Why an opera about the French Revolution, Dantons Tod, premiered in post-war 1947 Salzburg? Gottfried von Einem’s opera is based on the play by George Büchner, about, the gullibility of the people, how power corrupts, and “what it is in people that lies, murders, and steals.” (Thus it’s an epitaph to national socialism.)
The ‘French Revolution’ was the mother of revolutions, at least in modern times. The opera deals with the phase around 1794. Danton and his friends were defeated by Robespierre’s party, submitted to a show trial and executed: the victims of a new Reign of Terror (La Grande Terreur.)
But this is no mere text-book history. Perhaps only opera can bring to life, on stage, the epic nature of events. Not just the colourful spectacle, the dangerous masses, but through music (von Einem’s) and text (Boris Blacher)- describe the human drama in the the power struggles between the main characters, Danton (Tomasz Konieczny), and Robespierre (Thomas Ebenstein.) More than speech, or soliloquies, operatic arias, and ensembles- especially emphasising the chorus- elevate the drama to a higher, sublime level.
The opera runs for barely 1 hour 45 minutes, without interval, but there’s as much going on as in 3 hours, 4 Acts. Von Einem’s music isn’t ‘serial’, but accessible, richly descriptive, using a fascinatingly varied instrumental palette, ‘diverse rhythms and forms’. (Vienna State Opera Orchestras and Chorus exemplary under Michael Boder.)
The stage set (Josef Köpplinger) is monumental, “a unit set like as cube”. More like a film set, and if you’re sitting in a side box, you only get a limited perspective. The opening scene is one of desolation, a war zone, with a still-burning raft. The action is on multiple levels: the beautiful lady dealing cards (Ildikó Raimondi); Danton, Konieczny, swashbuckling white shirt, breeches, black boots, lustfully pursuing his woman across the stage; and there’s a couple apparently copulating. (These are revolutionary times, also for sexual morality.)
On the lower stage, Robespierre (Ebenstein), black-suit, ruffed white shirt, slicked hair, ‘ the lean and hungry look.’ Like Cassius in (Shakespeare’s) Julius Caesar, a power broker. The revolution is at the stage of reorganisation, he sings: the form of government is like a gown to fit the people. We want melodic songs, to sing the praises of our ideal society, our virtuous republic.
Danton is Robespierre’s opposite, physically and temperamentally. Konieczny, rugged, well-built, corpulent, is known as a bon vivant. His baritone earthy- the pragmatist, a little cynical – to Robespierre (Ebenstein’s refined tenor), rarefied, effete, the pure idealist. “Who’s going to make all these wonderful things happen? ” The road is a long one, so why, Danton asks, did he start the struggle? Danton’s is a realistic, if cynical view of the people: the Statue of Liberty is not yet cast, he sings.
As if to make the point, the next tableau, is a raucous crowd scene. A gross, fat man is bullying a mother (Lydia Rathkolb), her daughter presumed accused of prostitution. He knocks her to the ground; in the disorder, brutality prevails. An elegantly dressed gentleman pleads with the crowd; ‘there are no gentlemen here.’
Ebenstein arrives in his smart black suit. What’s happening, citizens? They heckle him; we don’t want any law. He retorts, You murder yourselves in your wrath. People do your duty! Come over with me to the Jacobins, he tries to muster support.
Danton ridicules Robespierre for his affected virtue. Robespierre you are outrageously self-righteous! Are you heaven’s policeman? – Danton, do you deny both virtue and vice? How dare you disparage me in such a manner!
Not only is this the 1000th Der Rosenkavalier at Vienna State Opera, but it’s the 381st using Otto Schenk’s classic staging. The sets are so lavish that no opera house could now afford them. They recreate that timeless, long-gone world of fading aristocracy – fin-de-siecle – before WW1, (the opera premiered 1911). It’s Richard Strauss’s most viennese (wienerisch) opera – his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstal was effectively Viennese – because it’s largely set in Vienna, hence the Faninal’s ‘town house’, a veritable palace. You see ‘marble’ walls with rococo ornamentation in gold-effect; crystal chandeliers; authentic-looking 18th period furniture; much more if you’re facing the stage. The ceiling in Titian blue resembles a renaissance painting.
