Rossini's William Tell, first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1829, is an ambitious work: big, bold, long, lavish, embracing in its themes both the gravity of the struggle for freedom and nationhood, and the power of the folk hero whose earthy courage and lack of guile inspire an oppressed people to revolt against their oppressors. Welsh National Opera's current production fizzes with seditious energy, visually grand and musically affecting, making a long performance speed by.
The staging is pretty convincing. The set itself is visually interesting but not uplifting, referencing the oppression of the Swiss rather than the energy of the music. The famous arrow scene where Tell is ordered to shoot an apple from his son's head to save both their lives does disappoint a little; it makes a nice point about the cohesion required for effective resistance and Tell's place in Swiss folklore, but is a bit low on bells and whistles. The hunting themes in the orchestral score are echoed in the Austrians' costumes, while the sombre costumes are used to evoke Swiss nationhood when small pieces of national dress are donned in acts of defiance or celebration. The arresting etched backdrop suggests both the rocks and rapids which master oarsman Tell must negotiate to save the shepherd Leuthold, and the soaring peaks that overlook the valleys where freedom fighters make their plans. The Austrians are delightful villains, who swagger around shoving women and old folks, cackling wildly and devising eye-watering punishments for anyone insufficiently cowed by their massive robot stag helmets. It's quite fun.
David Kempster as Tell has great physical presence and an engaging bluff charisma, and his serious delivery provides an effective foil for Arnold and Mathilde's (Barry Banks and Gisela Stille) hand-wringing solos and spine-tingling duets. Rossini's original opera featured a ballet; here six dancers work with the extraordinarily powerful choreography of Amir Hosseinpour. By turns playful, tragic and gruesome, they add both humour and depth to the unfolding drama. Led by Andrew Greenwood, (taking over for one night from Carlo Rizzi) the orchestra were more than equal to the unremitting drama of the score, from the iconic episodic overture to the stirring finale.
An exciting and energetic production, this was a performance in which everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, from the cheerful if oppressed chorus to the sprightly soloists and the charmed audience.