Fame and neglect are opposing forces but both co-exist in Rossini’s William Tell. Its overture contains one of the most famous tunes in all classical music, yet Guillaume Tell (to give its proper French title) is one of Rossini’s most neglected works. It is his final opera, lengthy and epic in scale (almost four hours) and it is without doubt one of his most challenging works vocally, both for the chorus and the principal singers. Tonight’s co-production from Irish National Opera and Switzerland’s Nouvel Opéra Fribourg gave us a rousing rendition, the first time the work has been staged in Ireland since 1875.

Máire Flavin (Mathilde) and Chorus
© Patrick Redmond

While everyone knows about the famous apple that the father has to shoot from his son’s head, the plot is both more complex than that and one that resonates highly today in light of the invasion of Ukraine. As the townspeople of Lucerne celebrate a few marriages during harvest time, William Tell is worried about an invasion from the Austrian border. Meanwhile, Arnold, son of an important elder in the town, is in love with a Habsburg princess, a love that becomes impossible with the subsequent invasion. The personal and the political intertwine over four acts before love and liberty triumph in the end.

William Tell at Irish National Opera
© Patrick Redmond

Director Julien Chavaz takes a mythological approach. For him, “the story is not just about a remote Swiss community facing Austrian invaders. It is the story of a society that suddenly has to face a threat to its model of civilisation.” Mythological in conception, but the production has a surrealist feel to it too. This is particularly noticeable in the costumes of designer Severine Besson who goes with a binary colour pattern: white and red. The white represents the innocence of the Swiss people, living in harmony with nature, whereas the Austrian oppressors wear red. As the opera progresses, the clothes of the Swiss villagers are splattered with red, as the invasion intensifies. The Austrians have large bird masks at times (Gesler having the largest mask of all which represents his hat they must bow down to in Act 3) while some of the Swiss women have antlers and horns. The effect is mixed with originality being clouded by reductive simplicity and mystifying surrealism.

David Ireland (Gesler) and Máire Flavin (Mathilde)
© Patrick Redmond

Jamie Vartan’s sets are pared back to a minimalist series of ever-present columns on either side of the stage, while the evil Gesler’s chair is ludicrously tall and luridly red. Chavaz’ decision to include the ballet sequences is a gamble but one that pays off. Nicole Morel’s choreography was highly original, providing welcome comic relief, while the movements of the deer during the Act 2 hunting scene and at other times were exquisitely poised.

The singing ranged from the very good to the excellent. This opera demands as much from the chorus as it is does from the soloists and the INO Chorus were outstanding, delivering touching folksongs and moments of fervent revolutionary zeal. Their acting was terrifically convincing, in particular in their enslaved state under Gesler.

Brett Polegato (Tell) and Amy Ní Fhearraigh (Jemmy)
© Patrick Redmond

Brett Polegato made for a memorable Tell, his unctuous, rich baritone voice a pleasure to hear. His one aria “Sois immobile” was sung with great depth of feeling, while he brought great nobility to the role overall.

If the opera is arguably about the hero, its most demanding role goes to Arnold with its stratospherically high bel canto notes and dramatic weight needed throughout. Mexican tenor Jesús León’s voice opened up nicely as the opera progressed, singing his top notes in Act 4 with great strength and (comparative) ease. He grew into his role too, the chemistry between him and Mathilde increasing over the acts.

Soprano Máire Flavin’s Mathilde was convincing from the start. Her burgeoning love for Arnold was perfectly captured while her aria of “Sombre forêt” was sung with deep emotion. Amy Ní Fhearraigh as Jemmy, Tell's son, was quite the show-stealer both in her acting and her vocal agility. The iconic apple scene was comically done with the apple covering all of her head while her fear and worry of her father imprisoned were perfectly depicted. David Ireland’s warm bass-baritone voice made for a very satisfying Gesler. He gloated wonderfully, intoxicated with his power over the Swiss people, threatening them at every hand’s turn.

William Tell at Irish National Opera
© Patrick Redmond

Fergus Sheil conducted the Irish National Opera Orchestra with wonderful energy and musical vision. He made the final chorus “Liberté, redescends des cieux” a spine-tingling moment bringing this opera to a fitting conclusion. 

****1