In the opening scene, the Marschallin’s bedroom is more like a state room; left-stage tortoise-shell lacquered walls, lavish drapes; and the four-poster bed hung with chintzy curtains; out of which the Marschallin’s (Adrianne Pieczonka) head peers. Octavian is standing, Stephanie Houtzeel’s short, platinum hair, remarkably masculine. Houtseel an experienced Octavian here, regularly cast ‘trouser’ roles. It’s the same coupling as in 2013, when I was intrigued by the cross-dressing implications – speculating on whether the relationship could be lesbian. (I still wonder.)
‘But when your looks fade where will you be then?’, he asks. At first, like a wilting screen goddess- I always think of Geraldine Page in Tennessee William’s ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’- she’s dazzled by the daylight. What day is it: I don’t want the day! The theme is time, finite beauty: she’s getting old and he is very young.
Jede Dinge hat seine Zeit. Everything has its time, and hers is running out. Symbolically, she notices his sword: ‘he left his sword in a lady’s bedroom! ‘Pieczonca, who’s made this role her own, truly inhabits the part: her luscious, rich, dark-chocolate tone, sensual and powerful; the ideal Straussian soprano. But also poignantly moving -unbearably so. ‘I feel the fragility deep in myself’, she sings.
Their morning-after sex is interrupted by the unexpected visit of the Baron Ochs. So Octavian has to hide in the closet- echoes of the Marriage of Figaro, the I8th century Age of Enlightenment, Strauss may have had in mind- and reappears as the servant ‘Mariandel’ This brightens the melancholy, but also ‘Mariandel’ reappears in the denouement to trap the philandering Ochs in a Viennese inn. Ochs is a bon vivant, but also a serial womaniser and abuser, as we would say now. In Hofmannsthal’s plot he’s come to announce his engagement to ‘sweet’ Sophie (von Faninal), a titled family he schemes to marry into. Ochs is a figure of fun, but the villain of the piece.
Peter Rose has sung Ochs internationally and reenacts the role as his own. I’d previously thought his impressive bass too smooth for this crude character. But Rose appears fatter (the garish costumes maybe), and his manner more leering, his lust and rapacious appetites barely contained beneath the smooth social manners. So these central episodes – intentionally comic, that I’d once found a little dull- really come to life. He can’t keep his hands off ‘Mirandel’, and pinches her bottom. ‘Once I see something I like I must have it,‘ is his motto.
In the complex plot, Ochs wants Octavian, Sophie’s cousin, to give her away: present her with the ceremonial rose. What I’d not noticed was the ‘horse-trading’ between Ochs and Lord Faninal over Sophie’s dowry, which Ochs is trying to get out of paying. Flavinal (Marcus Eiche) is quite furious, aware who has the upper hand.
Act 2 and the Rosenkavalier presentation. Sophie (sweet-voiced, lyrical soprano Chen Reiss)- elegant, slim- is perfect for this youthful role. Sophie, poor wench, is all excited: not knowing what a brute she’s to expect. She’s being bartered ; she’s high-born, he’s buying into title.
Prince Octavian presents the silver rose: its scent like ‘heavenly roses’. She’s under a spell, cast by her Prince Charming. They make eye contact, she’s captivated, confused; love struck. (‘Quinquin’, she calls him, how friends and ‘beautiful ladies’ use to address him.) They are cousins; but she confides, she needs a husband to look after her. She sings to him, never has a young man delighted her so much. (I have to admit the ceremony was something I’d previously found difficult to understand, off-putting; but, beneath the surface glitter, the pageant is dramatically crucial.)
