After an eight decade hiatus, Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has returned to the Metropolitan Opera, staged here using the original French libretto based on Schiller’s play. Blending the vocal pyrotechnics that characterize the Italian manner with the French declamatory style, it marked the culmination of Rossini's operatic career. This remarkably forward-looking work was a real turning point in the history of the genre, proving hugely influential on the next generation, including composers as different as Meyerbeer, Verdi and Wagner. Rescuing this oeuvre from semi-obscurity is well deserved and the Metropolitan deserves real credit for its initiative.

Inspired by the Swiss legend, the story is rather simple to follow, starting with a description of the miserable life under Austrian occupation and Governor Gesler’s sadistic cruelty, which ends with the peasants’ revolt. The “mandatory” love story is the one between the Austrian Princess Mathilde and Arnold, son of village elder Melchtel. The narrative includes the famous episode where Tell, another village leader, proves his sangfroid and steady hand upon being ordered to shoot an apple from his son's head.

One should have hoped for an unmitigated success but, alas, it was not to be. Instead, this very long performance – lasting almost five hours with intermissions – was a typical example of musical excellence combined with a so-so mise-en-scène. Pierre Audi, long time artistic director of Dutch National Opera and future artistic leader of the Aix-en-Provence Festival, described his production as an “abstraction”. Getting rid of the cardboard pastures and high Alpine peaks and discarding Lederhosen costumes are definitely good choices. The question is: what are they replaced with? Anything could work fine as long it serves a clear, overarching idea but this wasn't the case. Using reflecting panels and light projections to suggest an image of Lake Lucerne covered by mist was adequate but what was the purpose of the prominent surrealistic upside down cow?

One of the biggest challenges of any staging of Guillaume Tell is handling the crowds – choristers, dancers, extras – while letting the singers project their voices from the most advantageous positions. Audi, helped by the stage designer George Tsypin, did his best to that end. Unfortunately, different elements of the scenery were not put together into a cohesive, visually enticing, framework. Huge boulders moved back and forth during action. An overhanging boat carcass, reminiscent of Santiago Calatrava’s architecture, functioned as a bridge on which recumbent soldiers abruptly jump to their feet. Turrets of plywood were scaled by different groups that needed to see or be seen. White light beams were supposed to be considered trees. Costumes, designed by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, were as eclectic. It was very easy to distinguish between the “good” – Swiss peasants dressed in white-grayish, Balkan looking, robes – and the “bad” – Austrian soldiers dressed in shiny black armor and bystanders with black top hats. In a key moment for the action, two black-clad, whip brandishing women coerced the unwilling peasants to perform an awkward dance that they abhor. Oscillating between the two worlds, Mathilde, switched, of course, between black and white, 19th-century-inspired gowns.

In musical terms, the performance was truly outstanding, from the famous overture to the final apotheosis. Fabio Luisi, in his last season as principal conductor, brought his usual energy and clarity to the score. The orchestra and chorus – the latter, practically the driving force for this opera, responded without fault.

The Metropolitan Opera assembled a dream cast. In the title role, the smooth and noble bass-baritone Gerald Finley moved with ease between an insidious tone in “Sois immobile” in his dialogue with his son, Jemmy, before piercing the apple, and real dramatic outbursts. Soprano Marina Rebeka was a thrilling presence as Mathilde, rendering with bright and limpid sound her arias “Sombre forêt” and “Pour notre amour, pas d’espérance”. 

Secondary roles were equally generously cast. John Relyea’s Gesler was scene stealing. Soprano Janai Brugger, with a crystalline voice, sounded both sweet and vigorous as Jemmy, Tell’s son. Bass Marco Spotti made a remarkable debut as Walter Furst, one of the peasants. The experienced and reliable Maria Zifchak and Kwangchul Youn interpreted the roles of Hedwige, Tell’s wife and, respectively, the old Melchtal.

The evening’s revelation was, undoubtedly, Bryan Hymel in the Herculean role of Arnold, an endurance test for any tenor from yesterday or today. Not only did Hymel reach with ease his high Cs but he also displayed an unbridled lyricism in portraying the tormented character. His act IV aria, “Asile héréditaire”, was one of the evening’s absolute highlights.