From the first bars of the overture – easily the best-known part of Rossini’s final opera, Guillaume Tell – a four-part story unfolds. A singing cello voice represents the central character; then, a storm rages, with blazing trombones and crashing melodic lines. Peace returns; languorous woodwind triplets and intricate flute and cor anglais lines evoke nature until interrupted by a military march so catchy it has been both quoted by Shostakovich and used by creaters of the television series The Lone Ranger.

Christoph Pohl (Guillaume Tell) and Anita Rosati (Jemmy) © Moritz Schell
Christoph Pohl (Guillaume Tell) and Anita Rosati (Jemmy)
© Moritz Schell

Tell is certainly the lone hero of Rossini’s opera; a Swiss marksman who, as legend has it, shot his people free from enslavement. In Torsten Fischer’s production the audience is offered a rather more ambivalent hero. What is a hero, anyhow, Fischer seems to ask? If history is written by the winners, can a hero not simultaneously be a virtuous freedom fighter throwing off the shackles of oppression and a manipulative terrorist, sacrificing the lives of many innocents in a quest for power? In a post-truth society, who can know who the good guys are, and who the enemy?

Fischer learns heavily on tropes of fascism and universal abuse of power. His Gesler (Ante Jerkunica) is undoubtedly tyrannical, first seen literally oppressing the masses, murdering dissenter Melcthal (Jérôme Varnier) under his feet via a massive steel floor, irrevocably descending over the heads of the chorus. There are indications, however, that Tell (Christoph Pohl) and his band are not morally superior. Tell’s son Jemmy (Anita Rosati) comes across as fanatically trigger-happy, and instead of portraying Tell as being tortured in Act 4, Tell and Gessler fight in hand-to-hand combat, perched again on the falling steel floor. Furthermore, after Gesler has been ousted, Tell’s co-conspirator, Walter Fürst (Edwin Crossler-Mercer) quietly dons the dictator’s garb, presumably forecasting the cycle of repression recommencing. Who consistently loses out? Primarily women and children, buffeted and pushed from scene to scene by various groups of men in uniforms.

Jane Archibald (Mathilde) and John Osborn (Arnold Melchthal) © Moritz Schell
Jane Archibald (Mathilde) and John Osborn (Arnold Melchthal)
© Moritz Schell

Although Fischer's reading of the opera is slightly heavy-handed, the libretto created controvery with Italian censors and enjoyed partial bans throughout the mid-19th century; an element of subversion is implicit within the work. Moreover, though there are a few unnecessary tropes, the detailed Personenregie does not detract from the plot, but instead creates effective, moving tableaux to support the scene and the main actors. His message is clear, and the world created hangs together (Herbert Schäfer). The video work (Jan Frankl) and lighting (Fischer and Franz Tscheck) are atmospheric instead of incongruous, and the avoidance of any kitsch Swiss countryside representations which tend to pepper this opera was a blessed relief.

The true heroes here are star-cross'd lovers Mathilde (Jane Archibald) and Arnold Melchthal (John Osborn), both morally and musically. The triumph of their love – despite being on opposing sides – is the sole unequivocal victory in this production. Musically, both roles are a bear to sing, and the technical demands placed by Rossini on the tenor in particular have proven a barrier to mounting the opera in the past. Osborn absolutely lives the part; he negotiated formidable heights, intricate passage work and the sheer volume of notes with style and clarity as well as colour and nuance. Likewise, Archibald was a stunning Mathilde, sporting breathtaking coloratura and boundless breath control. Her sizeable voice is flexible and well-modulated throughout.

Ante Jerkunica (Gesler), Jérôme Varnier (Melchthal), Edwin Crossley-Mercer (Walter Fürst) © Moritz Schell
Ante Jerkunica (Gesler), Jérôme Varnier (Melchthal), Edwin Crossley-Mercer (Walter Fürst)
© Moritz Schell

Christoph Pohl, though a bit stilted, was vocally effective as Tell. Other standouts included Edwin Crossley-Mercer, whose bass-baritone is almost velvety in colour; I would certainly welcome the opportunity to hear more of him in future. Only Jerkunica and Rositskiy struggled on Tuesday, cracking and wobbling respectively, seemingly illness-related anomalies. In an opera about groups in conflict, the masses – portrayed by the Arnold Schoenberg Chor – were integral to the success of the evening, as were the Wiener Symphoniker. The orchestra was energetically led by Diego Matheuz, and given ample opportunity to display their technical chops. In short, Guillaume Tell at TAW is production that does not miss its mark. Bravi tutti.

****1