At Theater an der Wien, the Overture (Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Oksana Lyniv) introduces us to Joan (Lena Belkina)- hooded- in a high tech, steel kitchen, all mod-cons. Her father, the distinguished bass Willard White, is having sex with, assumedly, her mother, over a kitchen table. Belkina’s Joan looks on in disgust- in her hoodie, a long, grey, boucle-knitted cardigan. There’s a row and a fight. She’s the moody teenager; you half expect her to bring out her phone. (That would stream her angst off.) But Belkina’s mezzo is powerful, that of a mature woman, her moving performance a tour-de force. Willard, in a check shirt-jacket, black polo,is reading a paper, (Le Monde), disturbed by the world situation (war with England, France’s defeats, their weak King, and his successor?) He wants Joan married off to Raimond (Raymond Very) for her protection. The meeting doesn’t work out, Joan has another agenda. Very, as the straight, besuited, businessman – to her, middle-aged – isn’t her type. (He does, however, have a gorgeous tenor.)
In a choreographed ballet sequence, young girls in pretty white dresses are being groomed by handsome young men in black suits, like young executives. The implications are gross- historically (15th century), girls were married off from twelve years old.
In one of many controversial scenes- a dream sequence- she is lying on her bed, her room like a Tracy Ermin installation, decked out with posters of female icons: a Warhol poster of Marilyn Monroe, one of Patti Smith, Women’s Rights slogans everywhere. It’s as if Director Lotte De Beer is determined to cast Joan as a feminist emblem, even if it confuses the historical narrative.
Joan, cut loose, escaping with her ruckscack, is seen observing a religious order wearing ‘medieval’ smocks, like in an historical tableau. She stands apart- alien- as if from another world. But then her psychic disorder -or religious calling – positions her as the outsider. Belkina sits around moping.
Then Belkina, now in white – a night gown, or oversized man’s shirt- visits the court of French King Charles (Dmitry Golovnin). Though under existential pressure, he’s entertaining his beloved mistress Agnes (Simone Mihai). Neglecting his state duties, he’s unmoved by the mortally wounded soldier dragged in; or by the resignation of his chief Dunois (Daniel Schmutzgard’s impressive tenor.)
Then the Archbishop (Martin Winkler) tells him about the defeat of the English, the French victory, and the glorious maiden who inspired the soldiers. Belkina as Joan stands off stage, observing all from a distance, as if she’s dropped in from a time machine. Nevertheless, the set for Charles’ court is elegantly designed, albeit minimalist, and the costumes in burgundy splendid: even the oak tree is bathed in pink.
In the plot, Joan enters, telling the holy Patriarch about her visions that inspired her to lead the fight. On the King’s orders, she is put in charge of the army. Where are your parents, and where do you come from, they sing. Her father enters, White sceptical of his daughter’s powers, while the people’s chorus – Arnold Schoenberg Choir on marvelous form – sing inspired by her calling.
Act 3 (after the interval) opens with a sensation: an aerial battle. Joan and an ‘English’ soldier (the outstanding Icelandic baritone Kristjan Johannesson.) Swords raised, they’re in fierce combat, floating on wires suspended over the stage. Then they fight it out down to earth, Joan against the knight. She strikes him down, knocks his helmet off. Very realistic swordplay. Her sword raised, she’s poised to kill him, but cannot. He, Lionel, isn’t English, (he explains), but a Burgundian soldier who’s lost his land. They eye each other up. She sings, shocked by the passion aroused in her. No one is safe, why should she save him? Belkina seems to stagger, her faith is broken, (a condition of her calling that she sacrifice earthly pleasures and remain chaste.)
She’s made herself a bed on top of a stack of furniture (rather like her room.) He, (Johannesson), clambers up; t-shirt (burgundy), no armour, but amor. With you, oh God! Why has she given up the fight, got involved. Belkina and Johanesson are ideally cast, their duets outstanding, probably the high point. He fondles her thighs. (We think of Tchaikovsky’s own forbidden love: his homosexuality suppressed by his religious faith.)
