The Bayerische Staatsoper’s Guillaume Tell is atypical from its first moments. After the lovely bridal chorus, the people sitting next to me started whispering, “What about the overture?” I wondered the same thing- – while Rossini’s final opera is rarely staged, its overture contains perhaps the most famous melody in all of opera. Omitting it (or rather moving it) makes a clear statement that this is not a traditional production.

Evgenia Sotnikova (Jemmy) and Michael Volle (Tell) © Wilfried Hösl
Evgenia Sotnikova (Jemmy) and Michael Volle (Tell)
© Wilfried Hösl

Musical edits abound. The four acts are played as two, with an intermission immediately after Guillaume shoots the apple from his son’s head. We finally hear the overture at the beginning of Act II. Generous cuts bring the running time down to three hours and eliminate many of the opera’s more repetitive sections. (I was especially happy to be spared the interminable assembly of the men from the three cantons.)

But even more extreme than the musical revision is director Antú Romero Nunes’ reinterpretation of the revolution at the opera’s core. Traditionally, Guillaume Tell is a hero fighting the cruel and dictatorial Austrian occupation. Here, the occupiers are still undoubtedly evil – their World War II-era German-style uniforms make that clear enough. (That these apparent Nazis also wave a black-and-white version of the EU flag is beyond this American reviewer’s political understanding.) Guillaume’s revolution, though, is also utterly immoral. Melchtal isn’t murdered by the Austrians, but rather by Guillaume and Walter, who want to secure the wavering Arnold’s support. (They assume, rightly, that he will have to side with them if he believes the Austrians have killed his father.) The Swiss leaders’ mad determination leads to foolhardy attacks that result in mass casualties: the opera’s beautiful final chorus sounds while nearly every man on stage bleeds to death.

© Wilfried Hösl
© Wilfried Hösl
This realistic, cynical message – there are no heroes in war; everyone is terrible – contrasts with Florian Lösche’s dreamily abstract set design. Silver cylinders rise and fall with the music, forming forests or houses or waves. They create a visually interesting world and are well-coordinated with the music, but they are not a concrete enough setting for the singers to truly interact with. They’re the perfect backdrop for Nunes’ masterfully arranged stage pictures, especially during large group numbers, but they sometimes leave individual singers pacing without a sense of place or purpose during soliloquies and duets. The dreamlike setting is taken even further during the (post-intermission) overture, during which we see the confused visions of a traumatized Jemmy. They are bizarre, mixing comically exaggerated military scenes with nightmares taken straight from the pages of Where the Wild Things Are.

All of Nunes’ ideas would have meant little without singers capable of pulling them off, but this cast is more than up the challenge. Michael Volle’s Tell has a powerful baritone and a devil-may-care demeanor. His callous shrugs after he commits murder were balanced by his frenzy of despair when his son Jemmy is threatened. As Jemmy, Evigeniya Sotnikova showed off a clear soprano voice and boundless energy. Her contagious enthusiasm and courage made me smile every time she sang. Yosep Kang impressed the most vocally, with a precise and effortless tenor voice. He sang every tricky passage and long scene without breaking a sweat. His acting sometimes seemed a little wooden, but it’s hardly his fault that Arnold is stuck in the same state of despair for the entire opera. He met his match in Krassimira Stoyanova – a soprano whose silky voice didn’t distract from Mathilde’s strength and determination. She navigated the role’s many coloratura passages with confidence and expressiveness despite the occasional slip under pitch. Jennifer Johnston (Hedwige) and Enca Scala (Ruodi) stood out for their strong voices. Günther Groissböck, unfortunately, did not; his portrayal of a gleefully sadistic Gesler is delightful, but his underpowered bass couldn’t match his acting.

Günther Groissböck (Gesler) © Wilfried Hösl
Günther Groissböck (Gesler)
© Wilfried Hösl
Maestro Dan Ettinger led the Bayerische Staatsorchester very well, keeping the pace brisk and the dynamics interesting. The flutes and strings sounded especially good, playing difficult trills with haunting beauty. The brass section stumbled a bit, but they firmly found their footing by the martial end of the overture. The chorus also has much to do in Guillaume Tell, singing everything from sweet prayers to fiery declarations of war and defiance. Under Sören Eckhoff’s guidance, they contributed greatly to the performance’s success.

This production earned the first real standing ovation I’ve seen at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The singers’ talents and Nunes’ bold vision deserve the applause.