There is only one reasonable criticism that can be made of the Grand Théâtre’s Guillaume Tell, and that is that no apples are actually cross-bowed off anyone’s heads. However, the chosen workaround, which has the choir handing the arrow across the stage in dramatic slow-motion, embodies the spirit of the production quite perfectly: high on emotional tension, perfectly choreographed, with just a touch of humour.

Amelia Scicolone (Jemmy) and Jean-François Lapointe (Tell) © GTG | Magali Dougados
Amelia Scicolone (Jemmy) and Jean-François Lapointe (Tell)
© GTG | Magali Dougados

Geneva’s opera house has an old-fashioned streak, and seems to gravitate naturally towards staging the very Swissest of operas. Just a year ago, we had Catalani’s La Wally, though no opera truly embraces Helvetic national sentiment quite as romantically as Guillaume Tell.  Rossini’s 19th-century opera, set in the 13th, feels right at home in the shadow of Geneva’s medieval stone walls. That said, this was no conservative performance: while it might not court controversy like Damiano Michieletto's Royal Opera House staging, this co-production with Welsh National Opera had its own quite distinctive and memorable style.

David Pountney’s staging, along with Raimund Bauer’s sets, strike a balance between a dark, fairy-tale ambiance and more postmodern touches: Gesler’s infamous hat, for instance, becomes a silver plastic helmet with horns. All is not well in this rather Shakespearean Switzerland: oppressive tyrants rules, lovers are separated, families are riven apart. A smashed cello hangs rather effectively above the stage during the lone cello’s opening solo. The jagged mountain backdrop is backlit at times, revealing the cloaked soldiers or hunkering prisoners that hide behind it. Despite the happy ending, this is not a cheerful fable: love (and excellent bowmanship) may save the day, but there are nearly four hours of everyone being rather miserable before this happens. In short, this production underlines Guillaume Tell’s essential darkness both subtly and skilfully. The staging peaks at the opening of Act II, with the luminous bodies of the slain villagers laid out in a gruesome tableau – only to spring to life in a haunting, or haunted, dance.

Jean-François Lapointe (Tell) and Franco Pomponi (Gesler) © GTG | Magali Dougados
Jean-François Lapointe (Tell) and Franco Pomponi (Gesler)
© GTG | Magali Dougados

Which brings us to a keystone of this production, and the source of a great deal of its originality: Amir Hosseinpour’s brilliant choreography. Guillaume Tell is a long, slow, opera, one that can take a little embroidering without it distracting from the music. The dance sequences are often cut in contemporary stagings, but they become essential here, with the six dancers alternately providing abstract commentary and comic relief. From the adorable marionette show during “Hyménée, ta journée” to the affecting scene in which the young women of the village are forced to dance with the soldiers, the dancers show striking stylistic consistency throughout, creating something hectic, emotive, just short of mime, to great effect.

Meanwhile, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande sounded like they were having a riotous time under Jesús López-Cobos’ baton, taking the overture at a fiery tempo. Their wind section was flawless in the spotlight, as was the harp, while the horns were warm and confident in their (frequent) moments of glory.

Nadine Koutcher (Mathilde) and John Osborn (Arnold) © GTG | Magali Dougados
Nadine Koutcher (Mathilde) and John Osborn (Arnold)
© GTG | Magali Dougados

As for the soloists, John Osborn stole the show as Arnold. The audience simply couldn’t stop applauding him. His huge, brassy voice was a splendid fit for this expressive and famously difficult role. Nadine Koutcher, the Belarusian winner of the 2015 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, was the evening's other standout performance, her soft, throaty soprano melting perfectly into Osborn’s tenor. Meanwhile, the handsome Jean-François Lapointe made for a perfect Guillaume Tell: noble and tender, with a buttery baritone one could easily imagine persuading a nation to revolt. Franco Pomponi’s Gesler was the only weaker link in the cast, although his slightly reedy baritone did strengthen from act to act. (It must be said that the pompous villain is hardly a leading role.) One final mention for Enea Scala’s high notes as Ruodi: I’d have quite liked to see him take his turn as Arnold!

Much as this is not so much a story about sons, hats or apples, but one about nationhood, so the music is not really about the soloists: Guillaume Tell is a choir-driven work. Tell is the story of the Swiss people, and the people’s voice is the choir – omnipresent in its power. From sweet folksong to thundering revolutionary fervour, the Choeur du Grand Théâtre de Genève was on gorgeous form, its energy permeating the opera from start to finish.

So what, then, if the apple escaped unscathed? After all, there’s far more to Guillaume Tell than hats or arrows: this production reminds us just how much more.

****1