Then we notice the white shirt soiled, the red mark. Alarm! Lost virginity; chastity, a commodity traded in patriarchy, tarnished . Blood-splattered sheets are pulled in all directions like banners, director de Beer making a big issue about this. And Joan is also compromising her inviolability as a saintly religious figure. Her father and his chosen suitor Raimond appear. White reads her diaries: Raimond however is understanding and prepared to release her from her engagement. There follows a problemmatic scene, in which the religious followers are seen fondling and fetishising the blood-red soiled sheets, as if they’re imbued with a religious power, (menstrual blood rumoured to have mystical properties.)
She cries out , oh God, my father! He, sneering, mocks her, you were heaven-saved? While the French celebrate Joan the victor, her father suspects her acts to be the devil’s work. White sings, vowing to clear her mind of Satan, even to her death. He forces her to publicly declare herself holy, and pure. Joan stays silent, conscience-stricken, aware of her guilt. The people’s chorus sing, Enlighten us, divided whether to stand by her, or renounce her.
Like a Lady Macbeth, she scratches herself, in self-disgust. She discards her sheets, pulls out her old clothes. Her soul is doomed, she sings…And gets back into her jeans and hoodie, and retreats back to her bedroom. A man has brought her down, but, she sings, there’s no doubt of the flame burning in her heart. Johanneson appears at the window and jumps through. There’s a wonderful duet, reaffirming their love.
From the sublime to the ridiculous. ‘Crusaders’, English soldiers in chain mail brandishing swords, burst into this 21st century household? Lionel is killed, and Joan is captured…
Oh, dear! The stage is taken over by a demonstration of female power through the ages: sufragettes, ‘Votes for Women’ placards, ‘Pussie Riot’, women protesting in hoods, England’s Elizabeth 1 (she’s 16th century, of course.) Belkina is pushed around, jostled from one to the other. The people are undecided whether she’s witch or saint. She’s tied to a tree. It appears, at first, as if she’s being stoned to death, but finally she’s burned at the stake, (reportedly, holding a cross, crying out to God, prepared to die.) Tchaikovsky historically correct, whereas Schiller has her die in battle.
It must be said that, musically, this production was peerless. Oksana Lyniv conducted Vienna Symhony Orchestra passionately, eliciting wonderful playing. The cast was top rank. And the staging? (Clement & Sanou) Sumptuous, beautifully colour-cordinated in the mainly ‘period’ second half. But the agit-prop Feminist agenda? At times, Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score felt like the wrong soundtrack. PR.20.3.2019
Photos:Joan (Lena Belkina);Lena Belkina and Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Lena Belkina and Kristjan Johannesson (Lionel); Featured image: Doubles for Joan and Lionel (Helena Sturm, Sebastijan Gec)
(c) Werner Kmemitsch / Theater an der Wien
Umberto Giordano’s opera is the story of the great French Revolutionary poet Andre Chénier: told in four Acts (tableaux), it is also a history of the French Revolution itself. From the pre-revolutionary Coigny palace, where Chénier meets the aristocrat Madeleine (Maddalena) curious to meet the poet; and where the life-long servant Gérard , inspired by Chénier’s advocacy of ‘revolutionary’ ideals, resigns in protest, to join the fight for liberty. Yet the opera, through these opposing idealists, Chénier and Gérard, shows how, from the ideals of 1889, the French Revolution degenerated into a Reign of Terror.
Yet, above all the history, Andrea Chénier is a great Romantic opera in the 19th century Italian tradition. It is a love story between Chénier and Maddalena, enduring through the Revolutionary terror, Maddalena, disguised in Paris, Chénier betrayed by his political enemies. And the unrequited love of Gérard, from the infatuated servant, to jealous revolutionary leader.
The success of the opera’s performance pivots on these three. In this Vienna State Opera love triangle, a weaker Chénier (Gregory Kunde), is supported by the powerful, passionate soprano Tatiana Serjan, and a strong baritone in Luca Salsi’s Gérard.
But this is historical spectacle, with a plethora of supporting roles: including Virginie Verrez, Bersi, Maddalena’s servant, who has to prostitute herself, Boaz Daniel (Roucher), Chénier’s friend who advises him to escape. And Zoryana Kushpler’s heart-rending Madelon, the old lady (who offers her grandson for conscription.) Librettist Illica’s well-drawn characters have a theatrical depth.
