Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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October 30, 2016

The Metropolitan Opera had sent out an email weeks ago advertising a "Rossini double-header" on October 29--the new production of Guillaume Tell at the Saturday afternoon matinee and the classic, fun Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of The Italian Girl in Algiers that evening with James Levine conducting and a good cast.  It was too much of a good thing for this Rossini buff  to miss.  I thought I could make it a "hat trick" (to continue the baseball metaphor, appropriate at World Series time, I guess), with the wonderful performance of Tancredi I had seen just a week ago in Albuquerque.  The two youthful works which set Rossini's star ablaze in both serious (Tancredi) and comic (L'Italiana in Algeri) genres, would be complemented by his final, rarely performed, monumental opera, William Tell, which the Met had not performed for 81 years.

Tancredi in Albuquerque was great, but alas, the rest was not to be; to complete (thankfully) the baseball language, the game was rained out.  In New York, they had divided Tell's four acts into three parts with two intermissions.  All went well, at least musically, until the second intermission.  After the audience had returned for the glorious finale of the opera (and the tenor's famous aria, "Asile hérèditaire") there was a delay.  Finally someone came out on stage and asked everyone to be patient; they were having a "problem backstage," but the opera would resume shortly.  After another long delay, with people nervously consulting their watches, the same man came out and announced that although everyone in the cast and crew was fine, the rest of the opera had to be cancelled.  No explanation as to why.  Some shouting and booing from the audience, but everyone left in genuine puzzlement. 

beams.jerniganMany folks (mostly out-of-towners I would guess) were planning to stay for that evening's Italian Girl, but around 7 PM, the word went out that that performance too was cancelled.  Up to that point, no one was saying what had happened, but the on-line opera gossip sites were frantic with speculation.  On the way to our car in the Met parking garage, my friend Richard Beams and I met a trumpet player in the orchestra who filled us in: during the second intermission, someone was spotted spreading a white powder in the empty orchestra pit, around the timpani section and on the conductor's podium.  They did not know what it was, but in the dangerous world we inhabit, they could not take a chance that it was something perilous like anthrax.  The analysis took so long (the EPA was called in) that by the time they determined it was not dangerous, it was too late to change sets for that evening's performance, and to set up the special device which lifts James Levine's wheel chair to the podium.

Faced with an early evening, Rich and I got in the car and drove back to Boston instead of staying in town, and by the time we got to his home, the New York Times already had an article out explaining that the mysterious "white powder" was cremated human ash.  The culprit wanted to spread the ashes of his "mentor," who was presumably an opera lover.  I am sure that this individual was horrified to learn that his actions had caused the Met to cancel one entire performance and the finale of another one, disappointing thousands of fans and losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.  I had a seat in Row B of the Orchestra, so close that I could count the hairs on the head of Maestro Fabio Luisi, but I had left in the interval for a bathroom break and missed the excitement.  When I returned for the final act, I noticed the guards posted by the pit (and that the orchestra had not returned).  In fact the trumpet player told us that orchestra members had had to leave their instruments in the pit and would not be able to retrieve them until Sunday.

So I am unable to review Italiana as I had planned, and I cannot write a complete account of Tell.  I did see most of it, and I heard marvelous singing and saw a poor, but not awful production.  I had been puzzled that the Met had decided not to broadcast Tell in HD: it is an unusual opera and a very important one historically and the Met had not performed it for decades, so it would seem to be a natural for HD presentation.  But they must have known that the production was your run-of-the-mill Eurocrap; they had taken the production from Amsterdam, where it was seen a few seasons ago, so they knew what they were getting.

Many opera lovers do not know Guillaume Tell as a whole, but everyone knows the famous overture, probably the most famous opera overture ever written.  The story is about the liberation of Switzerland by the (perhaps mythical) Swiss hero Tell.  As one of the foundation works of Romanticism in music, William Tell has many themes, but the primary ones are political (the peasants revolt successfully against Austrian oppressors), love (the patriot Arnold's love for the Princess Matilde, inevitably a part of the aristocracy against whom the patriots are rebelling), and Nature, with a capital N, seen in the majestic Swiss landscape and depicted by Rossini with musical 'painting' and many 'genre' scenes of the Swiss peasant farmers and fishermen interacting in a natural landscape.  The overture tells the story: the slow, beautiful opening with the cellos, the furious storm which wracks the Alps, the pastoral ranz des vaches--Swiss horn calls--and the famous galop (the Lone Ranger theme) which symbolizes the freeing of the Swiss from the yoke of oppression. 

Pierre Audi's production was adequate in showing the rebellion and the love story (but no more than adequate), yet it entirely missed the aspect of natural beauty or the "Swissness" of the setting by offering an abstract set (instead of trees in the forest that Matilde sings of in her aria "Sombre fôret" there were neon light pillars) and generic black and white costumes (black for the bad guys, white for the Swiss--yawn, double yawn).  For some reason there was a rock suspended from the flies: on top there was a full sized model of a cow and a sheep; underneath the cow and sheep hung upside down from the rock--oh, subtlety!  oh, symbolism!  Because of the move to abstraction, the first two acts, in which Rossini vividly paints the Swiss people acting and interacting in a natural setting was totally vitiated, and the acts became boring.  Things picked up with Matilde's entrance and her taking the side of the peasants against the tyrant Gessler.  The famous apple-shooting scene was gripping in spite of the abstract setting and Tell's son Jemmy being tied to a light bar instead of a tree.  (Matilde, by the way, wore black Victorian dress sometimes as a member of the aristocracy and a white Victorian dress at other times as a sympathizer with the peasants--oh, subtlety!  oh symbolism!)

Canadian Gerald Finlay was very impressive as Tell, although he looked a lot like Charlton Heston playing Moses in the movies in the costume he was given.  Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, whom I had seen before in the role, was perfect, vocally, for Matilde, especially in her dramatic second aria.  Bryan Hymel was fantastic in the tenor role of Arnold, a true bari-tenor able to leap impossible high notes at a single bound.  The orchestra was superb and the chorus sounded great, although they did not even attempt to act.  The extensive ballets were well danced and stupid beyond belief.  While the bad guy soldiers wore chain mail, the nasty aristocrats wore black Victorian evening clothes and two of the bad-girl ballerinas wore black, strapless evening gowns out of a 1970's horror film.

Perhaps it was a good thing that the cancellation spared us the final spectacle of a huge halogen light bar replacing the glorious sunrise over Lake Lucerne that Rossini wanted as the final tableau to some of the most wonderful music ever composed.

Post Script: I have seen Tell a few times before, but only once that I thought was truly successful.  This cancellation was not my first bit of bad luck with it.  Years ago, I traveled from outside of Paris all the way to London (in the days before the Chunnel made the trip easy) to see what should have been my first Tell at Covent Garden.  Only they cancelled at the last minute because their singer for Tell was ill and they did not have a cover.  Excitedly, they explained that they were going to substitute La bohème.  I like La bohème, but I would not travel half way across Europe to see it.  I was so mad that I wrote a letter to the British magazine Opera.  Covent Garden had promised tournedos Rossini, but they had served up sausage and mashed potatoes.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network