Ask the average person on the street what they know about William Tell (in any place other than Switzerland, where he’s a national hero) and they might mention an apple and a crossbow. Play them a snippet of Rossini’s overture to his opera William Tell, and they’ll probably mention the Lone Ranger, who appropriated it for his long-running TV show. But chances are, you’ll struggle to find anyone who’s seen the opera in full, and certainly no one who’s seen it in this country: it hasn’t been performed here since 1876.
Seeing it in this Victorian Opera production at St Kilda’s gloriously refurbished Palais Theatre under the baton of the incomparable Richard Mills, it’s hard to imagine why we’ve waited so long. The part of the overture that is so ingrained in popular culture is actually part four, commonly referred to as the March of the Swiss Soldiers. The first part opens with a solo cello, mournful but reaching for optimism, which is then joined by a suite of strings. It’s the first of many surprises. Mills conducts Orchestra Victoria beautifully, restrained on the brass but with great richness and depth in the strings and woodwind.
The main reason the opera is so rarely performed is the fiendishly difficult requirements in the singing, especially the tenor. Arnold (Carlos E. Bárcenas) is in love with Mathilde (Gisela Stille), who is part of the royal family that is occupying his country and threatening to turn him into a pariah. William (Armando Noguera) picks up on this secret love affair, and does everything in his power to convince Arnold to reject his love and join the fight for independence. In the end, it’s Arnold’s love for his father Melcthal (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) – brutally killed by the tyrant Gesler (Paolo Pecchioli) – that convinces him to join the resistance.
The clearly revolutionary nature of the material mightn’t have helped cement the opera in the Western canon, but it certainly gives it some serious contemporary resonance. Before Mathilde transforms into a warrior for the populace, back when she’s a royalist trying to convince her boyfriend to kill his own people, she sings that ‘Victory makes you noble’. That would have to be the most concise description of the fascist mindset in all opera, and nauseatingly familiar to modern audiences; it’s positively Trumpian. The fact that the opera pivots on the resistance of this ideology might just make it the most necessary opera a company could stage right now.
Rodula Gaitanou directs in a way that is paradoxically restrained and bold, an attitude that filters into every aspect of the production. She encourages her villains to push into the grotesque but then reins in some of the opera’s most melodramatic turning points. It’s a tricky balancing act, executed with great skill. Esther Marie Hayes’ costumes play like a kaleidoscope of the 20th century, encompassing the gas masks of WW1, the sexual fetishism of the Nazis, and the militarism of communist Cuba. Simon Corder’s set – with its raked mossy hills and cut-out mountain – is simple but effective, constantly shifting mood under his brilliant lighting design. The whole thing is smart and unfussy, leaving plenty of room for that glorious music.
The performers rise to the massive challenge of the score. Stille is terrific as the increasingly humanised princess, and Bárcenas is suitably hangdog and existential as her lover. He may not always convince in that ludicrously difficult top register, but he has a lovely clarity of tone throughout. Liane Keegan is totally convincing as William’s stricken wife, and Jeremy Kleeman is fantastic as William’s sidekick Walter. Best of all, though, is Noguera as the man himself; he has such a powerful presence, not to mention a stunning and rich baritone, that the whole production seems to lean into him.
Opera can often look like a bastion of cultural and social conservatism, but every now and again a work emerges – or in this case re-emerges – to demonstrate the medium’s capacity for shock and awe. William Tell is a tale of resistance and ritual, of the things that simply will not be extinguished even in the face of brutality and barbarism. Gaitanou and Mills have tapped into the work’s magnetic power, and unleashed something truly resonant. Lovers of the form are going to rush from all corners of the nation to join this fight.