Vienna State Opera Orchestra, under a French conductor, Frederic Chaslin, justified Giordano’s realist masterpiece, probably on a par with Puccini, in its complex orchestral orchestral detail, and Verdi in its soliloquy-like arias.
The performance was the 113th using Otto Schenk’s now classic production. Vienna is right to maintain these wonderfully detailed historical sets and costumes: from the lavish finery of Coigny’s soiree, the elegantly furnished palace in the final throes of the ancien regime; the square in front of the Cafe Hotte (where a police informer is trying to trap Bersi); and, Act 3, the Committee of Public Safety’s court room with its blood-thirsty spectators.
The opening scene is the Comtesse Coigny’s palace- Schenk’s exquisitely painted sets- preparing for a rococo entertainment. But beneath the refinement, revolution is fermenting. We hear, almost immediately, an angry outburst form Gérard, (head butler, his father, a gardener, serf for fifty years.) Luca Salsi is impassioned in his aria, expressing his hatred of this gilded, artificial world. Your fate is sealed!
Meanwhile, the Comtesse (Lydia Rathkob) tells off her daughter, not yet dressed. Maddalena (Serjan) complains to her maid Bersi, how she hates her hideous petticoats; as if these artificial clothes, symbolising this way of life, are stifling her. Then we overhear the Abbé in conversation, talking about the revolution- supposed to be imminent – but nobody takes it seriously. The Comptesse asks the young poet Chénier (Kunde) to recite his poetry. He refuses; but Maddalana, who’s bet she’ll change his mind, annoys Chénier, expecting him to sing about love.
Kunde’s Chénier, a dour figure in black coat, is roaming in the background. Forgive my speaking up; I am a woman! She sings, Poetry is as capricious as love. He takes offence. His love is for his country. ‘I love you, divine beautiful fatherland,’ Then, in a tirade against the ancien regime (old order), a priest is happy to accept gifts, but deaf to an old woman begging for bread. And what does a nobleman do in the face of such pain and suffering? Beautiful woman, do not scorn a poet’s words: you know nothing of love, don’t deride it. (Beautifully sung by Kunde’s lyrical tenor, but the applause seemed inappropriate.) She asks his forgiveness. Chénier has caused a scandal. But Gérard listens in awe. He leads a crowd of peasants into the salon. The voice of suffering is calling him! He rips off his uniformed jacket- symbol of humiliation- and accuses the Comptesse of holding the celebration at the expense of the poor. He’s dismissed, and storms out. But, in the pastoral entertainment, the ladies sing in celestial harmony: ‘By tomorrow, they shall be far away.’ They resume dancing the gavotte the intruders interrupted.
The next tableau, Schenk’s atmospheric recreation of a Paris public square. The Revolution has degenerated into (Robespierre’s) reign of terror. Gérard has been promoted to the Chamber of Deputies. Yet, Chénier who had extolled the revolution, is now suspected as a counter-revolutionary, and under surveillance. Chénier meets his friend Roucher (Boaz Daniel) who tries to persuade him to leave Paris. Kunde sings in a moving aria of a mysterious power that guides him through life: a power that says to him, You shall be a poet. The name of my destiny is love! Believe in love, Chénier! Kunde’s tenor, powerful, but not incandescent.
He tells Roucher, he’s been receiving letters from an anonymous woman- elegant notepaper, rose-scented. Take the passport and forget the merveilleuse.
Bersi begs him to wait ‘for a woman in great danger’ They’re overheard by an informer (incroyable) hired by Gérard. As Maddalena – alone, afraid disguised, before the altar- Serjan is in tremendous voice. Then, Chénier, Was it she who wrote the letter; recognises her, she he’d once rebuked, ‘You know nothing of love’? Serjan, her heart told her he would protect her, even the man she had affronted. You are my last hope. Their duet is ‘a marvelous moment of bliss.’ She’s washed away his last vestige of cowardice. We shall stay together even until death,they sing. Magnificent.
