find that Amazon's crony reviewers are just feeding their greed in their panic to publish - and found that this Wildbad with Spyres was the most satisfying production, with the highest levels of singing, acting and playing and presented that was presented with dramatic integrity.
I found that the Decca/Florez might be more theoretically "perfect" but it didn't hold my attention intellectually and emotionally and tell the human story in depth, and that was Rossini's real goal.