The Committee of Public Safety – long table, elegant chairs- the people surrounding the court sectioned off. Gérard, in a fiery speech calls on the people to make sacrifices: France is besieged. The old,blind Madelon, led on by her grandson, sings of her family’s tragedies. But she offers the young boy. Take him: he’ll fight and die. Kushpler’s aria is powerfully rendered in this most poignant vignette.
Chénier has been arrested; Gérard is expected to sign the charge. Which brings Gérard to a crisis of conscience. In Nemico della Patria Why does he hesitate: Chénier’s already listed, an enemy of the State. An old tale. A poet? He corrupts people’s minds. But Salsi, in Gérard’s aria, reflects how once he was immune to hate. Now he is still a servant. Gérard’s aria shifts to Maddalena. He sings of his life’s passion: his obsession from childhood, he uniformed and silent. She had driven him mad. He wanted to bury his hands in her blonde hair.
Maddalena turns up to plead for Chénier.( Maddalena’s aria is compared with Tosca’s Vissi d’arte. But, 1894, when Chénier originated, Tosca hadn’t been composed.) In Maddalena’s aria La mama morte Serjan sings with blistering intensity. They murdered her mother outside her room, who died to save her; saw her childhood home in flames. But love spoke to her: ‘Go on living: I am life!’ Serjan is overawed with feeling. Enormous applause. My body is that of a dying witch, Go take it! She’s no more than a corpse. Gérard, confounded, deeply impressed, will fight for Chénier.
Overwhelming! Berlioz’s five-Act opera, lasting five hours, is rarely performed; only the largest opera houses can afford to put it on. This complete Vienna State Opera production (directed by David McVicar) is the first since 1976. Les Troyens premiered in Paris 1863, but only the second part, the love scenes in Queen Dido’s Carthage, where Aeneas’s fighters find refuge. It seems an opera of two halves, but the first two Acts – the destruction of Troy- are dramatically essential. Berlioz was obsessed with Virgil’s Aeneid and it is Aeneas (Enée) whose fate unites Les Troyens.
This McVicar production (stage Es Devlin) is visually stunning, especially the set for Troy. This is meant as spectacle, the Troy legend – the founding of Italy, even the line of French monarchy- equal to the Ring of the Nibelung. The stage is on four levels, concentric galleries of social classes – soldiers, civic dignitaries, women – overlooking the crowd below. There’s a pile of scrap metal left-of-stage, the war booty; and, importantly, center, a platform showing the Trojan gods in miniature, lit by an eternal flame, the gods playing a crucial role in human lives.
So Casandra plays a central role, her prophesies of foreboding powerfully sung and enacted by soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci. She sings of Priam as ‘ill-fated King’, and she foresees the danger of the Iron Horse, left by the Greeks as a gift to placate the Trojan’s gods. To a wailing clarinet solo, Save your bitter tears: you will need them for the impending disaster. She sings of the soldiers disappeared; the Trojan Priest killed by serpents from the ruins; le peuple condamné, the people are condemned. Gloire ma Patrie . She laments for her country. Meanwhile children are playing, people dancing in circles, celebrating the peace.
Yet the Horse – dominating the stage – is fearsome, consisting of wheels and cogs, an amalgam of scrap metals welded together. It is something out of a horror movie: it turns on its side, is self-propelled, and apparently empty. It’s moved to the back of the stage, with the people guarding it with torches of fire.
A bloodied figure, the spectre of Hector (Anthony Schneider) staggers on, opening Act 2, singing a lament to the Glory of Troy O Gloire des Troyens. He accosts, hugs, the grey-suited Aeneas, Brandon Jovanovich. Jovanovich’s refined tenor is ‘heroic’ for these first two Acts, declamatory, urging his fellow Trojans into battle; then lyrical and smoother in the Carthage love duets. Hector reminds him of his pedigree, the son of Venus (the god of love, that should explain it); warning him of the enemy within, exhorting him VA CHERCHE ITALIE! (to find Italy.) Enée is now kneeling, white shirt blood-covered. We will defend our land! Jovanovich, addresses the Trojans, bearded in his grey coat, like a revolutionary leader.
Cassandre calls on Cybèle, mother of the wretched, the stage now filled with women in black, some war-widows in mourning. Help your Trojan men at this terrible time! Soon they’ll be on their way to Italy, the home of the new Troy. She urges these wives and virgins not to submit to the enemy. They, these women in black shrouds, will share her fate. The Greeks, in burgundy and gold uniforms, demand the Trojan treasure. Women, armed with knives, commit suicide, huddled together, surrounding Cassandre, dying as if in a religious sect. This is the nightmare that Aeneas and his Trojan followers will carry with them on their sea voyage.
Rossini’s William Tell (Guillaume Tell), 1829, his last opera, broke new ground, a drama based on Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, written (1804) and inspired by the French Revolution, a study in political repression and heroism. Rossini used his genius for melody and rhythm, but in the French Grand Opera tradition. So the role of the Hapsburg princess Mathilde is built into a key character, in her identification with the freedom fighters, and through her love affair with Swiss Arnold Melcthal. And although the opera is named after the revolutionary leader, arguably, the people as chorus are in the centre of the drama.
As Rossini’s opera and Schiller’s play are about ‘revolutionary ideals’, human rights against political tyranny, does it have to be set in the 19th century? -the William Tell story about Swiss freedom fighters, based on late 13th century history, but legendary and timeless.
So here we are at Theater an der Wien (Vienna’s oldest opera house,) Vienna once the capital of Tell’s Hapsburg oppressors. And director Torsten Fischer sets Rossini’s opera in the here and now…
On a snow-covered stage, men in white t-shirts are fighting, one, William Tell (Christopher Pohl) kills the other with an arrow. There’s a white-on-red cross (representing the Swiss) front of stage. Stylised, dramatic, the background to the famous overture, played incisively by a pared-down, period-instrument sized Wiener Symphoniker under Diego Matheuz. The rebels emerge from under the snow as if resurrected. Tell (Christopher Pohl) embraces his son Jemmy (Anita Rosati), remarkably enacted and beautifully sung. Overhead, projected onto the rear video screen, snow planes. To the rousing William Tell March (the Overture’s Finale) snow-sweepers advance forward with their brooms and shovels. All hands on deck! Very young looking and very hardworking, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir.
For the wedding celebration, the girls in white lace are pushed on their high-roped swings by the men in top hats and tails. Tell is dressed by his wife (Marie-Claude Chappins), Pohl in a waistcoat and hat: very wild-west. While Arnold (John Osborn’s) splendid tenor appeals to the women, Tell, Pohl’s expressive baritone, sings of his fears. What a burden is life: they have no country, their life is beset with danger.
The Austrian Princess Mathilde (Jane Archibald) in an elegant blue gown- blue the colour of the Hapsburg oppressors – descends the staircase into the people below. The man in the sharp blue suit is Gesler the Austrian Commander, bass Ante Jerkunica, every inch a tyrant.
The pastor Melcthal (Jérôme Varnier) blesses the newly weds, urging them, and the community, to continue the battle for their endangered liberty. Tell passionately exhorts the people to break their chains of slavery. The enemy tyrants from the upper gallery escort Mathilde back, but -oh dear!- they’re wearing fatigues like a modern army corps.
Must he, Arnold, give her up? They appeal to his comradeship, loyalty to friends, the cause: La patrie his country. (A rehearsal of the moral dilemma Tell will have to face.) He, Arnold, must do the right thing but, Osborn sings passionately, heaven knows how much he loves her!
A shepherd rushes in, blood-covered, having killed one of Gesler’s soldiers attempting rape. The pastor Melcthal is arrested and killed as a reprisal. But the Pastor is Arnold’s brother, which heightens the dramatic conflict. He’s having an affair with the enemy.